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Thomas More & Bishop Fisher: declared saints 70 years ago.

In Saint Peter's Basilica the solemn moment arrived in the ceremony of canonization when Pope Pius XI in the exercise of his office as teacher and head of the Universal Church made the solemn proclamation:

"In honour of the Undivided Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and the increase of the Christian religion, by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after mature deliberation and imploring the divine assistance, by the advice of our Venerable Brethen the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops present in the city, We decree and define as Saints, and inscribe in the Catalogue of the Saints, Blessed John Fisher and Thomas More, and that their memory shall be celebrated in the Universal Church on the anniversaries of their heavenly birth."

After the ceremony, the bells of all the churches in Rome rang out exultantly on that morning, May 19, 1935, in thanksgiving and praise for those being raised to the full honours of the altar.

But the joyful, splendid, and long ceremony in Rome contrasted with Cardinal Fisher's and Sir Thomas More's quick and brutal passage out of this world in London 400 years earlier.

John Fisher

William Rastell, Sir Thomas More's nephew, witnessed the martyrdom of Cardinal Fisher. Saint John, in a strong and very loud voice, spoke to the large crowd: "Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Catholic Church." He asked for their prayers, and prayed, "God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel." He knelt, said the Te Deum and some short prayers very devoutly, and laid his neck upon the block. His head was struck off on Tower Hill shortly after 10 a.m. on June 22, 1535.

His head was par-boiled and set up on a pike on London Bridge as a warning to all of the consequences of treason. His body lay naked on the scaffold until 8 o'clock in the evening (some charitable onlookers in pity had covered his private parts with straw) when, at Henry VIII's command, the guards threw his body contemptuously into a hastily dug shallow grave near the wall of a nearby church, All Hallows, Barking, afterwards to be re-interred in Saint Peter ad Vincula within the Tower.

Cardinal Fisher had been convicted under the Act of Treasons passed in November 1534. Anyone who maliciously denied in thought, word, or action any of Henry's titles--Parliament had named him Supreme Head of the Church in England two weeks before--was guilty of treason. Fisher, the only English bishop to do so, refused to swear to the Act of Supremacy. He had, in response to Henry's request for private counsel, explained the impossibility of the King's claim. When Richard Rich revealed this private counsel at the trial, Cardinal Fisher stated he had not spoken maliciously. His judges in Westminster Hall on June 17, 1535, told him that to deny the title was to deny it maliciously, the word "maliciously" in the Act being of no consequence whatsoever.

The Tower

Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas More had been imprisoned in the Tower on April 17, 1534, for refusing to take the Oath to the Act of Succession. This oath had required everyone to swear to its three clauses: that any heir of Henry and Anne Boleyn was a legitimate heir to the throne, a clause that both men could accept; that the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon was null and void, and that the Bishop of Rome (as the Pope was designated in the Act) had no more authority or power in England than any other bishop. These latter two clauses John Fisher and Thomas More could not and did not accept.

Thomas More

For his refusing to swear to the Act of Supremacy, Sir Thomas was brought to trial in Westminster Hall on July 1, 1535, two weeks after Cardinal Fisher had been condemned. He defended himself perfectly, and demonstrated his command of the common law. He had spoken to no one, not even his family, about the Act of Supremacy; therefore, in law, he was not guilty of denying any title claimed by Henry. An intimidated jury, subjected to the perjury of Richard Rich, convicted More of treason.

His emaciated body like that of Saint John shocked the crowd at the scaffold. They had suffered utter destitution during their fifteen months in the Tower. From early manhood, they had disciplined their bodies through fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt; these penitential acts and the lifelong habit of prayer strengthened them against the rigours of the Tower. Saint Thomas was denied visits from his family. Visits from his daughter Margaret were allowed only after she had agreed to attempt to convince him to accept the Act of Supremacy, as she and all his family had done. Several members of his family later recanted and suffered severely for their adherence to the faith of the Church.

