BY SIMON CALDWELL
SAINT JOHN FISHER was so exhausted, ill and emaciated on the morning of his execution that he had to be carried to Tower Hill in a chair.
But the 67-year-old cardinal managed to summon the strength to walk the final steps to the scaffold. He told the crowd that he died for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church alone and his head was then struck from his shoulders and impaled on a spike on London Bridge where it remained until it was replaced two weeks later by that of St Thomas More.
Both men were arrested together in April 1534 within a fortnight of the Act of Succession becoming law. The Act required the subjects of King Henry VIII to take an oath recognising the legitimacy of any children from his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. Ss More and Fisher refused to do so.
It was the heroism of St Thomas, and his famous words on the scaffold that he died “the King’s good servant, but God’s first” that captures the imagination of the British people. As former Lord Chancellor, More was the second high est-ranking politician in the country. He was also a distinguished lawyer, scholar and a model husband and father. Within the Church, his cult remains as strong as ever, with Pope John Paul II making him patron saint of politicians.
The memory of St John Fisher survives in the shadow of his esteemed contemporary, but the Bishop of Rochester was no less accomplished. Henry once declared him the most distinguished prelate of any kingdom. Indeed, Bishop Fisher was a brilliant scholar. He introduced Greek and Hebrew to Cambridge University, as chancellor there. He also expanded the university’s library and created two new colleges through the bequests of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s grandmother. When Lady Margaret and her son, Henry VII, died in 1509, Bishop Fisher preached classic orations at their funerals.
John Fisher was appointed to the See of Rochester in 1504 but refused promotion to larger and wealthier dioceses. He was acutely sensitive to the pastoral needs of the people he served and had a reputation for holiness. He also had a strong devotion to St John the Baptist, a man whose fate he was to emulate. In ecclesiastical matters, he sought reform of the Church but only from within, insisting that unity had to be preserved under the Pope. He produced the first English refutation of Luther in four volumes and when Henry sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon, he felt compelled to defend the queen and became her most effective champion during the hearing of the suit. He was persecuted when he pitched himself against Henry’s efforts to make himself supreme governor of the Church and spent two spells in prison before his final arrest.
It was while he was locked away in the Bell Tower that the Pope decided to make the bishop a cardinal. The politically explosive move was calculated to convey to the English people the message that Rome supported the bishop’s stance against Henry’s reforms. But when Henry was told that a red hat was on its way to London, he responded by saying that the bishop would not have a head to put it on. St John was executed on June 22, 1535, and was canonised together with St Thomas by Pope Pius XI in 1935.