Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fisher, John (1459?-1535)
FISHER, JOHN (1459?–1535), bishop of Rochester, eldest son of Robert Fisher, mercer, and Agnes, his wife, was born at Beverley in Yorkshire, and probably received his earliest education in the school attached to the collegiate church in that city. Considerable discrepancy exists in the statements respecting the year of Fisher's birth (see Life by Lewis, i. 1-2). His portrait by Holbein bears the words, 'A° Aetatis 74.' As this could scarcely have been painted after his imprisonment in the Tower, it would seem that Fisher must have been at least seventy-five at the time of his execution. This, however, requires us to conclude that he was over twenty-six at the time of his admission to the B.A. degree, an unusual age, especially in those days. When only thirteen years old he lost his father; the latter would seem to have been a man of considerable substance, and, judging from his numerous bequests to different monastic and other foundations, religious after the fashion of his age. Fisher was subsequently entered at Michaelhouse, Cambridge, under William de Melton, fellow, and afterwards master of the college. In 1487 he proceeded to his degree of bachelor of arts; was soon after elected fellow of Michaelhouse, proceeded to his degree of M.A. in 1491, filled the office of senior proctor in the university in 1494, and became master of his college in 1497. The duties of the proctorial office necessitated, at that time, occasional attendance at court; and Fisher on his appearance in this capacity at Greenwich attracted the notice of the king's mother, Margaret, countess of Richmond, who in 1497 appointed him her confessor.
In 1501 he was elected vice-chancellor of the university. We learn from his own statements, as well as from other sources, that the whole academic community was at that time in a singularly lifeless and impoverished state. To rescue it from this condition, by infusing new life into its studies and gaining for it the help of the wealthy, was one of the chief services which Fisher rendered to his age. In 1503 he was appointed by the Countess of Richmond to fill the newly founded chair of divinity, which she had instituted for the purpose of providing gratuitous theological instruction in the university; and it appears to have been mainly by his advice that about the same time the countess also founded the Lady Margaret preachership, designed for supplying evangelical instruction of the laity in the surrounding county and elsewhere. The preaching was to be in the vernacular, which had at that period almost fallen into disuse in the pulpit.
A succession of appointments now indicated the growing and widespread sense of his services. In 1504 he was elected to the chancellorship of the university, an office to which he was re-elected annually for ten years, and eventually for life. A papal bull (14 Oct. 1504) ratified his election to the see of Rochester, but for this preferment he was indebted solely to King Henry's favour and sense of his 'grete and singular virtue' (Funeral Sermon, ed. Hymers, p. 163). On 12 April 1505 Fisher was elected to the presidency of Queens' College, but held the office only for three years. His appointment to the post, it has been conjectured, was mainly with the design of providing him with a suitable residence during the time that he was superintending the erection of Christ's College, which was founded by the Lady Margaret under his auspices in 1505. On the death of Henry VII, Fisher preached the funeral sermon at St. Paul's, and his discourse was subsequently printed at the request of the king's mother. Three months later it devolved upon him to pay a like tribute to the memory of his august benefactress, a discourse which forms a memorable record of her virtues and good works. By a scheme drawn up during her lifetime it was proposed to dissolve an ancient hospital at Cambridge, that of the Brethren of St. John, and to found a college in its place. Fisher was shortly after nominated to attend the Lateran council in Rome (19 April 1512), and a sum of 500l. had been assigned for his expenses during 160 days ; but at the last moment it was decided that he should not be sent. This happened fortunately for the carrying out of the Lady Margaret's designs, for Fisher, by remaining in England, was enabled to defeat in some measure the efforts that were made to set aside her bequest ; and it was mainly through his strenuous exertions that St. John's College was eventually founded, its charter being given 9 April 1511. In connection with the college he himself subsequently founded four fellowships and two scholarships, besides lectureships in Greek and Hebrew. In 1513, on Wolsey's promotion to the see of Lincoln, Fisher, in the belief that one who stood so high in the royal favour would be better able to further the interests of the university, proposed to retire from the office of chancellor, advising that Wolsey should be elected in his place. The university acted upon his advice ; but Wolsey having declined the proffered honour, under the plea of being already overburdened with affairs of state, Fisher was once more appointed. Notwithstanding the deference which he showed to Wolsey on this occasion, there existed between him and the all-powerful minister a strongly antagonistic feeling, of which the true solution is probably indicated by Burnet when he says that Fisher being 'a man of strict life' 'hated him [Wolsey] for his vices' (Hist. of the Reformation, ed. Pocock, i. 52). At a council of the clergy held at Westminster in 1517, Fisher gave satisfactory proof that he was actuated by no spirit of adulation ; and in a remarkable speech, wherein he severely censured the greed for gain and the love of display and of court life which characterised many of the higher ecclesiastics of the realm, he was generally supposed to have glanced at the cardinal himself. In 1523 he opposed with no less courage, by a speech in convocation, Wolsey's great scheme for a subsidy in aid of the war with Flanders (Hall, p. 72).
