Cardinal Basil Hume looks at the life of John Fisher, 450 years after the saint's martyrdom and 50 after his canonisation
IN THE English College in Rome, ther is a corridor along which are hung the portraits of English Cardinals.
I have stood from time to time in front of the portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, and reflected on the dangers of worldliness in a churchman, on the insidious nature of power, on the temptation to ambition. I have, however, not failed to remember that Wolsey did much good; he has, perhaps, been more severely judged than he merits.
When I was thinking about such things I recalled the words of the Duke of Suffolk when the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio, thwarted Henry VII1's insistence on an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. The Duke had said and, I detect, with some feeling: "It was never merry in England whilst we had Cardinal's among us". That was in July 1529. Experience of Cardinals had not always been good.
I have then moved to the next portrait, that of John Fisher, appointed Cardinal by Paul III when Fisher was already a prisoner in the Tower. I thought of those chilling words spoken by the same King Henry VIII: "He shall wear it (that is the Cardinal's hat) on his shoulders for head he shall have none to set it on." That was in May 1535.
Wolsey and Fisher were contemporaries, very different in character, not unlike in death. Fisher was executed, Wolsey shamed and humiliated. Both were reviled by contemporaries, deprived of honour and respect, unrewarded for the services to Church and State.
St John's, more than any other College in Cambridge, claims St John Fisher for its own. Fisher's ovvn College, Michaelhouse, eventually become Trinity College; Christ's owes its foundation to the Lady Margaret and in part to Fisher; Queen's can claim him as a former President; and King's can be grateful to him for persuading Henry VII to complete their Chapel.
We cannot speak of St John's and Fisher without remembering at the same time the Lady Margaret Beaufort. It was in 1495 when'Fisher, then a young Proctor of the University, first met Henry VIPs mother. He became her spiritual director, and her friend. This spiritual friendship was important for Cambridge, for the University benefited much from their shared ideals concerning learning and its importance for the life of the Church.
When Lady Margaret died, Fisher, preaching the panegyric said of her that "all she did became her, all who met her loved her". That was the tribute paid by a Saint to a very good woman. It was a codicil in the Lady Margaret's will which provided for the foundation of St John's.
The worship of God, good discipline, and the teaching of the Faith — throughout his life Fisher was guided by those aims. Learning, virtue and discipline were to be the means to realise them, and each one was indispensable.
There was nothing particularly new or original about this; but it was Fisher's insistence that academic dinstinction was impossible without discipline, and that the Church needed men of learning and virtue which gave his foundation its special character. Indeed his ideals were enshrined in the statutes of both Christ's College and St Johns's. Furthermore chairs of divinity were founded with the help of Lady Margaret, and preacherships established.
Fisher also encouraged the study of Greek and Hebrew. He knew that these languages were vital for the proper study of the Scriptures. In Erasmus, Fisher found an important ally who became not only Fisher's friend but also his teacher of Greek. He invited that scholar to stay at Queen's. Erasmus put Fisher in touch with the new learning, which had its protagnoists both at Cambridge and Oxford.
I wonder how Fisher felt when he had to leave Cambridge University. He had, after all, arrived from Beverley as a youth of 14 in 1483. He had filled many posts, both in the University and at College level. He had risen to becoming ViceChancellor in 1501, and eventually Chancellor in 1504 and was so till his death. Fisher was, through and through, a Cambridge man. So it must have been with heavy heart that he left the University to start his new life.
It had been Henry VII's idea to make Fisher a bishop. He wrote to his mother: "I have in my days promoted many a man inadvisedly and I would now make some recompense to promote some good and virtuous man which I doubt not should best please God . . ." The King clearly recognised in Fisher a person of great distinction and a man of God — a powerful combination indeed. Thus on the 24th November 1504, John Fisher was consecrated bishop of Rochester at Lambeth by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wareham.
At Cambridge, Fisher had always been priestly (he had been ordained in 1491), and pastoral consideration had determined much of academic practice; at Rochester, as a Pastor, he did not cease to be a student and an academic (he was frequently at Cambridge). Fisher entered whole-heartedly into the pastoral work demanded of a bishop, visiting the parishes of his diocese with exemplary regularity. He preached frequently, correcting abuses and encouraging virtue.
Fisher was a patient man. Yet this patience did not blunt his awareness of the need for reform. He often spoke out against the abuses of the time, especially to his fellow priests and bishops. He made a notably
powerful speech in Convocation in 1517: "Why should we exhort our flocks to eschew and shun worldly ambition" — he said — "when we ourselves that be bishops, do wholely set our minds to the same things we forbid them".
Two events in particular were to have a profound and decisive effect on Fisher: one we connect withthe name of Martin Luther, the other with that of Henry VIII. Fisher as a result of the new and strange ideas abroad at the time was drawn, and against his will, into becoming a polemist rather that a pure academic or a pastoral bishop.
The problems caused by Luther and by Henry VIII forced him into that wider, and very uncongenial, world of ecclesiastical politics and controversy. His acceptance of the trials that accompanied both contributed considerably to his growth in holiness. He was being fashioned all the time for martyrdom.
Fisher feared the new ideas that were emanating from the Continent. He saw them as a threat to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice. He knew that it was his duty to defend the Faith, and he laboured to do so. He wrote in defence of the priesthood, of the Eucharist, of Papal authority.
Furthermore Fisher had that special gift, given to very holy people, of seeing the wider implications of contemporary trends of thought and practice in public life. He saw danger in the ideas of the Reformers. He realised too where the decision taken by the King and his advisers to clear up what had been called "the King's scruple" would lead.
The events which led to the split with Rome were complex indeed. The King's "scruple" about his marriage to Catherine and his frenetic, but nonetheless understandable, desire for a son, combined with many other factors to bring about the great changes in our land which we call the Reformation.
Political considerations played their part too. Now Fisher could not agree that it had been unlawful for the Pope to grant the dispensation which permitted the king to take to wife his brother Arthur's widow. He could not accept those parliamentary measures which, from 1529 onwards, slowly affected the break with Rome.
Throughout this period Fisher, now almost 70 years old, was becoming physically weaker and increasingly weary of spirit. He lived in a cruel age, and at a time when opposition to a Tudor monarch was not to be tolerated.
In Henry's reign there was'the additional fear of a disputed stIccession, and so the Act of Succession of 1534 was all important to the King. By this Act all who should be called upon to do so were to take an oath to recognise the issue of Henry and Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne. The King saw the act as contributing to the peace of the realm; Fisher saw in if a denial of principles essential to the defence of true doctrine.
Fisher refused to take the. oath. So on April 20, 1534, he was sent to the Tower, and there he awaited his trial and death. His mind and heart belonged already to another world. He prayed and suffered. He remembered his half-sister, Elizabeth White, and addressed to her his two last works, A Spiritual Consolation and The Ways to Perfect Religion. The titles themselves show what really mattered to John Fisher.