Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Last Days of St. John Fisher

Please watch this space for my blog post at the National Catholic Register on St John Fisher--and St. Thomas More--on the anniversary of the great Cardinal martyr's execution, June 22, 1535:

John Cardinal Fisher, the former Bishop of Rochester—Henry VIII had stripped him of that title—was sentenced to death on June 17, 1535. The sentence pronounced against him brought a flush of color to his sunken cheeks, eyewitnesses remarked. As a traitor, he would be drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, hanged, cut down still alive and then endure vivisection. Finally his head would be cut off and his body would be divided into four parts: Henry VIII would decide where his head and his quarters would be displayed. In other words, he would be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Like Sir Thomas More, with whom he shares a feast day today in both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, Fisher had been held in the Tower of London for more than a year, since April 26, 1534. He had been interviewed several times to induce him to take the Oath of Succession; authorities had told him that Thomas More had taken the Oath (when he hadn’t) just as they told More that Fisher had, trying to break their resolve. Thomas More had seen the Carthusian Priors and companions taken from the Tower to Tyburn on May 4, 1535 to be executed; Fisher had been told a few days after. Also in May that year, Pope Paul III had honored Fisher with a Cardinalate, hoping to influence Henry VIII to show leniency and release him, especially since he was so ill. That gesture did not work, however, as Henry stated that Fisher would soon have no head on which to wear his Cardinal’s hat. It had been feared that he might die in the Tower before ever coming to trial, so Henry VIII sent his physicians to strengthen the prisoner.

The day after his sentencing, three more leaders of the Carthusian order were drawn on hurdles from Marshalsea prison to Tyburn Tree: Fathers Humphrey Middlemore, William Exmew and Sebastian Newdigate. In the meantime, Fisher was waiting to find out the date of his execution and was making his final spiritual preparations. . . .

There's a YouTube video excerpting the scene of Cardinal Fisher's beheading as depicted in The Tudors miniseries. It depicts the Cardinal appealing to the people to pray for him, which reports note that he did:

"Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's holy catholic church; and, I thank God, hitherto my stomach hath served me very well thereunto, so that yet I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you all to help and assist with your prayers, that, at the very point and instant of death's stroke, I may in that very moment stand steadfast without fainting in any one point of the catholic faith, free from any fear. And I beseech Almighty God of his infinite goodness to save the king and this realm, and that it may please him to hold his holy hand over it, and send the king a good council."

I wonder, however, if someone at that time would be so bold as to cry out, "God bless you, Cardinal Fisher!" That would seem to indicate acknowledgement that Pope Paul III had the authority to name the former Bishop as a prince of the Church. Since Henry VIII had so firmly and angrily rejected that honor for his grandmother's confessor and his father's eulogist, it seems to me that such a blessing would be dangerous, even in a crowd of spectators. The scene does not include the detail of St. John Fisher removing his outer cloak and the spectators being so aghast at his emaciation and gauntness. Fisher was 77 years old.

Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, pray for us!!

1 comment:

  1. Do we realize how old 77 would be in 16th century terms ?
    I did not realize he was that old, yet I knew he was a confessor and spiritual advisor to Nero’s mother AND grandmother (Margaret Beaufort).
    As I get older it seems I learn more and more of the English Nero’s depravity.