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Excerpts, Part 20: The Trial of John Fisher

By 17 June the doctors had patched him up enough to make the journey to Westminster Hall for his trial on that date. For the first time since his imprisonment, he came out of the Tower, clad in a black cloth gown, and riding on a horse:

He was surrounded by a number of men bearing glaives and halberts, bills and other weapons about him, preceded by the executioner bearing the axe on his shoulder, the edge turned from him, as the manner is.

The escort soon saw that their prisoner was too weak even to ride, and they turned aside to the Thames and brought him the rest of the way by water. "It was a corpse." says Reginald Pole, "rather than the body of a living man, which they delivered to the Commissioners." The cardinal's trial seemed to revive him, but its outcome was a foregone conclusion:

Being present before the commissioners he was commanded by the name of John Fisher, late of Rochester, clerk, otherwise called John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to hold up his hand, which he did with a most cheerful countenance and rare constancy.

The charge against him was that:

He falsely, maliciously, and traitorously wished, willed, and desired, and by craft imagined, invented, practised, and attempted to deprive the king of the dignity, title, and name of his royal estate, that is of his title and name of supreme head of the church of England, in the Tower, on 7th day of May last, when, contrary to his allegiance, he said and pronounced, in the presence of different true subjects, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously, these words: "The king our sovereign lord is not supreme head on earth of the church of England."

Rich, the Solicitor-General, was the main witness for the prosecution. He admitted to having played the part of an agent provocateur when he had visited the bishop in the Tower with the confidential message from the king, and he gave Fisher's denial of the Royal Supremacy in evidence against him despite the solemn promise given to him in the name of the king that this would not happen. The cardinal protested indignantly at Rich's treacherous conduct:

Now my lords, what a monstrous matter is this, to lay now to my charge as treason the thing which I spake not until, besides this man's oath, I had as full and as sure a promise from the king, by this his trusty and sure messenger, as the king could make me by word of mouth, that I should never be impeached nor hurt by mine answer that I should send unto him by this his messenger, which I would never have spoken had it not been in trust of my prince's promise and of my true and loving heart towards him, my natural liege lord, in satisfying him with a declaration of mine opinion and conscience in this matter, as he earnestly required me by this messenger to signify plainly unto him.

Fisher insisted that as Rich had admitted that he had used deceit and invoked the name of the king his testimony should be deemed inadmissible and, in any case, no malice had been involved in his response:
And besides, this the very statute that maketh the speaking against the king's supremacy treason, is only and precisely limited where such speech is spoken maliciously. And now all ye, my lords, perceive plainly that in my uttering and signifying unto the king of mine opinion and conscience, as touching this his claim of supremacy in the church of England, in such sort as I did, as ye have heard, there was no manner of malice in me at all, and so I committed no treason.

His judges replied that the word "maliciously" was of no significance ("of none effect") because no one "could speak against the king's supremacy by any manner or means but that speaking against it was treason; and also that message or promise to him from the king himself neither could, nor did, by rigour of our law in any wise discharge him, but that in so declaring his mind and conscience against the king's supremacy, though it were even at the king's own commandment and request, he by the statute committed treason, and nothing might discharge him now of the cruel penalty of death appointed by the statute of speaking against the king's supremacy, howsoever the words were spoken, but only the king's pardon, if it would please his grace to grant it him."

The fact that the trial was a complete sham, and that the judges were not there to administer justice but to execute the vengeance of the king, was made clear when the cardinal was told by Audley, the Chancellor, that he was not there "to dispute, but to hear his sentence of death for transgressing maliciously the statutes of the kingdom, by which the king was head of the English Church". The cardinal made a brave, straightforward answer. He had not contradicted those statutes maliciously, but with truth and holy intention, as they were opposed to Scriptures and to our Faith. There was no equivocation in that reply.

The jury of twelve men dutifully brought in their verdict that the cardinal was guilty of treason. As Fisher had been deprived of his bishopric he was treated as a commoner and condemned to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Then immediately upon this verdict that same Thursday, the 17th day of June, was like judgement of treason given against him as was given against the holy Carthusians, of drawing, hanging, cutting down alive, throwing to the ground, his bowels to be taken out of his belly, and be burnt, he being alive, and his head to be cut off: and his body to be divided into four parts, and his head and quarters to be put where the king should appoint. As he listened to the dreadful sentence which condemned him to a traitor's death, he stood erect and the colour rushed into his sunken cheeks, His escort closed around him, to take him back to the Tower. But he still had something to say.

My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King's supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, Who is the searcher both of the king his Majesty's conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the king's supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the king will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and harken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm and the quietness of all Christendom.

This was giving the lie direct to Henry who had promised the bishops that he would claim no authority which his predecessors had not exercised. The savage sentence imposed upon the cardinal was later commuted by the king to beheading:

And the cause why he was but only beheaded, was (as men say) not for any pity or compassion that this cruel king had on this innocent virtuous bishop, but for that the king thought that if he should be drawn on a hurdle through London to the place of execution, as the Carthusians were, it were likely that he, being aged, sick and very weak, should die by the way; which the king is no wise would, but that the bishop should suffer death by open and public execution, to the terror of all other bishops and learned divines that should grudge and repine at his supremacy.

The Saint did not know that his sentence would be modified when he heard the verdict (one tradition states that he was not given the news until the day of his execution). So noble was his bearing when he heard the sentence pronounced, and so manifestly unjust the case against him, based solely on evidence which Rich admitted had been obtained by perjury, that it caused ". . . many of them there present, and some of the judges also, so inwardly to lament, that their eyes burst out with tears to see such a great famous clerk and virtuous bishop to be condemned to so cruel a death by such impious laws and by such an unlawful and detestable witness, contrary to all human honesty and fidelity and the word and promise of the king himself.

It was a relief to the judges when the escort closed round the cardinal and led him away "with a great number of officers and men bearing halberds and weapons about him and before him and behind him, with the axe of the Tower borne all the way before him, the edge towards him, as the fashion is in England when any condemned of treason is brought from judgement." Fisher seemed to have found new strength now that his fate had been settled, although he could never have been in any doubt as to what it would be. His new-found strength was such that they did not need to return by the river; he walked some of the way and rode the rest. And when they came to the Tower moat, a crowd of grieving men and women were following behind, making a triumphal procession of his return. They begged his blessing as if they had been his own people of Rochester, and smilingly he gave it, speaking the following words: "I thank you, masters all, for the pains ye have taken this day in going and coming from hence to Westminster and hither again." A contemporary account continues:

And this spake he with so lusty a courage and so amiable a countenance and his colour so well come to him as though he had come from a great and honourable feast. And his gesture and his behaviour showed such a certain inward gladness in his heart that any man might easily see that he joyously longed and looked for the bliss and joys of Heaven, and that he inwardly rejoiced that he was so near unto his death for Christ's cause.

On 19 June, two days after the trial of Fisher, as was mentioned supra, three more Carthusian monks were executed at Tyburn.


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