BY MICHAEL DAVIES
The Neumann Press [$20.95]
Excerpts, Part 19: Imprisonment in the Tower
John Fisher realized that the Act of Treasons was the instrument of his death. Despite his physical weakness, despite his lowness of spirit, he could not contemplate taking such an oath or consenting in any way to the Royal Supremacy in spirituals. Twice at least the Council came to his prison to interview him, but when at length they left, he said with quiet relish that they had gone as they came. On several occasions bishops who had taken the Oath were sent to the Tower to persuade him to follow their example. In his reply to a group of six or seven he remarked:
My lords, it is no small grief to me that occasion is given to deal in such matters as these be. But it grieveth me much more to see and hear such men as you be, persuade with me therein, seeing it concerneth you in your several charges as deeply as it doth me in mine. And therefore me thinketh it had rather been all our parts to stick together in repressing these violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries, daily offered to our common mother and holy Church of Christ, than by any manner of persuasions to help or set forward the same . . . We are besieged on all sides and can hardly escape the danger of our enemy. And seeing that judgement is begone at the house of God, what hope is there left, if we fall, that the rest shall stand? The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore, seeing the matter is thus begun and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery. Wherefore seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not (by the help of God) to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king in this way, whatever may become of me; but rather here to spend out the remnant of myoId days in praying to God for him.
Fisher's health continued to deteriorate. When the Bishop of Coventry saw him in the spring of 1535, he reported to Cromwell: "Truly the man is nigh gone . . . for the body cannot bear the cloth on the back." The Saint's suffering and sadness were intensified at this time when his brother Robert died. He had been his faithful steward in Rochester and visited him regularly in the Tower without fear of the consequences.
An attempt was made to break the bishop's spirit by telling him that Sir Thomas More had taken the oath so that he now stood alone. It seems that the bishop was convinced by the allegations, but refused to condemn Sir Thomas as he attributed his surrender to concern for the future of his family. As a bishop, with no family to consider, he was not tempted to compromise in the same way, and he did not waver in his determination to refuse the oath: "I cannot in anywise possibly take it, except I should make shipwreck of my soul and conscience, and then were I fit to serve neither God nor man." Similar attempts were made to break the spirit of More by assuring him that Fisher had taken the oath. Sir Thomas refused to believe the story, but said that even if the bishop had taken the oath he would not follow his example.
As well as applying pressure on the two future Saints to induce them to take the oath, persistent efforts were made to trick them into denying the Supremacy, thus rendering themselves liable to the death penalty. Sir Thomas was too good a lawyer to fall into the trap, but John Fisher was tricked into doing so by the Solicitor General, Sir Richard Rich. Rich came to the prisoner with a secret and confidential message from the king, who claimed yet again to be tormented with scruples of conscience. On this occasion the royal conscience was troubled about the Supremacy. The scrupulous monarch wondered whether he was indeed entitled to assume this title, and he asked for advice from the one man he knew could supply him with an informed and honest answer. Rich assured the bishop that his reply would be totally confidential, for the king's ears only, and would definitely not be used against him in any future legal proceedings:
And further the king willed me truly and sincerely to assure you, and faithfully to promise you, on his honour and the word of a prince, that whatsoever your Lordship shall by me his messenger certify to be your opinion in this matter, although it be directly against the laws made for the king's supremacy, shall there none advantage thereof be taken against your Lordship, and that you shall not be impeached for your said declaration of your mind.
The bishop could have placed no reliance in the promise made by Rich, but felt that he had no alternative to informing that king that he had no right to usurp the title of Supreme Head:
He believed directly in his conscience, and knew by his learning precisely, that it was very plain by the Holy Scripture, the laws of the Church, the general counsel, and the whole faith and general practice of Christ's Catholic Church from Christ's Ascension hitherto, that the king was not, nor could be, by the laws of God, Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England.
A few days after the execution of the Carthusian Martyrs on 4 May a scroll which had been found in their cell was brought to John Fisher and read to him. It was no doubt hoped that he would make some incautious comment which could be used against him in his trial. The scroll contained the draft of a speech to be made to the judge at their trial. It read:
My Lord, you should not judge me to death this day, for if you should, you should first condemn yourself and all your predecessors. And, my Lord, if you should in detestation of this opinion, dig up the bones of all our predecessors and burn them, yet should that not turn me from the Faith.
"They be gone," murmured the Saint. "God have mercy on their souls." If he had cherished even the slightest hope or mercy from the king, the Martyrdom of the Carthusians would have destroyed it. In the same month the pope intervened dramatically by creating Fisher Cardinal Priest of Saint Vitalis. Paul III had more than one reason for his action: he could hardly have chosen a worthier man in Christendom to be a member of the Sacred College, and certainly he hoped that this elevation would protect the bishop's life. If it had any effect at all on Henry's resolution, it was only to harden his will and to hasten Fisher's condemnation: "Let the pope send him a hat when he will," said the king, "but I will so provide that whensoever it cometh, he shall wear it on his shoulders, for head shall he have none to set it on." He ordered that the cardinal should be tried. The commission for his trial was issued on 1 June, and during the early part of the month he was subjected to repeated examinations at the hands of the Council. Fisher was so ill at this time that there could be no question of his answering in court, and his death appeared so likely that there was every likelihood of his never coming to trial:
The Bishop of Rochester was so sick and feeble that he kept to his bed in the Tower, and in danger of present death. But the king sent physicians unto him to give him preservatives, that he might be able to come to his public arraignment and execution. And the charges of the king about this extraordinary physick amounted to forty pounds.
HOME---------------SAINTS----------------MICHAEL DAVIES---------------LITANY FOR THE CHURCH IN OUR TIME