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Bishop Fisher refused to take the oath of the Act of Succession

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about Bishop John Fisher first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

John Fisher is beheaded, picture, image, illustration

The Bishop of Rochester was beheaded in 1535 by Paul Rainer

It was 1534. The king’s bailiffs swaggered through the stuffy, dusty rooms of the bishop’s palace at Rochester, a little clerk tagging behind them with a sheaf of papers in his plump hand. Everything they saw, from the mattress in the bedchamber to the marmalade in the study, was carefully listed in the clerk’s neat hand. It was not a long list, for the bishop whose possessions they were seizing was a man of simple tastes. His name was John Fisher. And he had just been sent to the Tower of London.

Fisher was a deeply pious man, a conscientious bishop, a patron of learning and a brilliant theologian. But when he thwarted Henry VIII’s design to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn, his fame at home and abroad could not save him.

Henry VIII had married Catherine, his brother’s widow, in 1509, receiving special permission – called a dispensation – from the Pope to do so. But Catherine failed to give Henry a son and in 1527 he tried to put her aside and marry again. He claimed that the papal dispensation for his marriage was illegal and therefore he should be allowed to divorce Catherine and marry Anne. Fisher was asked for his opinion.

He studied the case carefully and concluded that there was nothing amiss with the pope’s dispensation, that Henry and Catherine were truly man and wife in the eyes of the Church, and that therefore the king could not marry again. Notwithstanding Henry’s wrath, he actively opposed the divorce and openly defended Queen Catherine. His activities infuriated his opponents and his assassination was planned, but the plot failed.

In 1532 and 1533 a series of measures were passed which brought about the Reformation in England and the breach with Rome. Henry’s divorce could now be legally settled in his own realm. His marriage to Catherine was declared void and in June Anne was crowned Queen.

Now Fisher’s enemies closed in on him. They discovered a useful weapon in the confessions of the Nun of Kent. Elizabeth Barton, who came from a nunnery near Canterbury, had visions, which led her to prophesy that if the king married Anne Boleyn he would lose his crown in a month. She confessed that she had revealed her visions to Fisher who had wept for joy at what she had to say. After the nun had been executed for allegedly inciting rebellion by her prophecies, Fisher was found guilty of treason in not reporting her revelations to the king. He was sentenced to imprisonment but was finally let off with a heavy fine.

In 1534 the conflict entered its last phase when Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy and Succession. The first enacted that the king should be accepted as Supreme Head of the Church of England; the second settled the succession to the throne on the children of his marriage with Anne Boleyn. All the king’s subjects were required to swear to accept the succession but Fisher refused, and was sent, with his friend Sir Thomas More, to the Tower.

His health had never been good and in the bare stone cell in which he lay for the rest of the year, it rapidly deteriorated. Food and warm clothing were not all that was denied him; he lacked the books he delighted in. But Henry’s minister, Cromwell, paid little heed to Fisher’s piteous requests.

The passing of the Act of Treason in 1535 made his plight still more desperate. By this Act, his refusal to take the oath of the Act of Succession could be constructed as treason. He was well aware of the danger, but, as he told Cromwell, while to deny the king’s supremacy would mean the loss of his life, to acknowledge it would mean the loss of his soul. He was therefore minded not to say anything.

Cromwell devised an evil trick to draw him out. He sent one of the king’s servants, Richard Rich, to the prisoner. Rich pretended that the king’s conscience was troubled and that he wanted to know what Fisher really believed about his claim to supremacy; Fisher’s words would, of course, be treated as confidential and not used against him. Fisher told Rich exactly what he thought: the king, he said, was not, nor could be, by the law of God, supreme head on earth of the Church of England. Rich hurried back to Cromwell, well-pleased.

Then fate dealt Fisher another cruel blow. The Pope made him a cardinal. The king at once sent to Fisher to ask if he would accept. Fisher said he would. “Well,” said Henry, “let the Pope send him a cardinal’s hat when he will; I will so provide that whenever it cometh, he shall wear it on his shoulders, for head he shall have none to set it on.”

Fisher’s trial took place soon afterwards. He was charged with having denied the supremacy of the king. He pleaded Not Guilty but Richard Rich at once came forward with an account of their meeting, and on his evidence the jury of 12 Middlesex men found him guilty. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

He had five days to live. On the fifth day he was awakened by the lieutenant of the Tower, who told him that by order of the king he was to be spared the horrors of Tyburn and would be beheaded on Tower Hill instead. He dressed carefully, slipping on a fur cape to keep him warm until the time of execution. The headsman begged his forgiveness, which Fisher gave, adding quietly: “I trust thou shalt see me die even lustily.” His neck was severed with one blow.

Fisher’s head was stuck on London Bridge. A fortnight later it was removed and in its place went the head of Fisher’s fellow-prisoner, Sir Thomas More.

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