Discussing the lives and careers of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Sir Thomas More, Knight in my book Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation I highlight both what they had in common and what distinguished them from one another.
One thing they certainly have in common is their June 22nd memorial on the universal Roman Calendar. In England it is celebrated as a Feast, in honor of their importance to English Catholics. On June 22 in 1535 Bishop John Fisher was beheaded, having been found guilty of treason. Thomas More was beheaded 14 days later for the same reason. As an example of fine historical irony, the Church of England honors Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher on its Calendar of Saints--on July 6, the date of More’s execution--as “Reformation Martyrs”.
They both demonstrated firm defense of Catholic doctrine against the reformers on the Continent, presenting systematic apologetics, referring to the Fathers of the Church and Sacred Tradition to defend the role of the Church in salvation, the ordained priesthood, the Seven Sacraments, the primacy of the Pope, prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, and devotions like intercessory prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints in heaven.
They were both scholarly humanists at the forefront of learning. They were friends of the famed classicist Erasmus of Rotterdam and John Colet, the Dean of St. Paul’s in London. More was famous for his Utopia and renowned for educating his daughters just as well as his sons in the Liberal Arts. Fisher founded Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge to improve the education and formation of priests and invited Erasmus to teach Greek at Cambridge.
Although they shared a common call to personal holiness, demonstrated through prayer, asceticism, and charity, they had different vocations. Those different vocations explain their different responses to the crucial issue of their times: Henry VIII’s desire for a legitimate male heir. To achieve this goal Henry was convinced that he needed to be released from his first marriage to his brother Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, a noble woman whom he desired, but who refused to become his mistress like her sister had been. Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII to revoke the dispensation he had received in order to marry Catherine and declare that marriage null.
John Fisher was an ordained bishop of the Catholic Church; pastor of his diocese, teacher of the Truths of the Catholic Faith. Thomas More, although he’d considered a vocation as a cloistered religious among the Carthusians of the Charterhouse in London, was a married man and a father, active in the secular sphere as a lawyer, judge, diplomat, and government official.
So when Henry VIII, having exhausted his efforts for an annulment from Rome, decided to make himself the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England, thus appropriating the power to annul his own marriage, Bishop Fisher opposed him. Alone among the bishops, whom Henry threatened, fined, and harassed, he would not accept Henry’s new role. Furthermore, he took Catherine of Aragon’s side, serving as her counselor and comparing himself to John the Baptist in his role of defending the sanctity of marriage. If he was John the Baptist, Henry was Herod and Anne Boleyn was Herodias--not very complimentary comparisons!
Thomas More was not as open about his opposition to Henry’s actions. He accepted the position of Chancellor after the removal of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, on the grounds that he would not be involved in Henry’s “Great Matter”. It is surely a sign of Henry’s respect for him that he accepted More’s terms. Thomas Cromwell, who would eventually succeed him as Chancellor (and follow him to the chopping block) did Henry’s bidding.
As Robert Bolt depicts in A Man for All Seasons, More was careful never to tell anyone, even his wife, what he thought about the divorce and remarriage. He resigned as Chancellor when it was clear his efforts in that office and his influence on the king had come to naught; he went into retirement and kept his peace, hoping to be left in peace.
But Henry was not content just with achieving his goals--divorcing Catherine, marrying Anne, taking over the Church, dissolving the monasteries--he wanted assent to what he had done, requiring bishops, abbots, nobles and officials to swear oaths assenting to his supremacy in the Church and the nullity of his first marriage. When Fisher and More refused they were imprisoned in the Tower of London, enduring discomfort and constant pressure to take the oaths. They were both tried and found guilty of treason through the trickery and perjury of one Richard Rich.
They benefited from a sort of mercy from Henry VIII, as their sentences to being hung, drawn, and quartered were commuted to mere beheading. They shared a calm and prayerful attitude on the scaffold. Their executions permanently damaged Henry’s reputation at the time and throughout history.
One final distinction needs to be addressed: Although Thomas More is better known through Bolt’s play and the award-winning 1966 movie, John Fisher deserves our attention. His efforts to refute Luther and his eloquence as a preacher should be studied more intently. (Ignatius Press offers his Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms as a good starting point.)
St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, pray for us.