Friday, June 22, 2007

The Martyrdom of St. John Fisher - 22 June 1535 (By Michael Davies)

[Taken from Saint John Fisher, by Michael Davies, The Neumann Press, 1998. Also available at St. John Fisher, Bishop and Martyr]

Statue of St. John Fisher outside St. John Fisher Church, Rochester, England

The Martyrdom of St. John Fisher

The last four days of the saint's life were sunshine. All his depression of soul had left him, so that his jailors marvelled at the joy and sense of freedom which possessed him. At five o'clock in the morning of 22 June, the Lieutenant of the Tower [of London] came to his bedside and found him fast asleep. Waking the prisoner gently, [Sir Edmund] Walsingham broke the news of his execution with great courtesy and sympathy. The cardinal [St. John had been Bishop of Rochester, and was made Cardinal Priest of Saint Vitalis by Pope Paul III a month earlier on 20 May] thanked him, and asked when it was to be. When he learned that the hour fixed was ten o'clock, he made answer:

Well, then, I pray you, let me sleep an hour or two, for I may say to you, I slept not much this night; and yet, to tell you the truth, not for any fear of death, I tell you, but by reason of my great infirmity and weakness.
And he turned over and went to sleep again. When he was awakened he called to his man to help him up, and commanded him to take away the shirt of hair he always wore, and to lay him forth a clean white shirt and all his best apparel, saying: "Dost thou not mark that this is our marriage day, and that it behoveth us, therefore, to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage sake?"

When he came out of the Tower, a summer morning's mist hung over the river, wreathing the buildings in a golden haze. Two of the Lieutenant's men carried him in a chair to the gate, and there they set him down, while waiting for the Sheriffs. The cardinal stood up and leaning his shoulder against a wall for support, opened the little New Testament he carried in his hand. "O Lord," he said, so that all could hear him, "this is the last time I shall ever open this book. Let some comforting place now chance to me whereby I, Thy poor servant, may glorify Thee in my last hour" - and looking down at the page, he read:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent. I have glorified Thee on earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do (John, 17:3-4).
Whereupon he shut the book, saying: "Here is even learning enough for me to my life's end." His lips were moving in prayer, as they carried him to Tower Hill. And when they reached the scaffold, the rough men of his escort offered to help him up the ladder. But he smiled at them: "Nay, masters, now let me alone, ye shall see me go up to my death well enough myself, without help." And forthwith he began to climb, almost nimbly. As he reached the top the sun appeared from behind the clouds, and its light shone upon his face. He was heard to murmur some words from Psalm 33: Accedite ad eum, et illuminamimi, et facies vestræ non confundentur. The masked headsman knelt - as the custom was - to ask his pardon. And again the cardinal's manliness dictated every word of his answer: "I forgive thee with all my heart, and I trust on Our Lord Thou shalt see me die even lustily." Then they stripped him of his gown and furred tippet, and he stood in his doublet and hose before the crowd which had gathered to see his death. A gasp of pity went up at the sight of his "long, lean, slender body, nothing in manner but skin and bones ... the flesh clean wasted away, and a very image of death, and as one might say, death in a man's shape and using a man's voice." He was offered a final chance to save his life by acknowledging the royal supremacy, but the saint turned to the crowd, and from the front of the scaffold, he spoke these words:

Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death's stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.
The power and resonance of his voice, the courage of his spirit triumphing over the obvious weakness of his body, amazed them all, and a murmur of admiration was still rustling the crowd when they saw him go down on his knees and begin to pray. They stood in awed silence while he said the Te Deum in praise of God, and the Psalm [70] In Thee O Lord have I put my trust, the humble request for strength beyond his own. Then he signed to the executioner to bind his eyes. For a moment more he prayed, hands and heart raised to heaven. Then he lay down and put his wasted neck upon the low block. The executioner, who had been standing back, took one quick step forward, raised his axe and with a single blow cut off his head. So copious a stream of blood poured from the neck that those present wondered how it could have come from so thin and wasted a frame. There was certainly divine irony in the fact that 22 June, the date of the execution, was the Feast of St. Alban, the first Martyr for the Faith in Britain. If the king had realized this he would certainly have arranged for the execution of Cardinal Fisher to take place on another day. The judgement passed upon the king in a contemporary account could hardly be more severe:

More monstrous was it that the king or any man could be so cruel to put such a man to death, yea, though he had been an offender; for very shortly he must have died by nature. And surely, I think, if he had been in the great Turk's land, and guilty of a great trespass there, he would never for pity have put him to death, being all ready so near the pit's brink. For it is the most cruel thing that can be, to put any to death that is presently dying. Wherefore in this point I think that this king Henry passed all the Turks or tyrants that ever was read or heard of.