Fisher's genuine attachment to learning is shown by the sympathy which he evinced with the new spirit of biblical criticism which had accompanied the Renaissance. It was mainly through his influence that Erasmus was induced to visit Cambridge, and the latter expressly attributes it to his powerful protection that the study of Greek was allowed to go on in the university without active molestation of the kind which it had to encounter at Oxford (Epist. vi. 2). Notwithstanding his advanced years, Fisher himself aspired to become a Greek scholar, and appears to have made some attainments in the language. On the other hand, his attachment to the papal cause remained unshaken, while his hostility to Luther and the Reformation was beyond question. He preached in the vernacular, before Wolsey and Warham, at Paul's. Cross, on the occasion of the burning of the reformer's writings in the churchyard (12 May 1521), a discourse which was severely handled by William Tyndale (Lewis, Life, i. 181-3). He replied to Luther's book against the papal bull in a treatise entitled 'A Confutation of the Luheran Assertion' (1523), and was supposed, although without foundation, to have been the real writer of the royal treatise against Luther, entitled 'Assertio septem Sacramentorum,' published in 1521. He again replied to Luther in his 'Defence of the Christian Priesthood' (1524), and again, for the third time, in his 'Defence' of Henry's treatise, in reply to the reformer's attack (1525). He also wrote against (Ecolampadius and Velenus.
With advancing years his conservative instincts would appear, indeed, sometimes to have prevailed over his better judgment. To the notable scheme of church reform brought forward in the House of Commons in 1529 he offered strenuous resistance, and his language was such that it was construed into a disrespectful reflection on that assembly, and the speaker was directed to make it a matter of formal complaint to the king. Fisher was summoned into the royal presence, and was fain to have recourse to a somewhat evasive explanation, which seems scarcely in harmony with his habitual moral courage and conscientiousness. The statutes which he drew up about this time, to be the codes of Christ's College and St. John's College, are also characterised by a kind of timorous mistrust, and, while embodying a wise innovation on the existing scheme of study, exhibit a pusillanimous anxiety to guard against all subsequent innovations whatever. In the revised statutes which he gave to St. John's College in 1524 and 1530 this tendency is especially apparent : but it is to be observed that some of the new provisions in the latter code were taken from that given by Wolsey to Cardinal College (afterwards Christ Church), Oxford. In 1528 the high estimation in which his services were held by St. John's College was shown by the enactment of a statute for the annual celebration of his exequies.
The unflinching firmness with which he opposed the doctrine of the royal supremacy did honour to his consistency. When convocation was called upon to give its assent, he asserted that the acceptance of such a principle would cause the clergy of England 'to be hissed out of the society of God's holy catholic church' (Baily, p. 110) ; and his opposition so far prevailed that the form in which the assent of convocation was ultimately recorded was modified by the memorable saving clause, 'quantum per legem Dei licet' (11 Feb. 1531).
His opposition to the royal divorce was not less honourable and consistent, and he stood alone among the bishops of the realm in his refusal to recognise the validity of the measure. As Queen Catherine's confessor he naturally became her chief confidant. Brewer goes so far as to say that he was 'the only adviser on whose sincerity and honesty she could rely.' From the evidence of the State Papers it would seem, however, that Wolsey, in his desire to further Henry's wishes, did succeed for a time in alienating Fisher from the queen, by skilfully instilling into the bishop's mind a complete misapprehension as to the king's real design in inquiring into the validity of his marriage. But he could not succeed in inducing Fisher to regard the papal dispensation for Catherine's marriage as invalid, and in 1528 the latter was appointed one of her counsellors. On 28 June 1529 he appeared in the legate's court and made his memorable declaration that 'to avoid the damnation of his soul,' and 'to show himself not unfaithful to the king,' he had come before their lordships 'to assert and demonstrate with cogent reasons that this marriage of the king and queen could not be dissolved by any power, divine or human' (Brewer, Reign of Henry VIII, ii. 346). Henry betrayed how deeply he was offended by drawing up a reply (in the form of a speech) in which he attacked both Fisher's character and motives with great acrimony and violence. The copy sent to Fisher is preserved in the Record Office, and contains brief comments in his own handwriting on the royal assertions and misrepresentations. In the following year, one Richard Rouse having poisoned a vessel of yeast which was placed in the bishop's kitchen 'in Lambith Marsh,' several members of the episcopal household died in consequence. By Sanders (De Schismate, p. 72) this event was represented as an attempt on the bishop's life by Anne Boleyn, dictated by resentment at his opposition to the divorce.
