Saint John Fisher
was born in Beverley, East Yorkshire, in 1469, the eldest of four children of a local merchant. He first went to school at Beverley Minster, and at the age of 14 was sent to Cambridge in order to become a priest. In 1491 he was ordained but continued to serve in Cambridge, becoming a Master of his college at the age of 28. In 1501 he received his Doctorate and was elected as Vice-Chancellor of the University.
Henry VII recognised his qualities, and in 1504 appointed him as Bishop of Rochester. His connection with Cambridge continued, and he was instrumental in the completion of the famous King’s College Chapel. In 1509, at the age of 40, he preached the funeral sermon of King Henry VII.
With the propagation of Luther’s ideas, he became drawn into the controversy on the side of the established views of the Church. Then, when King Henry VIII sought to divorce Queen Catherine, he took a stand against this proposed action. At a court held in in 1529 in front of Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio, he publicly declared his opposition. At this stage Henry failed to obtain his divorce, and Fisher was allowed to withdraw to Rochester for a time.
In February 1531, Henry VIII declared himself as Supreme Head and Protector of the English Church and Clergy. Fisher forced an amendment to this decree, “so far as the law of God allows”. The declaration, and Henry’s consequent divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn, forced the English Church into schism. Following a series of legal actions by Thomas Cromwell, Bishop John Fisher, together with Sir Thomas More, was committed to the Tower of London for failing to acknowledge the King’s supremacy over the Church. Shortly afterwards, Pope Paul III created him a cardinal.
Finally, in 1535, at the age of 66, he was found guilty of “denying the King’s supremacy”. On June 22nd he was taken to Tower Hill, declaring to the crowd, “I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church”, and was then beheaded.
He was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935. An appropriate epitaph is that from his fellow-prisoner and fellow-martyr, Sir Thomas More. “I reckon in this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning, and long approved virtue together, meet to be matched and compared with him.”
Saint Thomas More
Saint Thomas More was born in 1478, the second of six children of a London lawyer. At the age of twelve he was entered as a page to the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Morton. Two years later he went to Canterbury College, Oxford, to study Classics. When sixteen, he moved to an Inn of Court to begin legal studies. He apparently contemplated life in a religious community at one point, but instead chose to become a lawyer.
In 1505 he married Jane Colt, with whom he had four children. She died in 1511, and he remarried a widow named Alice Middleton. By this time he had also produced two works, Utopia, and A Life of Richard III,that have become classics in their own right. In 1517 he entered service in the Court, becoming increasingly useful to the King. By 1523 he had become the Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and High Steward of both Oxford and Cambridge.
in 1529 he became Lord Chancellor in succession to Wolsey. But when Henry VIII, started the process of separation from Rome and divorce from Catherine, he became increasingly disturbed.The day after the final separation he resigned his position on the grounds of ill health, and was absent from the wedding with Anne Boleyn. From this point Thomas Cromwell tried to implicate More in treasonable action, but failed. However the silence of one of England’s former great ministers was seen as a persistent threat. In 1534 he was required to sign the Act of Succession, but refused, and was soon committed to the Tower of London.
While in the Tower, at the same time as John Fisher, he wrote two devotional works. But just as he was to write about the arrest of Christ, his books and writing materials were seized. In July 1535 he was tried, and convicted on the perjured evidence of Richard Rich. On the 6th of July, he was executed. In his brief speech on the scaffold he declared that he died “In and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church”, “the King’s good servant but God’s first”.
Saint Thomas More was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935. As a practicing politician and a practicing Christian, Thomas More was faced with the constant tension between moral philosophy and practical expediency. The path that he followed ultimately cost him his life. Perhaps recognising this, on the 5th November 2000, Pope John Paul II named St Thomas More the patron saint of politicians.