For years after their execution, no biography was allowed to be published in England. At Saint Thomas' execution, however, there was an observer in the crowd at the scaffold of whose minute and verbal accuracy we have abundant proof. He sent a newsletter to Paris, and in a few days, Saint Thomas' words from the scaffold rang through Europe.

"He spoke little before his execution. Only he asked that bystanders pray for him in this world, and he would pray for them elsewhere. He then begged them earnestly to pray for the King, that it might please God to give him good counsel, protesting that he dies the King's good servant, but God's first."

The Paris newsletter was published in French and Latin, both agreeing that "and God's first" was the actual conjunction: ("et de Dieu premierement" "ac imprimis Dei"). In his biography of More, William Roper, More's son-in-law, recorded that More asked those present "to pray for him, and to bear witness with him that he should now there suffer death, in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church."

Sir Thomas was beheaded on Tower Hill shortly after 9 a.m., July 6, 1535. His head was stuck on a pole and placed on Tower Bridge. What remains of it rests today in the Roper family vault in St. Nicholas' Chapel in Saint Dunstan's Anglican Church, Canterbury. Saint John's head had been thrown into the Thames to make room for it. The headless bodies of all decapitated traitors were buried under the floor of the Church of Saint Peter ad Vincula in the Tower. Saint Thomas' remains lie with those of Saint John and others in the crypt of Saint Peter ad Vincula today. Meg's devotion to her father prompted her to bribe a guard to let More's head fall into her lap as she passed under London Bridge. She kept it with her all her life.


The two men whom Henry had murdered were famous throughout Europe as friends of Erasmus, as authors of books published on the Continent, and for their brilliantly convincing writings in defence of the Catholic faith against Luther and other heretics. Europe's most able scholars and theologians consulted them; churchmen of exalted rank praised them; princes honoured them and protested against their execution.

More especially was a celebrated author as early as 1518 through his Latin epigrams, and his Utopia became almost at once a classic of world literature. He was also known through six diplomatic missions. As Lord Chancellor, the highest office in England under the King, he exercised his function with faithfulness to wisdom, justice, and truth, all tempered with a clemency and merry wit which did not desert him even on the scaffold. He asked the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower to help him up the rickety steps of the scaffold. "As for my coming down," he added, "let me shift for myself."

While in the Tower, he wrote prayers and spiritual treatises, such as A Dialogue of comfort against tribulation and The sadness of Christ which continue to inspire people with their profound spirituality. The Yale edition of the Complete works of St. Thomas More, published from 1963 to 1997, was the first truly complete edition of his works; his English Works were edited in 1557 by his nephew, William Rastell, and his Latin Opera were published at Louvain in 1564.


Saint John Fisher's refutation of Luther was much used at the Council of Trent, so encompassing and famous was his reputation as a theologian through his writings in defence of the sacraments, especially the priesthood and the Real Presence, and the unity of the Church under the Pope. In 1504, soon-to-be-Bishop Fisher was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, a post he retained even while in prison, so eminent was his leadership and his encouragement of scholars. This most illustrious of Europe's bishops was the ordinary of the poorest diocese in England, Rochester. His pastoral care was mainly for the children and the poor, and his flock returned their shepherd's love abundantly, particularly on his leaving them to go to the Tower and the block.

Their trials were entirely political, though their resistance to the tyranny of their trials was entirely religious. Their stand for the unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for the sacrament of marriage, and for the freedom of the formed and informed conscience brought them the glory of martyrdom. They defended the truth against a tyrant's savage determination that his will be done.

Their love for God and His Church let them "set the world at nought", to echo Thomas' prayer in the Tower: "Give me thy grace, good Lord, to set the world at nought; ... of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at right nought, for the winning of Christ."

Smear campaign

A programme of vilification, demanded by Henry and authored by several timeservers, began immediately after Cardinal Fisher's martyrdom and even before Sir Thomas More's death. Thomas Cromwell, Secretary of the Council, defined the position to be taken by the English representatives in Rome and Paris in a letter in which he described the two martyrs as "rebels," "enemies of their country," "impious and seditious men." Such vilification endured until its virulence slackened in the nineteenth century. It lingers today.

