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John Fisher

(1469—1535) bishop of Rochester, cardinal, and martyr


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(1469–1535),

bishop and martyr. Born at Beverley (Humberside), the son of a mercer, Fisher was educated at Cambridge University from the age of fourteen. He became a distinguished scholar, was elected a Fellow of Michaelhouse (now Trinity College), was ordained priest in 1491, and became in turn senior proctor, doctor of divinity, Master of Michaelhouse in 1496, and Vice-Chancellor in 1501. In 1502 he resigned the Mastership and became chaplain to the king's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and in the same year he became the first Lady Margaret professor of divinity. Together they reformed and reendowed Cambridge University, he guiding her to make good use of her considerable fortune, she respecting his scholarship and sanctity. His own academic reforms included the reintroduction of Greek and Hebrew into the curriculum, the invitation to Erasmus to lecture, and the endowment of scholarships. He was such a famous preacher that he was chosen as the panegyrist of both King Henry VII and Lady Margaret Beaufort (1509).

Some years earlier, in 1504, he became both Chancellor of Cambridge University and bishop of Rochester. His lack of personal ambition made him refuse wealthier sees: his duties as diocesan of England's smallest see, even when scrupulously performed, left him free also for his academic pursuits. He built up a fine library, reputedly one of the best in Europe, and he strongly upheld traditional doctrine on the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice against Protestant protagonists in English universities. He also wrote four volumes against Luther. There was no doubt of his high reputation. Henry VIII claimed that no other prince or kingdom had such a distinguished prelate, while the ambassador of Charles V declared him a paragon of Christian bishops for learning and holiness. He was an obvious choice as confessor to Henry VIII's queen Catharine of Aragon.

When the king started to plan divorce, Fisher, as one of her counsellors in the nullity suit of 1529, clearly demonstrated the validity of the marriage and showed it could not be legally dissolved by any power on earth. A few years later he became the champion of the supremacy of the Church and of the pope. In Convocation in 1531 he had protested against the new title of ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’ for Henry VIII and inserted the all-important qualification, rejected by the king, ‘so far as the law of Christ allows’. From then on, or even earlier, he lost the king's favour and was a marked man. In 1534, whether justly or not, he was condemned to perpetual imprisonment and loss of property for supposed encouragement of Elizabeth Barton, a young nun of Kent, whose visions included threats of divine punishment on the king if he did not repudiate Anne Boleyn. In fact the sentence was commuted to a fine because of his poor health. When he was tendered the oath of Succession in 1534, he refused to take it in the wording presented because this was tantamount to an oath of Supremacy, although, like his friend Thomas More, he would have agreed to the succession itself. He was then arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he wrote a treatise on prayer for his sister, a Dominican nun. Two acts of attainder were passed against him: he was declared by the king to be deposed from his office and his see was considered vacant.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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