John Fisher



Simon Kershaw traces the life of John Fisher, a remarkable man who brought scholarship and prosperity to Cambridge University, but whose life was cut short after an argument with the King.

John Fisher was a famous preacher, scholar and theologian of European reputation, who introduced major reforms into the University of Cambridge. But eventually his theology brought him to the scaffold where he was executed for treason after falling out with Henry VIII.

Fisher was born in 1469 in Yorkshire. At the age of 13, he began to study at Cambridge. In 1491, after receiving his MA, he was ordained, and continued his academic career. He became Vice-Chancellor when he was only 32, and three years later Chancellor, a position he was repeatedly elected to, until in 1514 he was elected Chancellor for life.

He was confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and he directed her wealth and influence to the reform of the University. Two new colleges, Christ’s and St John’s, were founded, as were the positions of Reader in Divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Fisher was the first to fill the divinity chair at Cambridge. He endowed scholarships, provided for Greek and Hebrew in the curriculum, and engaged his friend, the famous humanist, Erasmus, as a professor of divinity and Greek at a time when the university's scholarship was at its lowest ebb.

In 1504 he was made Bishop of Rochester, and a few years later preached the sermon at the funerals of Henry VII, and of his patron, Lady Margaret. He helped Henry VIII in his defence of the Catholic Church against the reformers, a defence which earned Henry the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the Pope.

It was when Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon that Fisher incurred the King’s wrath. Fisher refused to accept that the marriage was invalid and he preached publicly on the matter.

Eventually Parliament passed the Act of Succession, requiring clergy to acknowledge the legitimacy of the children of the King and Ann Boleyn. Fisher refused and was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534. In May 1535 the new pope, Paul III, created Fisher a Cardinal, but the following month he was tried for treason and executed by beheading on 22 June, aged 66.

Two weeks later, his friend Sir Thomas More was executed on the same charge. They are commemorated together in the liturgical calendar on that day, 6 July.

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John Fisher