BY MICHAEL DAVIES
The Neumann Press [$20.95]
Excerpts, Part 2: The See of Rochester
Compared with the university life of Oxford at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Cambridge was neglected and almost a backwater. But John Fisher influenced royal patronage to establish Christ's College, to implement the revenues of Queen's College, and of King's College, and to found St John's. He used the opportunity of framing their statutes to quicken the pace and change the direction of scholarship in Cambridge. He considerably enhanced the prestige of the University by persuading Erasmus to teach Greek there.
Erasmus admired the holiness of John Fisher's life, and there can have been few men that he respected more. In a letter to a priest in Rome in 1512 he wrote: "Unless I am sadly mistaken, he is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning, and for greatness of soul." In 1516 Erasmus published his Novum lnstrumentum. This was the Greek text of the New Testament with Erasmus's own translation into Latin. This work was the cause of Fisher deciding to learn Greek at the age of forty-eight, and he had the good fortune to receive his first instruction from Erasmus himself; who stayed with the bishop in Rochester for ten days in the same year. Fisher then went on to learn Hebrew. The fact that he was able to gain a good working knowledge of these languages despite his time-consuming duties as bishop, chancellor, and counsellor to the king provides a striking indication of his tenacity of purpose.
Fisher realized that the Church in England was in great need of more good preachers and better training for the clergy. Very few priests and few bishops possessed a solid grounding in theology, and the parish clergy could not pass on to their flocks what they themselves did not possess. It must be borne in mind that the seminary system was not instituted until after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). In 1502 Fisher obtained a papal bull giving Cambridge the privilege of appointing twelve preachers from the university, who were authorized to preach anywhere in the country: In 1503 Fisher persuaded his royal patron to endow Lady Margaret readerships in Divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge. In 1504 a preachership was established at Cambridge, the selected priest preaching sermons in London and in the churches of Lady Margaret's many manors. John Fisher undertook this work himself when time permitted until his episcopal consecration in November that year. Lady Margaret paid for the printing by Wynkyn de Worde 5 of a series of sermons that her confessor preached before her on the Penitential Psalms. 6 The book was reprinted frequently during the Saint's lifetime and is of particular interest as the first publication in which an English translation of the Scriptures was used.
John Fisher's service to Cambridge did not cease with his eventual appointment to the See of Rochester. And to its credit Cambridge was grateful:
The king and his courts might thunder against Bishop Fisher, they might confiscate his goods and confine his person to the Tower. But until they killed him, he remained Chancellor of the University. It was a rare example of courageous loyalty in an age of time-servers. 7
BISHOP OF ROCHESTER
When the see of Rochester became vacant in 1504 King Henry decided to appoint his mother's confessor as the new bishop. He described Fisher as a man of "great and singular virtue, as well in knowledge and natural wisdom, and especially for his good and virtuous living and conversation". The king confessed that in his days he had "promoted many a man unadvisedly and would now make some recompense to promote some good and virtuous men." The first of these was John Fisher, not the man who deserved best of him, but the man who deserved best of God. It was a novel criterion which surprised the courtiers who attributed the appointment solely to Lady Margaret's influence. They were wrong. The king had been personally impressed by the priest's profound spirituality which confirmed all that his mother had told him. He stated explicitly that his mother had played no direct role in his choice of Fisher:
Forsooth, indeed the modesty of the man together with my mother's silence speaks in his behalf. I protest she has never so much as opened her mouth to me on the subject; his pure devotion, perfect sanctity, and great learning, which I have myself often observed, and have heard others speak of, are his only advocates.
By a Bull dated 14 October, 1504, John Fisher was advanced to the see of Rochester and was consecrated on 24 November in the same year at the age of thirty-five. As a bishop he was a member of Convocation, of the House of Lords, and of the King's Council. He remained Chancellor of Cambridge University, and for the first years confessor to Lady Margaret. He carried out each of these duties with scrupulous care and unlike most bishops of his day he did not seek preferment in Church or State, nor did he build up numerous benefices to supplement his income, and staff them with poorly paid curates. The bishop had great compassion for the poor, and spoke of:
The labourer when he is at plough tilling his ground, and when he goes to his pastures to see his cattle, or when he is sitting at home by the fireside, or else when he lies in bed waking and cannot sleep. And the poor women also in their business, when they be spinning of their staffs or serving of their poultry.
The year 1509 was a significant one in the life of the Saint. Both Henry VII and his mother Lady Margaret died, and John Fisher, acknowledged as one of the greatest preachers of his day, preached the funeral sermon for the king and the sermon for her month's mind for his mother. Lady Margaret was buried in Westminster Abbey, and the gilt-bronze figure on her tomb is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiano. The epitaph was composed by Erasmus for which Fisher paid him twenty shillings. The iron screen was donated by the grateful St. John's College in 1529.
5. Wynkyn de Worde, who was born in Holland or Alsace, was a pupil of William Caxton. In 1491 he succeeded to his stock in trade in Westminster and in 1500 moved to Fleet Street He made great improvements in the quality of printing and typecutting, including the use of italic, and printed hundreds of books.
6. In the Vulgate, and Douai Bibles, the Penitential Psalms are 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142.
7. Smith, op. cit., p. 3.
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