St John Fisher 1494 to 1535A wit of the time commented, ‘His head was off before his hat was on, so that the two met not!
John Fisher was renowned throughout Europe as a theologian and biblical scholar at the time of the Reformation in England. Born in Beverley in Yorkshire in 1494 to a wealthy middle-class family, he was sent to Cambridge University where he eventually rose to be Chancellor. He was revered for his holy way of life and became confessor and advisor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, King Henry VII’s mother, and inspired her to use her wealth for founding a new college and in many other bequests. Erasmus, the famous Dutch scholar, came to Cambridge to work for a while at his invitation
In 1504, he was appointed Bishop of Rochester. It was something of a backwater but he turned down offers of a more wealthy diocese and chose to stay there for 30 years from a sense of commitment to his people. His academic work continued. It is generally thought that Fisher did most of the groundwork for Henry VIII’s ‘A Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, an anti-protestant treatise for which the Pope gave Henry the title ‘Defender of the Faith’.
But times were changing. In the late 1520s and ‘30s it suited Henry to allow Protestant ideas into England to bolster his case against the Pope who was refusing to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon , who had failed to produce a son. John Fisher in conscience opposed the King and was imprisoned in the Tower of London together with his friend, Thomas More, the King’s ex-Chancellor. By then, he was 65 years old and terminally ill.Hoping it would help the situation, the Pope made him a Cardinal, and his red cardinal’s hat was dispatched from Rome. The King was furious. When John Fisher refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, declaring Henry to be Supreme Head of the Church in England, he was taken out after a mock trial and beheaded on Tower Hill. This was June 22nd, 1535.
A wit of the time commented: ‘His head was off before his hat was on, so that the two met not!’ June 22nd is kept as his Feast Day, together with Thomas More.