The weaker side of Fisher's character was shown in the credence and countenance which he gave to the impostures of the Nun of Kent [see Barton, Elizabeth] ; while the manner in which the professedly inspired maid denounced the projected marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn brought the bishop himself under the suspicion of collusion. This suspicion was deepened by the fact that the nun, when interrogated before the Star-chamber, named him as one of her confederates. He was summoned to appear before parliament to answer the charges preferred against him. On 28 Jan. 1533-4 he wrote to Cromwell describing himself as in a pitiable state of health, and begging to be excused from appearing as commanded. In another letter, written three days later, he speaks as though wearied out by Cromwell's importunity and frequent missives. Cromwell in replying broadly denounces his excuses as 'mere craft and cunning,' and advises him to throw himself on the royal mercy. Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, writing 25 March to Charles V, says that Fisher, whom he characterises as 'the paragon of Christian prelates both for learning and holiness,' has been condemned to 'confiscation of body and goods,' and attributes it to the support which he had given to the cause of Catherine. Fisher was sentenced, along with Adyson, his chaplain, to be attainted of misprision, to be imprisoned at the king's will, and to forfeit all his goods (Letters and Papers Henry VIII, vol. ii. No. 70). He was, however, ultimately permitted to compound for his offence by a payment of 300l.
On 13 April he was summoned to Lambeth to take the oath of compliance with the Act of Succession. He expressed his willingness, as did Sir Thomas More, to take that portion of the oath which fixed the succession in the offspring of the king and Anne Boleyn, but, like More, he declined the oath in its entirety. Their objection is sufficiently intelligible when we consider that while one clause declared the offspring of Catherine illegitimate, another forbade 'faith, truth, and obedience' to any 'foreign authority or potentate.' The commissioners were evidently unwilling to proceed to extremities, and Cranmer advised that both Fisher and More should be held to have yielded sufficiently for the requirements of the case. Both, however, were ultimately committed to the Tower (Fisher on 16 April), and their fate now began to be regarded as sealed. On the 27th an inventory of the bishop's goods at Rochester was taken, which has recently been printed in 'Letters and Papers' (u. s. pp. 221-2). His library, which he had destined for St. John's College, and, according to Baily, the finest in Christendom, was seized at the same time. In his confinement, Fisher's advanced age and feeble health procured for him no relaxation of the rigorous treatment ordinarily extended to political offenders, and Lee, the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, who visited him, described him as 'nigh gone,' and his body as unable 'to bear the clothes on the back.' He was deprived of his books, and allowed only insufficient food, for which he was dependent on his brother Robert. It is to the credit of the society of St. John's College that they ventured under the circumstances to address to him a letter of condolence.
