Fisher, John

, bishop of Rochester, and a great benefactor to learning, was born at Beverley, in Yorkshire, 1459, His father, a merchant, left him an orphan very young; but, by the care of his mother, he was taught classical learning at Beverley, and afterwards admitted in Cambridge, of Michael-house, since incorporated into Trinity-college. He took the degrees in arts in 1488, and 1491; and, being elected fellow of his house, was a proctor of the university in 1495. The same year, he was elected master of Michael-house; and having for some time applied himself to divinity, he took holy orders, and became eminent. The fame of his learning and virtues reaching the ears of Margaret countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII. she chose him her chaplain and confessor; in which high station he behaved himself with so much wisdom and goodness, that she committed herself entirely to his government and direction. It was by his counsel, that she undertook those magnificent foundations of St. John’s and Christ’s colleges at Cambridge; established the divinity professorships in both universities; and did many other acts of generosity for the propagation of learning and piety.

In 1501, he took the degree of D. D. and the same year was chosen chancellor of the university; during the exercise of which office he encouraged learning and good manners, and is said by some to have had prince Henry under his tuition in that university. In 1502 he was appointed by charter the lady Margaret’s first divinity-professor in Cambridge; and in 1504, made bishop of Rochester, at the recommendation of Fox, bishop of Winchester, and never would exchange this bishopric, though then the least in England; for he called his church his wife, and was, used to say, “he would not change his little old wife, to whom he had been so long wedded, for a wealthier.” In 1505 he accepted the headship of Queen’s college, in | Cambridge, which he held for little more than three years. The foundation of Christ’s-coliege was completed under his care and superintendence in 1506; and himself was appointed hy the statutes visitor for life, after the death of the munificent foundress. The king’s licence for founding St. John’s, was obtained soon after; but, before it was passed in due form, the king died, April 1, 1509, and the lady Margaret herself, the 29th of June following. The care of the new foundation now derolved upon her executors, of whom the most faithful and most active, and indeed the sole and principal agent, was Fisher; and he carried it on with the utmost vigour. In 1512 he was appointed to the council of Lateran, at Rome, but never went, as appears from procuratorial powers, and letters recommending him to great men there, still extant in the archives of St. John’s college. This college being finished in 1516, he went to Cambridge, and opened it with due solemnity; and was also commissioned to make statutes for it. He became afterwards a great benefactor to that college.

Upon Luther’s appearance and opposition to popery, in 1517, Fisher, a zealous champion for the church of Rome, was one of the first to enter the lists against him. He not only endeavoured to prevent the propagation of his doctrine in his own diocese, and in the university of Cambridge, over which as chancellor he had a very great influence, but also preached and wrote with great eanifstness against him. He had even resolved to go to Rome, but was diverted by Wolsey’s calling together a synod of the whole clergy, in which the bishop delivered himself with great freedom, on occasion of the cardinal’s stateliness and pride. Hitherto he had continued in great favour with Henry; but in the business of the divorce, in 1527, he adhered so firmly to the queen’s cause and the pope’s supremacy, that jt brought him into great trouble, and in the end proved his ruin. For the king, who greatly esteemed him for his honesty and learning, having desired his opinion upon his marriage with Catherine of Arragon, the bishop declared, that there was no reason at all to question the validity of it; and from this opinion nothing afterwards could ever make him recede.

In the parliament which met Nov. 1529, a motion being made for suppressing the lesser monasteries, Fisher opposed it in a very warm speech, at which some lords were | pleased, others displeased. The duke of Norfolk, addressing himself to him, said, “My lord of Rochester, many of these words might have been well spared; but it is often seen that the greatest clerks are not always the wisest men.-” To which the bishop replied, “My lord, I do not remember any fools in my time, that ever proved great clerks.” Complaint was made by the commons of this speech to the king, who contented himself with gently rebuking Fisher, and bidding him “use his words more temperately.” In 1530 he escaped two very great clangers, first that of being poisoned, and then of being shot in his house at Lambeth-marsh; upon which he retired to Rochester. One Rouse, coming into his kitchen, took occasion, in the cook’s absence, to throw poison into gruel which was prepared for his dinner. He could eat nothing that day, and so escaped; but of seventeen persons who eat of it, two died, and the rest never perfectly recovered their health. Upon this occasion, an act was made declaring poisoning to be high treason, and adjudging the offender to be boiled to death; which punishment was soon after inflicted upon Rouse in Smithfield. The other danger proceeded from a cannon bullet, which, being shot from the other side of the Thames, pierced through his house, and came very near his study, where he used to spend most of his time.

