BY MICHAEL DAVIES
The Neumann Press [$20.95]
Excerpts, Part 1: Early Years
In 1469, the exact date is not known, a son was born to Robert, a prosperous mercer (dealer in textile fabrics), and Agnes Fisher who lived in Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the heart of the plain which stretches eastward to the broad waters of the Humber. The town was dominated then, as it is today, by its minster, the collegiate church of St. John of Beverley. It was, at that time, one of the most prosperous cloth-making and marketing towns in England, and famous for its mystery plays. Robert and Agnes named their son John. He had been born during one of the most tumultuous periods of the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster. "The life of Fisher began amidst the horrors of civil war, and ended amid the horrors, far greater to a soul like his, of religious rebellion and impiety." 1 In 1471, two years after John's birth, the saintly Lancastrian king, Henry VI, who had been deposed and then restored, was murdered in the Tower of London and replaced by the Yorkist king, Edward IV: Edward died in 1483 and the throne was eventually seized by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III), after he had disposed of those with a better claim, including his brother's two sons, the thirteen year old Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York (the princes in the Tower). The Lancastrians gave their support to Henry Tudor, a Welsh nobleman who had a somewhat dubious claim to the throne through his mother, the remarkable Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was to become the patron of John Fisher. Henry fled to Brittany to avoid being murdered by King Richard's agents. He landed at Milford Haven in Wales in 1485, marched into England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard was killed by Rhys ap Thomas, a Welsh gentleman who was knighted by the new king, now Henry VII, in recognition of this service. The accession ot Henry VII brought the disastrous Wars of the Roses to an end and gave the country a much needed period of firm government and stability.
Robert Fisher died in 1477 when John was only eight years old, leaving his widow financially well off. Four children were mentioned in his will, but the only two of whom anything is known are John and his brother Robert, who became his steward at Rochester. There was at least one sister who married a man named Edward White, but not even her name is known. Agnes Fisher remarried, and her new husband, Thomas White, a merchant, treated John as his own son and gave him the best education Beverley could provide. Four children were born of Agnes' second marriage. There were three boys, two of whom, John and Thomas, became merchants, and the third, Richard, became a priest The daughter, named Elizabeth, became a Dominican nun. It was for this half sister that, while a prisoner in the Tower of London, John wrote A Spiritual Consolation and The Ways to Perfect Religion. Elizabeth refused to take the Oath of Supremacy in the reign of Elizabeth, and went to live out the remainder of her life in a poor monastery on what was then the Island of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Of her life there and her death nothing is known.
A BRILLIANT SCHOLAR
The young John Fisher proved himself so brilliant a pupil at the local grammar school attached to the minster that in 1483 he went up to Cambridge at the age of fourteen. This was the year when Richard III seized the throne. John was a tall, lanky lad who, as a man, was over six feet in height "exceeding the common and middle sort of men". His forehead was smooth and large, his nose of a good and even proportion. His hair was auburn, his eyes were grey, and his face was serious. His habitual expression in later life was described as one of "reverend gravity". John was devoted to scholarship, but his later writings show that his interests extended well beyond book learning. His sermons and writings show that he had a deep love of the English countryside. Hunting was one of the rare relaxations that he permitted himself as a bishop while his health allowed.
When he was a prisoner in the Tower, after years at the University, in the household of the greatest lady in the land, as bishop and member of the King's Council, none of these experiences seem tohave made so deep an impression on his mind as the sight of a blackthorn blossoming in May, of parched grass springing green again with the first heavy shower, of a huntsman treading the fallows, running over hedges and creeping through thick bushes while he calls all the day long upon his dogs. To the end of his life, John Fisher was a countryman as well as a scholar. 2
John liked to spend his day in the company of Our Lady. He would say: "Therefore let us go into this mild morning, our Blessed Lady Virgin Mary."
His career in the University was all that the most optimistic of his grammar school masters could have hoped. His college was Michael House (later incorporated with Trinity College). He obtained his degrees in the least possible time and with great distinction. He received his BA in 1487; in 1491 he became a Master of Arts, a Fellow of Michael House, and was ordained to the priesthood at York on 17 December at the age of twenty-two. A papal dispensation had been necessary for his ordination while under the canonical age. 3
In 1501 he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity and was elected Vice-Chancellor of the University, after having been elected Master of Michael House and Proctor. In 1504 he was elected Chancellor of the University, and was re-elected annually until 1514 when he received the unique distinction of being elected Chancellor for life. Cambridge owes him an immense debt for those years of service.
In 1494 John Fisher went to London with a colleague to obtain influential support for the university in a dispute with the town. The most important aspect of these negotiations was that they made it necessary for him to visit the court at Greenwich which brought him to the attention of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. The Proctor's book still contains the note of the expenses for the journey in his own handwriting: "For the hire of two horses for 11 days, 7 shillings; for breakfast before passing to Greenwich, 3 pence; boat hire, 4 pence. I dined with the lady, mother of the king."
LADY MARGARET BEAUFORT
Lady Margaret was the mother of King Henry VII, who had a great respect for her. She had a deep devotion to the Church and a great love of learning. She was a patron of the relatively new printing press. Caxton had produced the first book printed in England when John Fisher was eight years old. She very soon came to appreciate the exceptional worth of the young priest, and asked him to be her confessor. He was able to say in all sincerity in a letter written in 15Z7: "Though she chose me as her director to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I gladly confess that I learned more from her great virtue than ever I could teach her." Under his guidance Lady Margaret was to do a great deal for religion and scholarship. The depth of her religious devotion can be gauged from Fisher's reference to it in his oration for her Month's Mind: 4
In prayer every day at her uprising, which commonly was not long after five of the clock, she began certain devotions, and after them, with one of her gentlewomen, the matins of Our Lady, then she came into her closet, where, with her chaplain, she said also matins of the day, and after that daily heard four masses on her knees, so continuing in prayer until the hour of dinner, which on the eating day was ten o'clock, and on the fasting day eleven.
After dinner full truly she would go to her stations to three altars daily, and daily her dirges and commendations she would say, and her Evensong before supper; both of the days of Our Lady, besides many other prayers and psalters of David through the year, and at night before she went to bed she failed not to resort unto her chapel, and a large quarter of an hour to engage in her devotions. No marvel all this long time her kneeling was to her painful, that many times it caused in her back pain and disease, nonetheless when she was in health she failed not to say the Crown of Our Lady, which containeth sixty and three Aves, and at every Ave a kneeling, and as for meditation she had divers books in French wherewith she occupied herself when weary in prayer, wherefore divers she did translate into English.
1. T.E. Bridgett, Life of John Fisher (London, 1888), p.5.
2. R.L. Smith, Saint John Fisher (London, 1954), p.1.
3. The entry in Archbishop Rotherham's Register reads:
17 Dec. 1491
Mr. Joh. Fysher artium M. Socius domus sive hospicii Sancti Michaelis Cantibrig.
ad titulum societas (sic) sue.
4. Month's Mind: The Requiem Mass celebrated on the 30th day after death.
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