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John Fisher


FISHER, JOHN (c. 1469-1535), English cardinal and bishop of Rochester, born at Beverly, went in 1484 to Michael House, Cambridge, where he took his degrees in arts in 1487 and 1491, and, after filling several offices in the university, became master of his college in 1499. He took orders; and his reputation for learning and piety attracted the notice of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII., who made him her confessor and chaplain. In 1501 he became vice-chancellor ; and later on, when chancellor, he was able to forward, if not to initiate, the schemes of his patroness in the foundations of St. John's and Christ's colleges, in addition to two lectureships, in Greek and Hebrew. His love for Cambridge never waned, and his own benefactions took the form of scholarships, fellowships and lectures. In 1503 he was the first Margaret professor at Cambridge; and the following year was raised to the see of Rochester, to which he remained faithful, although the richer sees of Ely and Lincoln were offered to him. He was nominated as one of the English prelates for the Lateran council (1512), but did not attend. A man of strict and simple life, he did not hesitate at the legatine synod of to censure the clergy, in the presence of Wolsey himself, for their greed of gain and love of display; and in the convocation of 1523 he freely opposed the cardinal's demand for a subsidy for the war in Flanders. A great friend of Erasmus, whom he invited to Cam bridge, whilst earnestly working for a reformation of abuses, he had no sympathy with those who attacked doctrine ; and he preached at Paul's Cross (May 12, 1521) at the burning of Luther's books. Although he was not the author of Henry's book against Luther, he joined with his friend, Sir Thomas More, in writing a reply to the scurrilous rejoinder made by the reformer. He retained the esteem of the king until the divorce proceedings began in 2 7 ; and then he set himself sternly in favour of the validity of the marriage. He was Queen Catherine's confessor and her only champion and advocate. He appeared on her behalf before the legates at Blackfriars, and wrote a widely read treatise against the divorce.

Recognizing that the true aim of the scheme of church reform brought forward in parliament in 1529 was to put down the only moral force that could withstand the royal will, he energetically opposed the reformation of abuses, which doubtless under other circumstances he would have been the first to accept. In convo cation, when the supremacy was discussed (Feb. 11, 1531), he declared that acceptance would cause the clergy "to be hissed out of the society of God's holy Catholic Church" ; and it was his influence that brought in the saving clause, quantum per legem Dei licet. Through listening to the revelations of the "Holy Maid of Kent," the nun Elizabeth Barton (q.v.), he was charged with misprision of treason, and was condemned to the loss of his goods and to imprisonment at the king's will, penalties he was allowed to compound by a fine of £3oo (March Fisher was summoned (April 13) to take the oath prescribed by the Act of Succession, which he was ready to do, were it not that the pre amble stated that the offspring of Catherine were illegitimate, and prohibited all faith, trust and obedience to any foreign authority or potentate. Refusing to take the oath, he was com mitted (April 15) to the Tower, where he suffered greatly from the rigours of a long confinement. On the passing of the Act of Supremacy (Nov. , in which the saving clause of convoca tion was omitted, he was attainted and deprived of his see. The council, with Thomas Cromwell at their head, visited him on May 7, and his refusal to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the church was the ground of his trial. The constancy of Fisher, while driving Henry to a fury that knew no bounds, won the admiration of the whole Christian world, where he had been long known as one of the most learned and pious bishops of the time. Paul III. was unaware of the grave danger in which Fisher lay; and in the hope of reconciling the king with the bishop, created him (May 20, 1535) cardinal priest of St. Vitalis. When the news arrived in England it sealed his fate. Henry, in a rage, declared that if the pope sent Fisher a hat there should be no head for it. The cardinal was brought to trial at Westminster (June on the charge that he did "openly declare in English that the king, our sovereign lord, is not supreme head on earth of the Church of England," and was condemned to a traitor's death at Tyburn, a sentence afterwards changed. He was beheaded en Tower Hill on June 22, after saying the Te Deum and the psalm In to Domine speravi. His body was buried first at All Hallows, Barking, and then removed to St. Peter's ad vincula in the Tower, where it lies beside that of Sir Thomas More. His head was exposed on London Bridge and then thrown into the river. As a champion of the rights of conscience, and as the only one of the English bishops that dared to resist the king's will, Fisher commends himself to all. He was beatified in 1886, and canonized by Pius XI in Fisher's Latin works are to be found in the Opera J. Fisheri quae hactenus inveniri potuerunt omnia (Wirrzburg, 1595), and some of his published English works in the Early English Text Society (Extra series, No. 27, part i., 1876). There are others in manuscript at the P.R.O. (27, Henry VIII., No. 887) . Besides the State papers, the main sources for his biography are The Life and Death of that re nowned John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (London, 1655), by an anonymous writer, the best edition being that of Van Ortroy (Brussels, 1893) ; Bridgett's Life of Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (London, 188o and 189o) ; and Thureau, Le bienheureux Jean Fisher (Paris, 1907). (E. TA.)

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