When the question of giving Henry the title of the supreme head of the church of England was debated in convocation in 1531, the bishop opposed it with all his might; which only served the more to incense the court against him, and to make them watch all opportunities to get rid of so troublesome a person. He soon gave them the opportunity they sought, by his remarkable weakness in tampering with, and hearkening too much to the visions and impostures of Elizabeth Barton, the holy maid of Kent; who, among other things, pretended a revelation from God, that “if the king went forwards with ‘the purpose he intended, he should not be king of England seven months after.” The court having against him the advantage they wanted, soon made use of it; they adjudged him guilty of misprision of treason, for concealing the maid’s speeches that related to the king; and condemned him, with five others, in loss of goods and imprisonment during the king’s pleasure; but he was released upon paying 300l. for his majesty’s use. Afterwards an act was made, which | absolutely annulled Henry’s marriage with Catherine; confirmed his marriage with Anne Boleyn entailed the crown upon her issue, and upon the lady Elizabeth by name making it high treason to slander or do any thing to the derogation of this last marriage. In pursuance of this, an oath was taken by both houses, March 30, 1534, “to bear faith, truth, and obedience to the king’s majesty, and to the heirs of his body by his most dear and entirely beloved lawful wife queen Anne, begotten and to be begotten,” &c. Instead of taking this oath, Fisher withdrew to his house at Rochester: but had not been there above four days, when he received orders from the archbishop of Canterbury and other commissioners, authorised under the great seal to tender the oath, to appear before them at Lambeth. He appeared accordingly, and the oath being presented to him, he perused it awhile, and then desired time to consider of it; so that five days were allowed him. Upon the whole, he refused to take it, and was committed to the Tower April 26.

Respect to his great reputation for learning and piety, occasioned very earnest endeavours to bring him to a compliance. Some bishops waited on him for that purpose, as did afterwards the lord chancellor Audeley, and others of the privy-council; but they found him immoveable. Secretary Cromwell was also with him in vain, and afterwards Lee, bishop of Lichfield. The issue was, a declaration from Fisher, that he would “swear to the succession never dispute more about the marriage and promise allegiance to the king but his conscience could not be convinced, that the marriage was not against the law of God.” These concessions did not satisfy the king; who was resolved to let all his subjects see that there was no mercy to be expected by any one who opposed his will. Therefore, in the parliament which met Nov. 3, he was attainted for refusing the oath of “succession; and his bishopric declared void Jan. 2. During his confinement, the poor old bishop was most barbarously used, was left without decent clothing, and scarce allowed necessaries. He continued above a year in the Tower, and might have remained there till released by a natural death, if an unseasonable honour, paid him by pope Paul III. had not hastened his destruction; which was, the creating of him, in May 1535, cardinal, by the title of Cardinal Priest of St. Vitalis. When the king heard of it, he gave strict orders that none should | bring the hat into his dominions: he sent also lord Cromwell to examine the bishop about that affair, who, after some conference, said,” My lord of Rochester, what would you say, if the pope should send you a cardinal’s hat would you accept of it“The bishop replied,” Sir, I know myself to be so far unworthy any such dignity, that I think of nothing less; but if any such thing should happen, assure yourself that I should improve that favour to the best advantage that I could, in assisting the holy catholic church of Christ; and in that respect I would receive it upon my knees.“When this answer was brought, the king said in a great passion,” Yea, is he yet so lusty Well, let the pope send him a hat when he will, Mother of God, he shall wear it on his shoulders then; for I will leave him never a head to set it on."

