The early 16th century was a tumultuous time, with England’s King Henry VIII divorcing his wives and Germany’s Martin Luther dissenting from the Church. But, difficult times produce great heroes.
The Outspoken Priest and the Tactful Politician
John Fisher was a bishop, cardinal, theologian, and chancellor of Cambridge. He received a papal dispensation to enter the priesthood despite his young age of 22. As a priest, he was known for his sternness and austerity. Erasmus, a respected scholar at the time, said, “He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and greatness of soul.” John was a great preacher, tutor, and advocate for higher education, particularly of the study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He staunchly upheld the faith, speaking out against Luther’s heresy and later against his former pupil, King Henry VIII.
A decade younger, St. Thomas More was a family man with a political career. He was beloved by his children and known for his constant wit. He was a lawyer and philosopher, as well as a Counsellor to Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England. He gave his daughters the same education as he gave his sons, which was highly unusual at the time.
The King’s “Great Matter”
In 1525, Henry began seeking ways to get rid of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce him a son. Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage. Taking matters into his own hands, Henry sent Catherine away and married Anne Boleyn.
Thomas More was High Chancellor at the time, and being a devout Catholic, refused to sign Henry’s petition to the Pope for annulment, and quietly refrained from attending Anne’s coronation. He did, however, send the King and Anne his best wishes for their health. Bishop John Fisher worked directly with Queen Catherine and advocated for her in court, stating that he was prepared to die like John the Baptist in defense of the indissolubility of marriage. For both men, these actions were the beginning of their separation from the King’s favor.
Siding with God
King Henry then worked to establish himself as head of the Church in England, severing ties with the Pope’s authority and declaring that Anne’s children would be his legitimate heirs. Thomas More refused to take the oath that would support the King in these laws as they separated the Church from the Pope, and he resigned from his post as High Chancellor. This meant a significant decrease in his income, and Thomas happily adjusted his lifestyle accordingly. He knew that his dissent from the King would likely bring him more trouble, and he resolved to live out the last years of his life preparing for Heaven. He was a prolific writer and used this time of quiet for thought as well as prayer.
St. John Fisher also refused to take the oath, and he was harshly imprisoned for 14 months without a trial. The Pope made Fisher a Cardinal, with the hope of easing Henry’s treatment of him. Unfortunately, this incensed Henry all the more, and Fisher was condemned to death. However, the public supported John Fisher, recognizing that he was willing to die like John the Baptist to defend marriage. As the feast of St. John the Baptist grew closer, Henry grew more nervous and hastened the execution. St. John Fisher met death with the same dignity that he had lived his life.
Two weeks later, Thomas More, who had also been imprisoned for treason, was put on trial and sentenced to death. While he tactfully honored Anne as queen, he could not support Henry’s claim to be head of the Church. Even as he was beheaded, he joked that his beard did not deserve the same sentence as his head, and he tucked it safely away from the blade.
These two brave men are excellent role models for our seminarians. As active citizens, they brought about effective change in their circles of influence. And, as devout Catholics, they sacrificed their lives rather than be swayed by earthly allegiances. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, bring us courage in the face of adversity!