Plaque on Tower Hill at the site of the execution of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, among others

The headless body of the martyr was stripped of its clothes by the executioner, the clothes of the condemned were one of his perquisites, and lay on the scaffold for most of the day until out of pity and humanity someone stepped forward and cast a little straw over the naked remains.

At about eight o'clock in the evening commandment was come to bury the body to certain men that tarried there about the scaffold with the body all that afternoon with halberds and bills. Whereupon one of them took up the dead body without the head upon his halberd and carried it to a churchyard of a parish church there hard by called Barking, where on the north side of that church, he and his fellows with their halberds digged a grave (for other grave had he none but this that they digged with their halberds) and therein without any reverence they vilely threw this holy, innocent bishop's dead body, all naked, flat upon his belly, without any winding sheet or any other accustomed funeral ceremonies, and then covered it quickly with the earth, and so, following herein the commandment of the king, buried it contemptuously.
The faithful began coming in large numbers to venerate the place where the body of the Saint was buried, and so the remains were removed and reburied in the little church of St. Peter-ad-Vincula in the Tower, near the body of St. Thomas More whose predetermined sentence of death had been pronounced in Westminster Hall on 1 July 1535. Once he had been sentenced St. Thomas openly avowed his conviction that the oath of supremacy was unlawful. He stated that supremacy in the Church could not belong to a layman and that it "rightfully belonged to the see of Rome, as granted personally by Our Lord when on earth to St. Peter and his successors, and that just as the city of London could not make a law against the laws of the realm of England, so England could not make a law contrary to the general law of Christ's Catholic Church." He added that for England to refuse obedience to the See of Rome was the same as for a child to refuse obedience to a parent. In a letter to [Thomas] Cromwell written fifteen months earlier, More had expressed the belief for which he and Fisher were prepared to die: "This is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved." St. Thomas More was executed on 6 July and met his death with the same courage that St. John Fisher and the Carthusians [who were executed on 4 May 1535] had shown. Eyewitnesses testify that he even displayed cheerfulness upon the scaffold, affirming that he died a faithful subject to the king and a true Catholic before God.

St. John Fisher's head was placed into a bag by the executioner to be impaled on London Bridge. One account claims that it was first taken to Anne Boleyn who ha[d] expressed a desire to see it. Gazing upon it contemptuously she is said to have remarked:

"Is this the head that so often exclaimed against me? I trow it shall never do more harm!" And with this striking it on the mouth with the back of her hand, she hurt one of her fingers upon a tooth which stuck somewhat more out than the rest did, which finger grew sore, and putting her to pain many days after, was nevertheless cured at last with much difficulty, but after it was healed, the mark of the hurt place remained to be seen when her own head was not to be seen on her shoulders.
Even if this story is not true it shows that the people regarded Anne Boleyn as another Herodias and the saint as a second John the Baptist who gave his life for the sanctity of the marriage bond, but in view of the vindictiveness that she displayed towards Catherine, Princess Mary, Wolsey, and Fisher the account seems far from improbable. Fisher's early biographers compared him to the Baptist and stigmatized Henry as more cruel than Herod. The next day the head was parboiled and impaled upon a pole on London bridge among the heads of the Carthusian Martyrs who had offered their lives for the unity of the Church. To the embarrassment of the authorities the saint's head remained incorrupt:

Almighty God was pleased to show, above the course of nature, in this preserving the fresh and lively colour in his face, surpassing the colour he had being alive; whereby was noted to the world the innocence and holiness of this blessed father, that thus innocently was content to lose his head in defence of his mother, the holy Catholic Church of Christ; whereby the people coming daily to see this strange sight, the passage over the bridge was so stopped with their going and coming, that almost neither cart nor horse could pass, and therefore at the end of fourteen days, the executioner was commanded to throw down the head in the night time into the river of Thames, and in the place thereof was set the head of the most blessed and constant Martyr, Sir Thomas More, his companion in all his troubles, who suffered his passion the 6th day of July next following.
St. John Fisher, martyr and patron of marriage, pray for us!


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