From this time his ruin was absolutely determined; but as no legal advantage could be taken against him, Richard Rich, esq. solicitor-general, a busy officious man, went to him; and in a fawning treacherous manner, under pretence of consulting him, as from the king, about a case of conscience, gradually drew him into a discourse about the supremacy, which he declared to be “unlawful, and what his majesty could not take upon him, without endangering his soul.” Thus caught in the snare purposely laid for him, a special commission was drawn up for trying him, dated June 1, 1535; and on the 17th, upon a short trial, he was found guilty of high treason, and condemned to suffer death. He objected greatly against Rich’s evidence, on which he was chiefly convicted and told him, that “he could not but marvel to hear him bear witness against him on these words, knowing in what secret manner he came to him.” Then addressing himself to his judges, and relating the particulars of Rich’s coming, he thus went on: “He told me, that the king, for better satisfaction of his own conscience, had sent unto me in this secret manner, to know my full opinion in the matter of the supremacy, for the great affiance he had in me more than any other; and farther, that the king willed him to assure me on his honour, and on the word of a king, that whatever I should say unto him by this his secret messenger, I should abide no danger nor peril for it, nor that any advantage should be taken against me for the same. Now, therefore, my lords,” concludes he, “seeing it pleased the king’s majesty, to send to me thus secretly under the | pretence of plain and true meaning, to know my poor advice and opinion in these his weighty and great affairs, which I most gladly was, and ever will be, willing to send him; inethinks, it is very hard and unjust to hear the messenger’s accusation, and to allow the same as a sufficient testimony against me in case of treason” Hard and unjust it unquestionably was, but suitable enough to the temper of the king, who was not subject to scruples; and his will, unfortunately, was a law. June 22, early in the morning, he received the news of his execution that day; and when he was getting up, he caused himself to be dressed in a neater and finer manner than usual; at which his man expressing much wonder, seeing he must put it all off again within two hours, and lose it “What of that,” said the bishop “does thou not mark, that this is our marriageday, and that it behoves us therefore to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage sake” He was beheaded about ten o’clock, aged almost 77 and his head was fixed over London-bridge the next day.

Such was the tragical end of Fisher, “which left one of thegreatest blots upon this kingdom’s proceedings,” as Burnet says in his “History of the Reformation.” He was a very tall well-made man, strong and robust, but at the end of his life extremely emaciated. As to his moral and intellectual attainments, nothing could well be greater. Erasmus represents him as a man of integrity, deep learning, sweetness of temper, and greatness of soul. His words are remarkable, and deserve to be transcribed. “Reverendus Episcopus Roffensis, vir non solum mirabili integritate vitae, vertim etiam aha et recondita doctrina, turn morum quoque incredibili comitate commendatus maximis pariter ac minimis. Aut egregie fallor, aut is vir est unus, cum quo nemo sit hac tempestate conferendus, vel integritate vitae, vel eruditione, vel animi magnitudine.” It is, however, to be lamented that a man of such distinguished worth and literature, should have been enslaved by narrow prejudices, and seduced by the enthusiasm and imposture of Elizabeth Barton.

He was the author of several works, as, 1. “Assertionum Martini Lutheri confutatio.” 2. “Defensio Assertions Henrici Octavi de septem sacramentis,” &c. 3. “Epistola Responsoria Epistolge Lutheri.” 4. “Sacerdotii Defensio contra Lutherum.” 5, “Pro Damnatione Lutheri.” 6. “Pe veritate cornoris et sanguinis ChristJ in Eucharistia a | adversus Oecolampadium.” 7. “De unica Magdalena.” 8. “Peirum fuisse Romse.” 9. “Several Sermons, among which was one preached at the funeral of Henry VII. and one at the funeral of Margaret countess of Richmond.” The latter was republished in 1708, by Thomas Baker, B. D. with a learned preface. And one preached at London, on the day that Luther’s writings were publicly burnt. 10. Several Tracts of a smaller nature upon subjects of piety. 11. “His opinion of king Henry VIII.‘s marriage, in a letter to T. WoKey.” This is printed in the Collection of Records at the end of the second volume of Collier’s “Ecclesiastical History.” Most of the forementioned pieces, which were printed separately in England, were collected and printed together in one volume folio at Wurtzburg, in 1595. It is also supposed that he had a considerable hand in Henry VIII.’s book, “Assertio septern sacramentorum,” &c. although bishop Burnet seems angry with Sanders for saying so: it is nevertheless highly probable. In the Norfolk library of Mss. belonging to the royal society is an answer of bishop Fisher’s to a book printed at London in 1530, concerning king Henry’s marriage with queen Catherine. 1


Life by Dr. Hall, published under the name of Bailey, 1655, 12mo. Biog. Brit, -Dodd’s Ch. Hist.