John Fisher was an opponent of the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII. John Fisher was a highly placed member of the Catholic Church in England and was to pay for his beliefs with his life.
Fisher was born probably in 1469. He was the son of a merchant and would have had a comfortable upbringing. Fisher was educated at Cambridge University where he became a don. He was later appointed a Chancellor – a post he held up to 1535.
Fisher became the confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. He gained fame in Western Europe for his well-constructed arguments against Martin Luther though he himself was a reforming Humanist. Fisher was a stout defender of the doctrine of the Catholic Church but also believed, like Sir Thomas More, that some areas of day-to-day practice within the Church should be reformed. However, Fisher wanted this reform to come from the Catholic Church itself and condemned the Protestant movement and all it stood for.
When it first became known that Henry VIII was planning ways in which to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Fisher made it clear that he totally opposed such moves. He helped Catherine plan her defence and schooled her in Canon Law. Fisher produced seven publications condemning the impending divorce. He also led those in Convocation who believed that Henry was legally married to Catherine – in direct opposition to those who believed that the marriage was illegal – a ploy Henry was trying to use to justify his call for a divorce. Fisher made his stand very clear in the House of Lords – the marriage was legal and a divorce was illegal and the king had no right to push ahead with it.
Fisher was playing a very dangerous game. He made his position even more dangerous when he secretly contacted Charles V to appeal to the Emperor to use force against Henry.
In April 1534, Fisher refused to take the oath required by the Succession Act. This required Fisher to take an oath that repudiated the Pope, that declared invalid the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon and acknowledged that the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn would be the legal heirs to the throne. Several attempts were made to get Fisher to swear the oath but he refused. Under the newly passed Treason Act, his refusal was construed as treason and Fisher was put on trial charged with a crime that carried the death sentence. It was at this time that Pope Paul III made Fisher a Cardinal – a move that infuriated Henry and almost certainly condemned him to death (if he had not been already).
John Fisher was put on trial on June 17th, 1535, found guilty of treason and executed on June 22nd, 1535, at Tower Hill.
John Fisher was described in contemporary articles as saintly and scholarly. He refused to accept the chance to almost certainly save his life by refusing to take the oath required by the Succession Act. Fisher was canonised in 1935.