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.”