The Tudor Society

22 December – Bishop Fisher begs for a shirt

On this day in Tudor history, 22nd December 1534, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who was a prisoner in the Tower of London, wrote to Thomas Cromwell.

In his letter to Cromwell, the poor bishop begged him for a shirt, sheet, food and books, as well as asking him to intercede with King Henry VIII on his behalf.

It is so sad that a man who had served the king so loyally in the past had come to this, and, of course, the king's mercy would only stretch to commuting his method of execution to beheading.

Here's the video regarding Bishop Fisher being tricked:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1480 – Baptism of Sir Edward Chamberlayne, soldier, a leading member of Oxfordshire gentry and Commissioner of the Peace for Oxfordshire (1506-1539) at Weston in Northamptonshire.
  • 1541 - Members of the Howard and Tilney family, plus their staff, were tried for misprision of treason for covering up the “unlawful, carnal, voluptuous, and licentious life” of Queen Catherine Howard while she lived with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at Lambeth.
  • 1545 – Birth of George Bannatyne, compiler of the “Bannatyne Manuscript”, at Edinburgh. The “Bannatyne Manuscript” is an anthology of Scots literature and included poems by Bannatyne, Alexander Montgomerie, Alexander Scott, David Lyndsay, William Dunbar, Robert Henryson and King James I.
  • 1557 – Burnings of John Rough and Margaret Mearing, Protestant martyrs, at Smithfield for heresy.
  • 1558 (22nd or 28th) – Death of John Christopherson, Bishop of Chichester. He was buried at Christchurch, Newgate Street. He had been put under house arrest following his definition of Protestantism as “a new invention of new men and heresies” on 27th November 1558, preached in response to a sermon at Paul's Cross.


On this day in Tudor history, 22nd December 1534, an imprisoned John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, beseeching him to provide him with a shirt and sheet (neither of which he had), some food, some books “to stir his devotion more effectually” and a priest to hear his confession. He also asked Cromwell to intercede with the King and to “move” him to release Fisher.

Here is the record of his letter from Letters and Papers:
“John [Fisher] Bishop of Rochester to [Cromwell].
Does not wish to displease the King. When last before him and the other commissioners he swore to the part concerning the succession for the reason he then gave, but refused to swear to some other parts, because his conscience would not allow him to do so. “I beseech you to be good master unto me in my necessity, for I have neither shirt nor sheet nor yet other clothes that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent too shamefully. Notwithstanding, I might easily suffer that if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also God knows how slender it is at many times. And now in mine age my stomach may not away but with a few kind of meats, which if I want I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health.” His brother provides for him out of his own purse, to his great hindrance. Beseeches him to pity him, and move the King to take him into favor and release him from this cold and painful imprisonment. Desires to have a priest within the Tower to hear his confession “against this holy time;” and some books to stir his devotion more effectually. Wishes him a merry Christmas. At the Tower, 22 Dec.”

Fisher had been arrested on 26th April 1534 for refusing to take the Oath of Succession and accept King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. I’ll give you a link to my talk from 7th May about how the bishop was tricked into speaking against the king. The Pope tried to save Fisher by making him Cardinal-Priest of San Vitale (a member of the College of Cardinals), but this simply provoked the king and Richard Rex, in his book “Henry VIII”, writes of how Henry joked that Fisher would have to wear the Cardinal’s red hat on his shoulders, i.e. he would have no head on which to place it.

What is so chilling about the imprisonment and execution of John Fisher is that he was once a good friend of the king and it was he who, at the king’s command, preached a sermon against Martin Luther at St Paul’s Cross on the 11th February 1526. His undoing was his support of Catherine of Aragon during the Great Matter. He appeared on Catherine’s behalf at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, and spoke out against the king and the divorce, comparing himself to St John the Baptist, saying that he “regarded it as impossible for him to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage”.

John Fisher was kept in the Tower of London from April 1534 until his death and during that time he was denied a priest and had to rely on friends and servants to bring him food. He was executed on 22nd June 1535, over a year after his arrest. Although he had been condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the king, in his ‘mercy’, commuted his sentence to beheading.
He was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and then canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius X.

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22 December – Bishop Fisher begs for a shirt