With the passing of the Act of Supremacy (November 1554) Fisher's experiences as a political offender entered upon a third phase. Under the penalties attaching to two special clauses both Fisher and More were again attainted of misprision of treason, and the see of Rochester was declared vacant from 2 Jan. 1534-5. The bishop was thus deprived of all privileges attaching to his ecclesiastical dignity. On 7 May 1535 he was visited by Mr. Secretary Cromwell and others of the king's council. Cromwell read aloud to him the act, and Fisher intimated his inability to recognise the king as 'supreme head' of the church. A second act, whereby it was made high treason to deny the king's right to that title, was then read to him ; and Fisher's previous denial, extracted from him when uninformed as to the exact penalties attaching thereto, would appear to have constituted the sole evidence on which he was found guilty at his trial. It is probable, however, that Henry would still have hesitated to put Fisher to death had it not been for the step taken by the new Roman pontiff, Paul III, who on 20 May convened a consistory and created Fisher presbyter cardinal of St. Vitalis. Paul was at that time aiming at bringing about a reformation of the Roman church, and with this view was raising various ecclesiastics of admitted merit and character to the cardinalate. According to his own express statement, volunteered after Fisher's execution, he was ignorant of the extremely strained relations existing between the latter and the English monarch. His act, however, roused Henry to almost ungovernable fury. A messenger was forthwith despatched to Calais to forbid the bearer of the cardinal's hat from Rome from proceeding further, and Fisher's death was now resolved upon. With the design, apparently, of entrapping him into admissions which might afford a further justification of such a measure, two clerks of the council, Thomas Bedyl and Leighton, were sent to the Tower for the purpose of putting to Fisher thirty distinct questions in the presence of Walsingham, the lieutenant, and other witnesses. Fisher's replies, subscribed with his own hand, are still extant. He had already, in an informal manner, been apprised of the honour designed for him by Paul, and among other interrogatories he was now asked simply to repeat what he had said when he first received the intelligence. He replied that he had said, in the presence of two witnesses (whom he named), that 'yf the cardinal's hat were layed at his feete he wolde not stoupe to take it up, he did set so little by it' (Lewis, Life, ii. 412). According to the account preserved in Baily, however, Cromwell was the interrogator on this occasion, and the question was put hypothetically ; whereupon Fisher replied : 'If any such thing should happen, assure yourself I should improve that favour to the best advantage that I could, in assisting the holy catholic church of Christ, and in that respect I would receive it upon my knees' (p. 171). A third account is given by Sanders (see Lewis, Life, i. xv, ii. 178) ; but amid such conflicting statements it seems reasonable to attach the greatest weight to Fisher's own account upon oath. It is certain that his replies, if they did not further inculpate him, in no way served to soften Henry's resentment, and he was forthwith brought to trial on the charge that he did, '7 May 27 Hen. VIII, openly declare in English, "The king our sovereign lord is not supreme head in earth of the church of England"' (Letters and Papers Henry VIII, vol. viii. No. 886). The jury found one bill against Fisher, and presented another, and were then discharged. On 17 June he was brought to the bar at Westminster, pronounced guilty, and sentenced to die a traitor's death at Tyburn. But on the 21st Walsingham received a writ in which the sentence was changed to one of beheading (instead of the ordinary hanging, disembowelling, and quartering), and Tower Hill was assigned as the place of execution, instead of Tyburn. The accounts of Fisher's execution, which took place 22 June 1535, and of the incidents which immediately preceded and succeeded that tragical event, are conflicting, and it seems that on certain points there was a confusion in the traditions preserved of the details with those which belonged to More's execution, which took place just a fortnight later. (The incidents recorded by Baily are partly taken from the account by Maurice Channey ; see authorities at end of art.) All the narratives, however, agree in representing Fisher as meeting death with a calmness, dignity, and pious resignation which greatly impressed the beholders. His head was exposed on London Bridge ; his body left on the scaffold until the evening, and then conveyed to the churchyard of Allhallows Barking, where it was interred without ceremony. A fortnight later it was removed to the church of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, and there laid by the side of the body of his friend Sir Thomas More, who, but a short time before his own career was similarly terminated, had left it on record as his deliberate conviction that there was 'in this realm no one man in wisdom, learning, and long approved vertue together, mete to be matched and compared with him' (More, English Works, p. 1437).
The intelligence of Fisher's fate was received with feelings approaching to consternation not only by the nation but by Europe at large. Paul III declared that he would sooner have had his two grandsons slain, and in a letter (26 July) to Francis I says that he 'is compelled, at the unanimous sollicitation of the cardinals, to declare Henry deprived of his kingdom and of the royal dignity' (Letters and Papers Henry VIII, vol. viii. No. 1117).
As a theologian Fisher was to some extent an eclectic; and, according to Volusenus (De Tranquillitate Animi, ed. 1751, p. 280), inclined, on the already agitated question of election and free will, to something like a Calvinistic theory. The same writer tells us (ib. p. 250) that he also frequently expressed his high admiration of the expositions of some of the Lutheran divines, and only wondered how they could proceed from heretics. Professor John E. B. Mayor observes : 'If bonus textuarius is indeed bonus theologus, Bishop Fisher may rank high among divines. He is at home in every part of scripture, no less than among the fathers. If the matter of his teaching is now for the most part trite, the form is always individual and life-like. Much of it is in the best sense catholic, and might be illustrated by parallel passages from Luther and our own reformers' (pref. to English Works, p. xxii).
