Sts.Thomas More and John Fisher, Martyrs
Today is the feast of Sts.Thomas More, martyr, and John Fisher, bishop and martyr. St. Thomas More was born in London, England and was Chancellor of King Henry VIII. He was a devoted, loving husband and father and a dedicated public servant.
St. John Fisher studied Theology in Cambridge and became Bishop of Rochester. He and his friend St. Thomas More gave up their lives in testimony to defend Church unity and the indissolubility of the sacrament of Matrimony. Both men had well-formed consciences and were willing to die for the Truth.
Thomas More was born in 1478, son of the lawyer and judge John More and his wife Agnes. He received a classical education from the age of six, and at age 13 became the protege of Archbishop John Morton, who also served an important civic role as the Lord Chancellor. Although Thomas never joined the clergy, he would eventually come to assume the position of Lord Chancellor himself.
More received a well-rounded college education at Oxford, becoming a “renaissance man” who knew several ancient and modern languages and was well-versed in mathematics, music and literature. His father, however, determined that Thomas should become a lawyer, so he withdrew his son from Oxford after two years to focus him on that career.
Despite his legal and political orientation, Thomas was confused in regard to his vocation as a young man. He seriously considered joining either the Carthusian monastic order or the Franciscans, and followed a number of ascetic and spiritual practices throughout his life – such as fasting, corporal mortification, and a regular rule of prayer – as means of growing in holiness.
In 1504, however, More was elected to Parliament. He gave up his monastic ambitions, though not his disciplined spiritual life, and married Jane Colt of Essex. They were happily married for several years and had four children together, though Jane tragically died in childbirth in 1511. Shortly after her death, More married a widow named Alice Middleton, who proved to be a devoted wife and mother.
Two years earlier, in 1509, King Henry VIII had acceded to the throne. For years, the king showed fondness for Thomas, working to further his career as a public servant. He became a part of the king’s inner circle, eventually overseeing the English court system as Lord Chancellor. More even authored a book published in Henry’s name, defending Catholic doctrine against Martin Luther.
More’s eventual martyrdom would come as a consequence of Henry VIII’s own tragic downfall. The king wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a marriage that Pope Clement VII declared to be valid and indissoluble. By 1532, More had resigned as Lord Chancellor, refusing to support the king’s efforts to defy the Pope and control the Church.
In 1534, Henry VIII declared that every subject of the British crown would have to swear an oath affirming the validity of his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. Refusal of these demands would be regarded as treason against the state.
In April of that year, a royal commission summoned Thomas to force him to take the oath affirming the King’s new marriage as valid. While accepting certain portions of the act which pertained to Henry’s royal line of succession, he could not accept the king’s defiance of papal authority on the marriage question. More was taken from his wife and children, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
For 15 months, More’s wife and several friends tried to convince him to take the oath and save his life, but he refused. In 1535, while More was imprisoned, an act of Parliament came into effect declaring Henry VIII to be “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” once again under penalty of treason. Members of the clergy who would not take the oath began to be executed.
In June of 1535, More was finally indicted and formally tried for the crime of treason in Westminster Hall. He was charged with opposing the king’s “Act of Supremacy” in private conversations which he insisted had never occurred. But after his defense failed, and he was sentenced to death, he finally spoke out in open opposition to what he had previously opposed through silence and refusal.
More explained that Henry’s Act of Supremacy, was contrary “to the laws of God and his holy Church.” He explained that “no temporal prince” could take away the prerogatives that belonged to St. Peter and his successors according to the words of Christ. When he was told that most of the English bishops had accepted the king’s order, More replied that the saints in heaven did not accept it.
On July 7, 1535, the 57-year-old More came before the executioner to be beheaded. “I die the king’s good servant,” he told the onlookers, “but God’s first.” His head was displayed on London Bridge, but later returned to his daughter Margaret who preserved it as a holy relic of her father.
St. Thomas More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI. The Academy Award-winning film “A Man For All Seasons” portrayed the events that led to his martyrdom.
St. Thomas More is patron of adopted children; the diocese of Arlington, Virginia; civil servants; court clerks; difficult marriages; large families; lawyers; diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee Florida; politicians; politicos; statesmen; step-parents; and widowers.
John Fisher was born at Beverly, Yorkshire, England in 1469. He was chaplain to the mother of Henry VIII and chancellor of Cambridge University before being elevated to the bishopric of Rochester in 1504. He counted Thomas More among his friends. John Fisher and his friend Saint Thomas More gave up their lives in testimony to the unity of the Church and to the indissolubility of marriage. John Fisher opposed the divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and the constitution of the so-called Anglican Church. Because he refused to swear an oath affirming the supremacy of the king as Supreme Head of the church of England, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he received the title of Cardinal granted him by Pope Paul III. He was condemned to death by torture, but this penalty was changed to beheading because the 66-year-old Cardinal was ill and too weak to endure torture. He was martyred on June 22, 1535 and buried in the churchyard of All Hallows, Barking, without rites or a shroud. His head was exhibited on London Bridge for two weeks as an example, then thrown into the River Thames. His relics are kept in Saint Peter’s Church in the Tower of London. He was beatified in 1888 and canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.
St. John Fisher is the patron of the Diocese of Rochester, New York.
“I condemn no other man’s conscience: their conscience may save them, and mine must save me. We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.”
~ St. John Fisher