In his October 2013 article on the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Cardinal Gerhard Müller underscored that the Catholic Church had risked much to uphold Christ’s teaching regarding true marriage’s indissolubility. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith singled out the fact that Catholicism had suffered the schism of “a Church in England” “because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.”
In this context, most people immediately think of Saint Thomas More. In at least two accounts of his trial, More stated that the real core of Henry VIII’s animus against him was that More did not believe Anne Boleyn to be Henry’s wife. After all, one reason for More’s imprisonment was his refusal to affirm, on oath, the marriage’s validity.
In truth, however, More had tried to say as little as possible about the King’s Great Matter before and after his resignation as Lord Chancellor. In public at least, the real water on the marriage issue was carried by another Saint: Cardinal John Fisher of Rochester.
Fisher was by far the most formidable defender of the validity of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage, penning at least 7 tracts on the subject. Widely regarded as one of the greatest bishop-scholars of his time and a successful Chancellor of Cambridge University, Fisher’s writings underscore his deep familiarity with the Scriptures, church fathers, and scholastic and renaissance thought. Not many people learn Greek in their forties. Yet Fisher somehow managed to do so.
Concerns about what his scholarly peers might think, however, didn't prevent Fisher from confronting doctrinal and moral error. He also actively combated corruption and lax morality among clergy and laity alike. Nor was Fisher ever distracted from his pastoral responsibilities. Testimonies abound to Fisher personally serving the poor, spending long hours in the confessional, regularly visiting the sick and dying, penning devotional writings for ordinary folk, and leading an abstentious life. Eligible for any number of more famous sees, Fisher chose to remain in the very poor, insignificant diocese of Rochester.
Other great defenders of the validity of Henry and Catherine's marriage met the same fate as good Bishop Fisher: Fathers Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherston, and Edward Powell (except that they endured the full sentence of the execution of traitors, being hung, drawn, and quartered). The Observant Franciscans, formerly Henry VIII's favorite mendicants, openly opposed Henry's marital machinations and defended the validity of his marriage to Queen Catherine. Friars Peto and Elstow publicly stated their opposition and defense during sermons in the Greenwich chapel. Perhaps on this date, April 8, in 1533, the friars appeared before Henry's Council. According to this website:
Again the friars repeated their strong condemnation of Henry's course of action. The Earl of Essex (sic) [Henry did not name Thomas Cromwell Earl of Essex until 1540, less than two months before his arrest and attainder] told them that they deserved to be put in a sack and cast into the Thames. Elstow's response deserves recording: "Threaten these things to rich and dainty folk who are clothed in purple, fare delicately, and have their chiefest hope in this world, for we esteem them not, but are joyful that for the discharge of our duties we are driven hence. With thanks to God we know the way to Heaven to be as ready by water as by land, and therefore we care not which way we go."
Astonishingly the two friars were not flung into the Thames or even into prison (Henry was still flexing his proto-totalitarian muscles) and were instead banished from the country. Friar Peto was eventually to be raised in Rome to the purple [during the reign of Mary I].