The best portrait of Fisher is the drawing by Hans Holbein in the possession of the queen. Another, by the same artist, also of considerable merit, is in the hall of the master's lodge at St. John's College. A third (supposed to have been taken shortly before his execution) is in the college hall. There are others at Queens', Christ's, and Trinity Colleges. In the combination room of St. John's there are also three different engravings.
A collected edition of Fisher's Latin works, one volume folio, was printed at Würzburg in 1597 by Fleischmann. This contains : 1. 'The Assertio septem Sacramentorum' of Henry VIII against Luther, which finds a place in the collection as being 'Roffensis tamen hortatu et studio edita.' 2. Fisher's 'Defence' of the 'Assertio,' 1523. 3. His treatise in reply to Luther, 'De Babylonica Captivitate,' 1523. 4. His 'Confutatio Assertionis Lutheranæ,' first printed at Antwerp, 1523. 5. 'De Eucharistia contra Joan. Œcolampadium libri quinque,' first printed 1527. 6. 'Sacri Sacerdotii Defensio contra Lutherum.' 7. 'Convulsio calumniarum Vlrichi Veleni Minhoniensis, quibus Petrum nunquam Romæ fuisse cauillatus est,' 1525. 8. 'Concio Londini habita vernaculè, quando Lutheri scripta publicè igni tradebantur,' translated by Richard Pace into Latin, 1521. 9. 'De unica Magdalena libri tres,' 1519. Also the following, which the editor states are printed for the first time : 10. 'Commentarii in vii. Psalmos pœnitentiales, interprete Joanne Fen à monte acuto.' 11. Two sermons : (a) 'De Passione Domini,' (b) 'De Justitia Pharisæorum,' 12. 'Methodus perveniendi ad summam Christianæ religionis perfectionem,' 13. 'Epistola ad Hermannum Lætmatium Goudanum de Charitate Christiana.' At the end (whether printed before or not does not appear) are 14. 'De Necessitate Orandi.' 15. 'Psalmi vel precationes.'
An edition of his English, works has been undertaken for the Early English Text Society by Professor John E. B. Mayor, of which the first volume (1876) only has as yet appeared. This contains the originals of 8, 10, 11 a, and 12; the two sermons of the funerals of Henry VII and his mother; and 'A Spiritual Consolation,' addressed to Fisher's sister, Elizabeth, during his confinement in the Tower. Of these, the two funeral discourses and the originals of 8 and 10 are reprinted from early editions by Wynkyn de Worde. An 'Advertisement' to this edition gives a valuable criticism by the editor on Fisher's theology, English style, vocabulary, &c. The second volume, containing the 'Letters' and the 'Life' by Hall, is announced, under the editorship of the Rev. Ronald Bayne.
A volume in the Rolls Office (27 Hen. VIII, No. 887) contains the following in Fisher's hand: 1, prayers in English; 2, fragment of a 'Commentary on the Salutation of the Virgin Mary;' 3, theological commonplace book, in Latin; 4, draft treatises on divinity; 5 and 6, treatises on the rights and dignity of the clergy; 7, observations on the history of the Septuagint Version (this annotated and corrected only by Fisher). He also wrote a 'History of the Divorce,' which, if printed, was rigidly suppressed; the manuscript, however, is preserved in the University Library, Cambridge.[Fisher's Life, professedly written by Thomas Baily, a royalist divine, was first published in 1665, and was really written by Richard Hall, of Christ's College, Cambridge, who died in 1604 [see art. Bayly, Thomas]; a manuscript in University Library, Cambridge, No. 1266, contains Maurice Channey's account of the martyrdoms of More and Fisher; a considerable amount of original matter is also given in the appendices to the Life by the Rev. John Lewis (a posthumous publication), ed. T. Hudson Turner, 2 vols. 1855. The following may also be consulted: The Funeral Sermon of Margaret, Countess of Richmond, with Baker's Preface, ed. Hymers, 1840; Baker's Hist. of St. John's College, ed. Mayor, 2 vols. 1869; Cooper's Memoir of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, 1874; Early Statutes of the College of St. John the Evangelist, ed. Mayor, 1859; Mullinger's Hist. of the University of Cambridge, vol. i. 1873; a paper by Mr. Bruce in Archæologia, vol. xxv.; Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, vols. iv. to viii., with Brewer's and Gairdner's Prefaces; Brewer's Reign of Henry VIII, 2 vols., 1884; T. E. Bridgett's Life of Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, and Martyr under Henry VIII, London and New York, 1888.]