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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Alone of thy peers"

Today is the feast day of one of my patrons, St John Fisher, who is also one of my favourite saints. He shares the day with the great St Thomas More who tends to secure more attention so I make no apology for focussing on the holy Bishop of Rochester. There are some famous episodes from his life such as the reply that he gave to Bishops Stokesley, Gardiner and Tunstal, whom Thomas Cromwell had sent to the Tower to persuade him to submit to King Henry VIII, which includes the memorable words: "The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it." There is also King Henry's outburst on hearing the news that Pope Paul III had created Fisher a Cardinal. (See my post for the feast day in 2006)

This year, I have searched out another episode in Fisher's life. In 1529 King Henry issued a warrant to permit the legatine court to open at Blackfriars, near the palace of Bridewell. The King's purpose was to deny the legitimacy of the papal dispensation given for him to marry Queen Catherine of Aragon and thus to pave the way for his marriage to Anne Boleyn. At one point, the King made a show of piety in setting out the counsel that he had received from the Bishops. The King and the Bishops then attempted to steamroller Bishop Fisher. Here is the account of what happened
[King Henry VIII] “I moved first this matter in confession to you, my Lord of Lincoln, my ghostly father. And yourself moved me to ask farther counsel of all you my lords; wherein I moved you first my Lord of Canterbury, to put this matter in question; and so I did of all you my lords, to the which ye have all granted by writing under all your seals.”

“That is truth,” quoth the Bishop of Canterbury, “I doubt not but all my brethren here present will affirm the same.”

“No, Sir, not I,” quoth the Bishop of Rochester, “ye have not my consent thereto.”

“No ! ha’ the !” quoth the king, “look here upon this, is not this your hand with seal?” and showed him the instrument and seals.

“No forsooth, Sire,” quoth the Bishop of Rochester, “it is not my hand nor seal!”

“To that quoth the king to my Lord of Canterbury, “Sir, how say ye, is it not his hand and seal?”

“Yes, Sir,” quoth my Lord of Canterbury.

“That is not so,” quoth the Bishop of Rochester, “for indeed you were in hand with me to have both my hand and seal, but then I said to you, that I would never consent to no such act, for it were much against my conscience.”

“You say truth,” quoth the Bishop of Canterbury, “ but at the last ye were fully persuaded that I should for you subscribe your name, and put-to a seal, myself, and ye would allow the same.”

“All which words and matter,” quoth the Bishop of Rochester, “under your correction, my lord, and supportation of this noble audience, there is no thing more untrue.”

“Well, well,” quoth the king, “it shall make no matter; we will not stand with you in argument herein, for you are but one man.”
The King's dismissive guillotining of the discussion is deceptive. Fisher's opposition certainly did "make matter"; to such an extent that Henry imprisoned him and eventually executed him. St John Fisher's opposition on this occasion, in the face of every one of the other Bishops and under pressure from the unpredictably aggressive and violent King, is an outstanding example of moral courage. As Canon Byrne wrote in the John Fisher School hymn:
Alone of thy peers thou didst brook the displeasure
Of King and his court, God’s law to proclaim;
Loyal to England and Christ’s worthy vicar.
Death found thee fearless, despising the shame.
O strengthen us now.
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