The Tudor Society

20 May – A cardinal’s hat for a headless man

On this day in Tudor history, 20th May 1535, Pope Paul III made John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Cardinal-Priest of San Vitale, and arranged to have his cardinal's hat sent to him.

The pope hoped that this would save Fisher, who was imprisoned at the time, from further punishment, but it made the king even more determined to behead Bishop Fisher. Oh dear!

Find out more about what happened in today's talk.

Hall’s Life of Fisher can be read at

Also on this day in Tudor history, 20th May 1579, wheelwright Matthew Hamont was executed for heresy in the city of Norwich. What had led to Hamont being charged with heresy? And what exactly was so heretical about his beliefs? Find out in last year’s video:

And on this day in 1536, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour became betrothed:

Other videos on Bishop Fisher:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1512 – Alain de Chantrezac wrote to M. D'Aumont from Caen regarding a rumour of an English invasion: “Persistent rumour of invasion from England. One who came thence ten days ago says the men are ready but the ships cannot be so till the end of this month. The King will land at Calais, part of his army in Normandy and the rest at Fontarabie. Their 120 or 140 ships seem few for so large an army. The French victory beyond the Mountains and their distrust of Scotland cool the English somewhat; but the young Councillors, by whom the King is ruled, advise this invasion. English ships (15 or 16) have taken a bark of Dieppe and some fishing boats.”
  • 1573 – Death of Robert Weston, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, in Dublin. He was buried beneath the altar in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
  • 1598 – Death of John Bullingham, Bishop of Gloucester. He died in Kensington and was buried in Gloucester Cathedral.
  • 1620 – Burial of Mary Honywood (née Waters), “sustainer of protestant martyrs”. She died at Marks Hall and was buried at Lenham in Kent.
  • 1935 – Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas More were canonised by Pope Pius XI.


On this day in Tudor history, 20th May 1535, Pope Paul III made John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Cardinal-Priest of San Vitale.
Fisher was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time. He’d been arrested on 26th April 1534 after refusing to take the oath of succession and then, on 7th May 1535, during a visit from Thomas Cromwell and members of the king’s council, he had allegedly refused to recognise Henry VIII as the supreme head of the church in England.

The poor bishop, who was around sixty-five years of age by this time, was kept in the Tower in appalling conditions. If you listened to my talk for 22nd December, you might remember me talking about the bishop writing to Cromwell for a shirt and sheet, neither of which he had, and food, books, and a priest to hear his confession. It is so sad that a man who had served Henry VIII’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, as chaplain and confessor, had come to this.

Richard Hall, Fisher’s 16th century biographer, explains why Pope Paul III decided to make the imprisoned bishop a cardinal, writing:
“It fell out in the meane time that Pope Paul the third of blessed memorie, hearing much of the great constancie of this blessed man, as well before his imprisonment, as now in all the time of his hard restraint, was disposed to advaunce him to a higher dignitie and place accordinge to his great worthines and deserve, thinkinge that by reason of this kinde of advauncment the kinge would have shewed him more clemencie, and lefte of further working him trooble and daunger, for his great dignities sake.”

However, it completely backfired. The cardinal’s hat was sent from Rome and Hall writes of how the king became furious when he was told that the hat had reached Calais. To Thomas Cromwell, the king fumed: “Well, let the Pope send him a hat when he will, but I will so provide that when soever it commeth, he shall wear it on his shoulders, for head he shall have none to sett it on”. The imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, recorded that the king “declared in anger several times that he would give him another hat, and send the head afterwards to Rome for the cardinal’s hat.”

By trying to help the bishop, the pope had angered the king even more and made him determined to make Fisher suffer. The bishop was tried at Westminster Hall for treason on 17th June 1535 and condemned to death, to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. However, his sentence was commuted to beheading. Henry VIII was worried that the people were comparing the bishop to his namesake St John the Baptist, a man who had challenged King Herod’s marriage, so he was keen for Fisher to die before the 24th June, the Feast of St John the Baptist. Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill on 22nd June 1535, and his body left on the scaffold for hours before it was thrown into a grave in the nearby church of All Hallows. Fisher’s body was eventually buried at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.

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20 May – A cardinal’s hat for a headless man