On this day in 1535, the 65 year old Bishop and Cardinal John Fisher was executed for “misprision of treason”, for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. (The notoriously vengeful King had never forgiven Fisher for siding against him in the long-running dispute over his proposed divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and for arguing against him, and for the indissolubility of marriage – a principle that the Bishop swore he was prepared to die for – before the Papal Legate in Blackfriars in 1529). The Bishop had been tried and convicted at Westminster Hall on 17th June. He had originally been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 24th June, but when the King realised that this was the feast of St John the Baptist, he changed the date, reasoning that if he did not the public might forever associate John Fisher with his patronal namesake. The Bishop was eventually beheaded at Tower Hill on 22nd June (the feast of the first English Christian martyr, St Alban). His head is said to have been shown to Anne Boleyn, who had expressed a desire to see it, and it was then stuck on a pole on London Bridge.
His body was buried in All Hallows-by-the-Tower (although later reburied in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula inside the Tower).
By all accounts, the Bishop met his death in a state of anticipation that was at times almost joyous. According to one:
“[W]hen they reached the scaffold, the rough men of his escort offered to help him up the ladder. But he smiled at them: ‘Nay, … ye shall see me go up to my death well enough myself; without help’. And forthwith he began to climb, almost nimbly. As he reached the top the sun appeared from behind the clouds, and its light shone upon his face. He was heard to murmur some words from Psalm 33 … . The masked headsman knelt … to ask his pardon. And again the cardinal’s manliness dictated every word of his answer: ‘I forgive thee with all my heart, and I trust on Our Lord Thou shalt see me die even lustily’. Then they stripped him … and … a gasp of pity went up at the sight of his … body, nothing … but skin and bones … the flesh clean wasted away; and a very image of death … . He was offered a final chance to save his life by acknowledging the royal supremacy, but … turned to the crowd, and … spoke these words: ‘Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well … , so that … I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me … with your prayers, that at the very … instant of my death’s stroke, … I then faint not in … fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and … send the king a good counsel’. The … courage of his spirit triumphing over the obvious weakness of his body, amazed them all, and a murmur of admiration was still rustling the crowd when they saw him go down on his knees and begin to pray. … Then he … put his wasted neck upon the low block”.
Bishop John Fisher is honoured as a Saint by both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, alongside Sir Thomas More. The Catholic Church beatified him in 1886, and canonised him in 1935, and celebrates his feast day on 22nd June, the day of his execution. The Church of England added him to the Calendar of Saints and Heroes in 1980, and celebrates his feast day on 6th July, the day of More’s execution.