It was impossible to ignore the dismay and horror expressed on the Continent at the execution of a Cardinal of the Church, and of a former Lord Chancellor whose name was honoured by the learned throughout Europe. To their contemporaries they were obviously martyrs. As Abbe Germain Marc'hadour states: "Erasmus, hardly a user of superlatives, haled the executions of More and Fisher in at least two letters. Ortiz, who represented Charles V in Italy, mentions 'la pasion y martyrio de Thaumas Mauro' in a dispatch of October 6, 1535. Several historians of the sixteenth century expected Rome to canonize Fisher and More."

Canonization delayed

Other saints, for instance, Albert the Great and Joan of Arc, have waited longer for canonization, yet we may wonder why 400 years passed before the canonization of these two martyrs.

Again, Abbe Marc'hadour: "Rome never takes the initiative in the process of canonization. The demand for canonization has to come from below.

"There was no Catholic vox populi in More's England while there were penal laws, and no diocesan bishop to open the beatification cause. It took centuries for a Catholic Anglophonia to emerge in England. By 1850, with the English converts and the Irish immigrants, Britain possessed a Catholic voice, despite some discrimination. In the wake of Father John Lingard, a famous English historian of the nineteenth century, the Reformation was revisited, and the authenticity of the martyrdom of Cardinal Fisher and Thomas More was demonstrated beyond question. On December 29, 1886, More and Fisher headed the list of English martyrs beatified by Pope Leo XIII.

"In the 1920's and '30's, the persecution of Catholics in violently anti-Catholic states--Russia, Mexico, Germany, Republican Spain--showed the need for models in witnessing to the faith. Pope Pius XI took the cause to heart. All the necessary canonical work was done by the diocese of Southwark.

"Miracles were expected. As none occurred, a special consistory reached the conclusion of constat martyrium, an undoubtable case of Fisher's and More's dying in and for the faith of the Church, which ruled out the need for miracles."

There was laughter on earth and in Paradise when Richard O'Sullivan, King's Counsel in the '20s and '30s, a very Irish scholar living in England who took a prominent and enthusiastic part in the canonization of Fisher and More, was asked, "How can an Irishman spearhead the canonization of More?" He responded, "There's the miracle!"

Public opinion had warmed up to Cardinal Fisher and Saint Thomas, and an excellent biography of Saint Thomas by the Anglican historian, R.W. Chambers, was published in 1935. George V, however, refused permission to his ambassador to the Italian Republic to represent his country in Saint Peter's on May 19, 1935.

More's importance in Canada

"Blessed Thomas More is important today, but he is not as important now as he will be in one hundred years from today." G.K. Chesterton made this prescient remark in 1929 to the dignitaries and prelates at a celebration honouring Saint Thomas More at the Convent of Perpetual Adoration on Beaufort Street, Chelsea, on the site of More's home. His remark lets us compare our Canada to their England.

Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy made the state supreme. Today, Paul Martin insists the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes the state supreme. A state that is supreme recognizes no authority above itself (in Henry's England, there was a state church under Henry's control; in Martin's Canada, religion is optional, provided you don't insist on it in public); and in a state that is supreme there is nothing beyond the state.

Henry used and Martin uses parliament and the courts to give a colour of law to their agenda.

As parliamentarians in England in 1534 betrayed their consciences through fear, or greed, some politicians in Canada today betray their consciences through cowardice or coveting worldly fame.

In November 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Thomas More the patron saint of politicians for proclaiming the truth in season and out, topically concerning marriage. Martin constantly proclaims an ideology that contradicts his claim to being Catholic.

Saint John and Saint Thomas entered at the narrow gate on the road Our Lord called them and us to follow.

By celebrating their sainthood in venerating and emulating them, we can hope to meet them and all the saints merrily in heaven--even though the bells of all the churches in Rome do not ring out for us.

Their feast day is June 22.

Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

Saint John Fisher, pray for us.

In November 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Thomas More the patron saint of politicians for proclaiming the truth in season and out.
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Author:Loughran, Hugh
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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