The Tudor Society

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (1469-1535)

John Fisher was born in the town of Beverley in North Yorkshire and was the son of Robert Fisher who was a mercer of Beverley and his wife, Agnes. Although not a lot is known about the childhood of John Fisher, we do know that when John was eight years old, his father died and his mother married a man named William White. During his mother’s marriage to William White, she had five more children, and John appeared to maintain a close relationship with all of his siblings. It is believed that John was educated in the school attached to the church in Beverley, but we do not know for certain.

Regardless of where he spent his early education, we know that in the 1480s Fisher went to the University of Cambridge where he graduated from his BA in 1488 and his MA in 1491. Fisher also became a fellow of Michaelhouse during his time at Cambridge and was ordained as a priest in 1491 in York, receiving papal dispensation for this as he was under the canonical age at the time. (Fisher also became the Vicar of Northallerton in North Yorkshire, a fact I found particularly interesting as I live very near there and never knew this!)

John Fisher had a blossoming career at Cambridge University serving as the senior proctor during the academic year of 1494-5. During this time, he visited the king’s court at Greenwich, and it was here that he met Lady Margaret Beaufort, a meeting which would change his life and the course of history.

Following his meeting with Lady Margaret Beaufort, he was soon recruited to her service, eventually becoming her spiritual director. However, his appointment to the service of Margaret Beaufort did not stop him from being involved in university lie. He continued to lecture in the 1490s, and he took his doctorate in Theology in the early 1500s. In 1501 he was elected as vice-chancellor of the university and in 1502 Fisher also became the first incumbent of the ‘Professorship of Divinity’ founded at Cambridge by Margaret Beaufort. Margaret Beaufort was not his only royal connection, however, as Fisher was eventually introduced to Henry VII. The latter made him the Bishop of Rochester in 1504, consecrated on the 24th of November that same year. This sudden elevation was echoed by Cambridge University who elected him as chancellor soon after, a post he was to hold until 1514 when the university offered the position to Wolsey. However, following Wolsey’s rejection of the position, the post was granted to Fisher for the duration of his life.

Fisher utilised his royal connections well when serving as chancellor and Margaret Beaufort lavished attention on Cambridge, founding Christ’s College and St John’s College and staffing her household with Cambridge graduates. It is unknown to what extent his influence steered Margaret’s attention on Cambridge, but, certainly, Cambridge benefitted greatly from her attentions. Fisher himself, however, is to be credited with bringing ‘Renaissance humanism’ to Cambridge, evidenced when Erasmus came to Cambridge to lecture Greek and Theology in 1511. Erasmus resided at Queen’s College Cambridge from 1511 until 1514, and his arrival there signified the academic prowess and importance of Cambridge. Fisher also established St John’s College at Cambridge and though formally founded in 1511, it wasn’t officially open for business until 1516.

Although Fisher was busy at Cambridge, this did not stop him from performing his duties as the Bishop of Rochester, something which he did with impressive regularity. Erasmus himself admired Fisher's dedication to his appointment as bishop, seen by many as merely a stepping stone to greater power. His dedication is, however, noteworthy, as Fisher personally carried out all ordinations, presided in person at abbatial elections, and performed the sacramental and ceremonial functions in these services himself during his time as bishop, something other bishops tended to delegate to other church officials. He also travelled around the diocese frequently and held formal visitations around every three years. His diocese was full of graduates, particularly Cambridge graduates, which further indicates his involvement in clerical appointments and ordinations. Fisher also preached a lot during his time as bishop and he frequently preached at public occasions such as the funeral of Henry VII and the promulgation of the papal bull against Martin Luther and the ‘heresy’ that was sweeping through Europe. His dislike of heresy was prominent, and he actively spoke out against Martin Luther and preached at Cambridge about the dangerous nature of heresy. He even dabbled in writing polemics against Luther such as Defensio regiae assertionis.

John Fisher's life, however, was about to take a drastic turn for the worse in the 1520s when Henry VIII decided to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Fisher was consulted about the divorce and the theological reasoning behind it in 1527; however, he made a major mistake. Fisher, thinking naïvely that this matter was about the king’s conscience, was adamant that the papal dispensation allowing the marriage between Henry and Katherine was more than enough to hold off eternal damnation. What Fisher didn’t know is that this was the wrong answer. His involvement at the beginning, however, was largely theological and at that time his mistake wasn’t viewed as overtly grievous. But the longer the ‘Great Matter’ dragged on, the more Fisher became embroiled and in the summer of 1529 at Blackfriars, Fisher was outspoken in his defence of the marriage and stated he would be willing to die for the sanctity of marriage. This again was the wrong answer.

Having publicly stated his support of Katherine, Fisher became a large thorn in the side of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and following the beginning of the Reformation, Fisher refused to acknowledge Henry as the head of the Church. His staunch opposition led to an attempted poisoning, but fortunately for him, Fisher skipped his evening meal that night and survived the assassination attempt. Fisher continued to voice his objection, involving himself in the politicised ramblings of Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent. Fisher also involved himself with Emperor Charles V via Eustace Chapuys, aiding their opposition of the divorce, and he was eventually arrested in 1534 after the confession of the Holy Maid of Kent.

Following his arrest, Fisher still refused to sign the oath of succession and he was placed in the Tower of London. He continued to object to all attempts to persuade him to Henry VIII's cause, and his final rejection of the king as the supreme head of the church sealed his fate. On 22nd June 1535, John Fisher was beheaded. His death was treated as a martyrdom by the Catholic Church, and he became a revered figure. He was eventually canonised by the Catholic Church in 1935.

by Georgia Whitehead.

Georgia has just finished her masters in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. Academically, Georgia is interested in early Christianity, with her master's thesis focusing on "The Male Gaze and Self-Representation in Female Christian Narratives". In addition to her interest in ancient history, she has always been an avid lover of the Tudor era, drawn to the magnificence of the Tudor courts and the larger than life characters. She is particularly interested in The Reformation, Christianity and the shifting sands of ecclesiastical politics in this period and also has a keen interest in the lives of Tudor women. It is Georgia's ambition to become a writer, perhaps publishing her own Tudor novel one day.
Georgia also runs a history blog and instagram page called Historia Mundis.

Here are a couple of videos on John Fisher...

There are 3 comments Go To Comment

  1. L

    It seems that John Fisher was a pious man who was brave enough to stand up for his beliefs and not fold, despite the threat of a horrible death. This seems very much like Thomas More, who was jailed in the Tower and executed at about the same time as Fisher. Well, it was portrayed that way in “The Tudors” series, which had a “few” historical inaccuracies. It saddened me to see the elderly man sitting in a cold, grimy cell, declining in health because he could not tolerate the food. He communicated with Thomas More, in a cell above him, via his servant, who later came to More’s cell to tell him that Fisher was executed. I think they portrayed the men’s, fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and courage very well in the series.

  2. A

    Apart from his involvement with Elizabeth Barton (and many others were, so called, taken in by her John Fisher was an exemplory Engishman of his time. I believe one of his stepsisters was a Dominican Nun.

  3. A

    Yes apparently one of his stepsisters was a Dominican nun, as you say, at Dartford Priory which was the only house of Dominican nuns berfore the reformation.
    John Fisher was treated appalingly by Henry considering that the Bishop had been the confessor of Henry’s grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort. But then again Henry was a horrid individual and very vindictive. It is estimated that around 70,000 persons were executed during his reign.

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John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (1469-1535)