John Fisher was a fine saint and bishop, says Christopher Haigh — but Wolsey was more fun
Fisher of Men: a Life of John Fisher, 1469-1535, by Maria Dowling, MacMillan, £45 JOHN FISHER WAS executed at Tower Hill on June 22, 1535. He said it was his marriage-day, and put on his best clothes. His last words were a prayer for Henry VIII and England: "I pray God save the King and the realm and hold his holy hand over it, and send the King a good counsel". He had been convicted of treason, the new crime of denying that the king was the supreme head of the Church in England: perhaps he had been tricked into saying it, for Henry wanted either public endorsement or public punishment. Abroad, Bishop Fisher was now denounced by the king's agents as a conspirator and traitor. In England he became a nonperson: his publications were called in and burnt, and his coat of arms and badges were defaced in Cambridge. John Fisher was rubbed out of English history.
But Fisher had been a major figure, as Maria Dowling's brisk and businesslike thematic biography makes clear. He had been a university administrator and builder of colleges, though with Lady Margaret Beaufort's money. He had been a humanist scholar, a supporter of Greek and Hebrew studies and a correspondent of the leading intellectuals of Europe. He had been a great preacher, both for state occasions and for spiritual solace. He had been a fervent and popular devotional writer, emphasising charismatic prayer and the power of the love of God. He had been a famous theologian — perhaps, as Richard Rex suggested, the first to see the real significance of Luther's attack and respond effectively to it. He had been a hard-working bishop of Rochester, a hands-on pastor and reformer. And he had said 'no' to Henry VIII. It was that which brought imprisonment, a cardinalate, martyrdom and, in 1935, canonisation. If Fisher is remembered now, it is for his death, not his life.
In his death. Fisher was exceptional: only he, Thomas More and a few other monks and friars said 'no' to the king and died for it. The other Catholic bishops conformed: some thought Henry's breach with Rome was a temporary tussle, some thought a reformminded king was a better hedge against heresy than a corrupt papacy, and some were afraid — "Fear compelled us to bear with the time, for otherwise there had been no way but one", said Edmund Bonner later. Perhaps some regretted their compliance: "0 that I had holden still with my brother Fisher, and not left him when time was!" lamented Bishop Stokesley on his deathbed. Fisher was exceptional: he maintained his loyalty to the Pope, and if he was afraid he did not show it.
But in his life Fisher was more typical of pre-Reformation churchmen that we might suppose. No other early-Tudor bishop had his reputation for holiness: he was praised in his lifetime for "sanctity", "purity", "virtue" and "holy life", and for Thomas More he was "the best man that I know this day riling". But among other bishops there were also founders of colleges, promoters of critical scholarship, campaigners against heresy and irreligion, preachers, pastors and diocesan reformers. The last 30 years of historical research have revealed a pre-Reformation Church which was, on the whole, vibrant, concerned, popular and well-run. Almost all the bishops were conscientious, almost all of them were efficient — though only Fisher was a saint But the Henrician bishop most of us remember is the obvious sinner, Thomas Wolsey.
FISHER AND WOLSEY were near-contemporaries and had much in common. Both were university administrators, both founded great colleges, both were cardinals, both combated heresy, both were reformers in education and the Church (though Wolsey wanted to reform others, not himself). But alongside Wolsey, the bloated, self-indulgent man of the world, Fisher was gaunt, austere and other-worldly. Wolsey was an irrepressible careerist, climbing the ecclesiastical ladder from one wellpaid bishopric to another, richer — and holding two of them at a time; Fisher held the poorest see in England for 30 years, and refused promotion. Wolsey was picked out by Henry VIII as a man who would get the business done; Fisher was selected for a bishopric by Henry VII, to show that even he knew virtue when he saw it. Wolsey was a fixer, a maker of deals, a politician to his fingertips and the crown of his cardinal's hat; Fisher was a man of principle, who lost his head and never got to wear the hat. Wolsey lived in great state, and entertained lavishly; Fisher was welcoming to guests, but he ate frugally and liked to spend his time talking theology with his learned chaplains. Of course, Fisher is the man we must admire, but... Is it me, is it Fisher, or is it Maria Dowling's biography? I would rather spend an evening with Thomas Wolsey.
Christopher Haigh teaches history at Oxford University and is the author of English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors.