Saints Thomas More and John Fisher

The following articles are excerpts from our chapter on the English Martyrs in our book, “Martyrs, They Died for Christ.”

Saint Thomas More – Martyr (1478-1535)
God was to raise up two Thomases in England, one who would give his life to stave off royal aggression against the Church for three hundred and fifty years, only to see that aggression rise again and require another Thomas’ Martyr’s blood to try to save the faithful children of God from separation from their and His Church. It would seem, for the foolish, it was in vain, the second time. But, as we see whole congregations, with their pastors, coming back home
to the Roman Catholic Church, we cry out:
Martyrs of God, rest in Peace, the Cross is coming together. Division is at an end! Alleluia!
Both Thomases: Thomas Becket and Thomas More were Chancellors; each loved God more than his earthly king. There are many parallels. They just take place at a different time in Church and World History. Thomas Becket was born between the twelfth century and the turbulent tide of the Renaissance! Thomas More was born during a time of deceptive, devastating Revolution (erroneously called the Reformation), with protest, politics and disobedience. Thomas Becket was a churchman; Thomas More a layman. God would use these two loyal sons of the Church.
Thomas More was born February 6, 1478. His father was a lawyer and judge. He fared so well in school, at age thirteen, he was sent to Oxford where he entered Canterbury College. Thomas’ father was strict with him, giving him money only for the merest necessities. Although, I am sure, the young Thomas was not too happy with this discipline and austerity, it served him well, as he matured. Thomas did very well at the university, but after two years, his father called him home. He studied for the next five years and in 1501 was admitted to the bar. He, three short years later, entered Parliament. He was brilliant, successful and popular.
This did not seem to satisfy him, though. He felt drawn to the life of the Carthusian Monks. He even thought of becoming a Friar Minor of the order of St. Francis. But he could not hear the Lord calling him to either the monastic life or to the secular Priesthood. He ardently loved the Priesthood. But he wanted to be sure, he would not be anything but faithful to God in whatever vocation He called him to. He said, to be an unworthy Priest was the last thing he would ever desire. In 1505, he married.
He was highly regarded as a man of the world, but he had none of that contempt for ascetism that was so prevalent in the Renaissance. From the time he was eighteen years old, he wore a hairshirt, used the discipline on fridays, assisted at Daily Mass and recited the Little Office every day. His controversial friend Erasmus said of him that he never knew anyone so indifferent to food.
Thomas married Jane Colt, the eldest daughter, although he was attracted to her younger sister. But because he knew, it would bring grief and shame to Jane, if her younger sister married first, he married her. He was never sorry for his choice and loved his wife dearly. They had four children. Their home was a place filled with people of learning and accomplishment. It would appear it was only for the elite or the Highbrow. But that was not the case. He, his family and all their servants prayed together each night, before retiring. They all ate together at mealtime and heard Holy Scripture read and explained. They all shared on the Word, and what it meant in their lives. Thomas had a profound sense of humor. His home was a place of joy and fun, but he did not allow card-playing or rolling dice.
He bequeathed a Chapel to his Parish Church and even after he became Chancellor, he sang in the choir, wearing a surplice, like the other members of the choir. Whenever there was a woman in labor, whether in his home or in the village, More would begin praying and would not stop, until someone arrived telling him that she had successfully given birth. He would visit the poorest of the poor, taking the alleys, less he be detected. He was truly a living example of the Gospel which tells us to not let our deeds be known in the light of day.
He often invited his poorer neighbors to dine with him and his family. He rarely invited the rich and most never the nobility. Now this did not preclude him from inviting great minds, or Martyrs-to-be like John Fisher or controversial figures like Erasmus. St. Thomas More defended his friendship with Erasmus: He did not find the “shrewd intent and purpose” he found in Tyndale. He said that rather, he found that “Erasmus detested and abhorred the errors and heresies that Tyndale plainly taught and abided by”. And because of this, he said, Erasmus was his friend, still. But, as we will see later on, if he had not truly believed this, if he thought that Erasmus had gone against the Church, More would have defended the Church against him, as he would against King Henry VIII.
More’s idyllic life soon came to a crashing end. His wife Jane died, leaving him with four small children. He remarried within a few weeks, a lady seven years his elder, a good housewife, with lots of good common sense, someone he could trust with his children. Although she could not take the place of his love – his Jane, their life was a good one.
Having heard of him, King Henry VIII and his Cardinal Wolsey, one of the most important men in the realm, were determined to have More’s services at court. Thomas More was not too enthusiastic about it. Although he was not diametrically opposed to the position, he was not looking forward to being in Court with the King and his entourage, stating that the “good life” was definitely not there. But he obeyed his sovereign and was so well accepted and trusted, he, after many advancements, became Lord Chancellor, replacing the now disgraced Wolsey.
More’s advice was held in high regard; he proved himself an able and prudent judge in deep and important matters that would arise at court. He was able to see both sides of a question and tried to satisfy both sides, but never by compromising his values. He was considered by all “a gentleman of great learning in law, art and divinity, as good a courtier as a Christian man and saint can be, and that does not mean that he was not a very good one.”
King Henry was very fond of St. Thomas More and this affection was shared by Thomas for his King. But he had no illusions about his King. Now, when Thomas More was appointed Chancellor, he had been busy writing against Protestantism, particularly in rebuttal to Tyndale and his writings. Thomas More’s attitude toward heretics was moderate, hating the heresy but not the heretics. He was very cautious about the laity reading the Bible in the vernacular, as he judged, it could lead to misinterpretation. He strongly advised no such books be read without the Ordinary’s approval.

