John Fisher is the perfect example of a man partaking in political obstruction based upon morality and values. He is also the perfect example of a man literally dying for his cause. The backstory for John Fisher is a turbulent political adventure that – in order to be understood – connects with the story of King Henry VIII and his first two wives.
Henry VIII had first been married to Catherine of Aragon through the aftermath of a political treaty set up by his father – Henry VII – with Spain. Catherine was wed first to Arthur, Henry VI’s eldest son and Henry VIII’s older brother, who died at a relatively young age. The political aspects of England and Spain as allies sent ripples across continental Europe; and, unable to imagine such a powerful connection go to waste, Catherine was quickly wed to Henry VIII.
In Tudor England, the crown was uneasy upon a family lineage that had fewer ties to royalty than several others. As Henry VII dedicated his time as king to legitimizing the crown for his heirs, Henry VIII soon realized that to keep the crown in his family’s favor he would need to give birth to a strong, male heir.
Although their partnership was perhaps smoother than most royal marriages, Catherine of Aragon did not provide Henry VIII with a crownable male heir. Instead, she provided him with six pregnancies that were all for nothing.
In late January of 1510, Catherine gave a very premature birth to a stillborn girl.
In May 1510 – only four months after the loss of that first baby girl – Catherine became pregnant again. In early January of 1511, a male heir was born in the form of Henry, Duke of Cornwall. This son would only live for 53 full days, dying suddenly on February 23rd, 1511. Although the cause of death was never recorded, historians have suggested that he may have died due to intestinal problems.
In the early months of 1513, Catherine was pregnant for the third time. However, before the year was over, she gave birth to a stillborn boy. In June 1514, her fourth pregnancy was announced…but it turned into a second stillborn boy.
In the summer of 1515, Catherine discovered that she was pregnant for the fifth time. The royal court did not make as big of a scene had they had in the past, not putting much hope into Catherine after four previous false alarms. To everyone’s surprise, Catherine’s fifth pregnancy was a success…to some extent. She did not give Henry the male heir he desired, but she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Mary was christened on February 21st, 1516 – three days after her birth. Henry was disappointed with Catherine’s production of a baby girl, but was encouraged by a pregnancy that actually succeeded. Henry VIII said that “if it were a girl this time, then surely boys would follow” shortly after Mary’s birth.
Unfortunately for Henry, he was wrong. In February 1518, Catherine announced her sixth and final pregnancy. She made pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Frideswide, begging for a healthy son to be within her. Her pilgrimage meant nothing, and on November 10th, 1517 she gave birth to a daughter that was so weak, that it didn’t even survive the full week. Some historical records claim she died after a few hours after birth.
This was enough for Henry – who, fearing for the safety of the crown – decided that Catherine could not provide him a male heir. Out of six pregnancies, the only truly successful one had been a girl! When given the choice of his wife and the state of his family’s power, Henry chose to find a marriage that could reward him with a male heir.
Henry took his grief and ran with it, conducting an affair with Mary Boleyn –Catherine’s personal assistant. His taste with Mary soon soured, and by 1525 he had taken an interest in Mary’s sister – Anne Boleyn. A charismatic young woman within Catherine’s entourage, Anne Boleyn initially refused to accept the King’s advances upon her. She resisted, but ultimately – as we all know the story – became King Henry VIII’s second wife. The first Beheaded in the conga line of wives labeled as ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’.
The annulment between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon followed by Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn were the first steps to another relationship falling apart: that of the relationship between the country of England and the Roman Catholic Church. But, as of right now, the wedding is on.
I will, eventually, write a more detailed article for the whole ‘Henry needs a son so he rips through eight wives and completely changes modern thinking when it comes to the reformation of the Church and the power that a State in fact had’ thing. This article is about John Fisher, the English Catholic bishop and theologian who was executed for refusing to go along with Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn for a male heir.
Henry was desperate to have his new marriage seen as legitimate. Parliament passed the First Succession Act, which existed for no other reason but to acknowledge Henry and Anne as the legitimate heirs to the throne. It basically shoved the former Queen Catherine out of the royal family of England and declared Princess Mary – if you recall, the only ‘successful’ pregnancy (despite it not being successful in Henry’s eyes) – a bastard, unworthy of the throne.
The act would later be followed up and repealed by the Second Succession Act, which removed Elizabeth (daughter of Henry and Anne) from the lineage of the crown and the Third Succession Act, which returned both girls to the throne’s line of succession behind their half-brother Edward (whom he had with Jane Seymour after Anne Boleyn was removed from the picture).
John Fisher, alongside Sir Thomas More, refused to accept the First Succession Act. They did not recognize Anne Boleyn as queen of England, and thus were quickly charged with treason.
In Henry’s eyes, people like John Fisher were not only obstructing his political atmosphere…they were putting religious figures such as the Pope (who was not God) above him, the King of England appointed by God. The rule was simple – “no man is higher than the King except God.” The rule was not “no man is higher than the King except The Pope.”
As the Bible says: Fear God, Honor the Emperor. In this case, the Emperor is the King.
In May of 1535, Pope Paul III announced that John Fisher was to be a Cardinal Priest – a high honor, indeed! King Henry VIII scoffed, claiming that when “the red hat” arrived in England, there would be no head to place it upon.
After a quick trial, John Fisher was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason.
Henry soon realized the ironic similarities between John Fisher – who was being executed for refusing to accept the validity of King Henry’s divorce from Catherine and marriage to Anne – and John the Baptist – who was executed for challenging the validity of King Herod Antipas’s marriage to his brother’s ex-wife Herodias.
Since John Fisher’s religious namesake was John the Baptist, King Henry did not wish to have him killed after his patron feast on June 24th. Fearing public sympathy and historical irony, Henry quickly commuted his sentence to beheading, which would take place on June 22nd. Unfortunately for Henry, John the Baptist had been beheaded as well… and in his attempt to have John Fisher executed before the Nativity of St John the Baptist, he created yet another parallel between the two men.
John Fisher’s last moments were recorded as calm and courageous. His headless body was stripped and left on the scaffold before being thrown into a rough grave of a churchyard afterwards with no prayer. His head was placed on a pole by the London Bridge, where it remained until Sir Thomas More’s head replaced it.
John Fisher’s body was later laid beside the body of Sir Thomas More within the Tower of London – where both of them had been imprisoned.
Centuries later, in 1886, Pope Leo XIII had John Fisher beautified alongside 53 other English martyrs. In 1935, both Fisher and More were canonized by Pope Pius XI.