St. John Fisher – Cardinal and Martyr (1469-1535)
We are in the year 1469. The Church would be attacked brutally, once again, and God would raise up Saints who would defend the Church and shed their blood, if need be. John Fisher was to be one of those Saints. He was born into a poor family. He lost his father when he was very young; yet he entered Cambridge University at the age of fourteen.
He was a fine scholar, excelling in school. So outstanding were his accomplishments, he was ordained a Priest, by special permission, when he was merely twenty-two years old.
King Henry VII was king. His mother met John Fisher and when she soon became aware of his piety and wisdom, she chose him to be her spiritual director. Through John Fisher’s influence, the King’s mother spent her remaining years dedicating her life to God. She encouraged students eager to learn. She used her wealth to help them financially, as well. Through him, she also became patroness of Cambridge University.
In 1504, John Fisher was elected Chancellor of Cambridge. His great works and pastoring skills came to the attention of King Henry VII who recommended he be ordained a Bishop. He was only 35 years old. Now, John Fisher did not want to take on this added responsibility, fearing it would take away from his commitment to Cambridge. But we have an expression “Doers do”. If you want a job done, call on someone who is busy. John Fisher never neglected his duties at Cambridge and yet spiritually ministered to his diocese tirelessly and wisely. Neither of his appointed tasks suffered because of the other. When Luther and his schismatic doctrines were infiltrating London and the universities, John Fisher wrote many volumes successfully refuting Luther’s heresies. His books were the first published defending the Church against Luther’s attack on the Faith.
When King Henry VII and his mother died, St. John Fisher sadly preached at their funeral Masses. With King Henry VII’s death, King Henry the VIII became the new monarch. He recognized the outstanding qualities his mother and brother had experienced and he proclaimed John Fisher the finest prelate to be found in any kingdom in the world!
Upon his brother’s death, King Henry the VIII married his brother’s widow – Catherine of Aragon, taking her as his first wife. Everything went well, until she made the fatal mistake of giving birth to a daughter (who would later become Queen Mary I). This became a giant problem! She had not given the King a son! Out she goes! He decided to divorce her and take a new wife, Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused the King’s request to have the marriage nullified, and King Henry VIII left the Church and began his own church, The Church of England. Now, he would be free to marry Anne Boleyn, and he would have the male heir he desired.
John Fisher was chosen to defend Catherine. He stood before the court and ably presented the argument that the marriage was valid and could not be nullified by any power, human or divine. He gave St. John the Baptist as an example, who had been beheaded because he had come against King Herod who had defiled the sanctity of marriage. When this reached the King, he became furious! The case went to Rome. John Fisher no longer had any connection with it.
You would think that would be the end of it, wouldn’t you? After all, John Fisher had done all he could to stop the King from sinning against God and His Church! He had defended the Sacrament of Matrimony! But now, the next step, Our Lord would call him to, was to defend the rights of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Pope. In order for his subjects to accept him and his new Church, the King knew he had to have the clergy behind him. After all, to the people, they were their teachers and were respected as the faithful passers down of the Lord’s Word and Church. King Henry issued a decree forcing his Priests to pledge loyalty to the Church of England and to King Henry as the rightful head of the Church. John Fisher denounced the courts that were passing down these dictates from the King. He could not stand silent while the King and his courts denied the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church and the Pope as the rightful head of the Church. As a member of the House of Lords, he denounced the measures that were being instituted against the clergy down through the Commons, loudly crying out: “It is nothing but `Down with the Church!'”
He persistently denied the King’s claim as head of the Church in England. His friends tried to warn him to back off, a little. He couldn’t! Twice he was imprisoned; they tried to poison him; he was shot at through his window in his study. They even tried to smear his name.
Things never stand still. Bishop Fisher was summoned to appear at a meeting concerning a bill which would declare that children resulting from the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn would be rightful successors to the throne of England after his death. Although so ill he fainted on the way to the meeting, Bishop Fisher attended. It would have been a valid excuse to not go, and probably save his life. Because, with every motion against the wishes of the King, he was driving another nail into his coffin. Now, like Saint Thomas More, John Fisher did not object to the succession in itself. But unlike the other Bishops of England, he refused to take the oath, as it declared recognition of King Henry as supreme head of the Church. He did not condemn his fellow Bishops for taking the oath, saying: “Their conscience will save them, and mine must save me.”
The King removed him as Bishop and had John Fisher imprisoned in the Tower of London, on April 26th, 1534. On May 21st of the following year, Pope Paul III raised him to Cardinal. This infuriated King Henry and hastened the end of John Fisher. Furiously, he barked: “Let the Pope send him a hat. I will make sure that when it comes, they will have to place it on his shoulders, as he will no longer have a head to set it on.” On June the 17th, he was brought before thirteen commissioners and a jury of freeholders. The physical abuse showed tragically on his entire body. He looked closer to eighty-six than his sixty-six years. His health, already weakened by his austere life, had seriously deteriorated during his stay in the Tower of London. But that did not stop him from being his cheerful self, as his indictment was read. There was a peace that emanated from him, his eyes glowed as he appeared to be looking beyond them to his Source of true Peace, his Lord.

For more information on the English Martyrs and our book, “Martyrs, They Died for Christ Click Here.

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