A spot of blood and grease on the pages of English history.
Charles Dickens, referring to King Henry VIII
For English speaking Catholics, June 22 is a bright day on the calendar of the Saints. On this day we remember the two saints who stood against King Henry VIII, for the great principal that the State must never be allowed to control the Church. Much that we Americans celebrate as freedom was born out of Church-State struggles down through the ages. Sometimes those who stood against the State fell in the struggle, but the concept that the State is not absolute, that there are limits to its authority, is one of the great gifts of the Catholic Middle Ages to all of mankind. It is only in modern times, since 1500, that the heresy that the State may exercise absolute authority has been a constant source of misery and strife in the history of the West.
When he ascended to the throne of England Henry VIII was popularly known as the Golden Hope of England. His father Henry VII had never been loved by the people of England: a miser and a distinctly unheroic figure no matter what Shakespeare would write in Richard III. He had brought the end of the War of the Roses and peace to England, but that was about as much credit as his subjects would give the grasping, unlovable Henry Tudor. His son by contrast looked like an Adonis when young, strong and athletic. He had a sharp mind and had been well-educated, intended, ironically, for a career in the Church before the death of his elder brother Arthur. He was reputed, correctly, to be pious. He had considerable charism in his youth and knew how to make himself loved with a well timed laugh or smile, and loved he was, by the nobles, commons, his wife Katherine, and the Church. Few reigns started more auspiciously than that of Henry, eighth of that name.
By the end of his reign he was widely despised by most his subjects. Called a crowned monster behind his back, his reign had brought religious turmoil to England and domestic strife. The best known symbols of his reign were the headman’s axe, the stake and the boiling pot in which he had some of the luckless individuals who roused his fury boiled to death.
It of course is small wonder for a Catholic to have little love for Henry VIII and his reign, but the distaste for Henry extends well beyond members of the Church. Winston Churchill, the great English statesman and historian, in his magisterial History of the English Speaking Peoples has this to say about the executions of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher:
“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”
Churchill himself was not noted for being a churchgoer. When asked if he was a pillar of the Church of England, he quipped that perhaps he could be considered to be a flying butress of the Church, supporting it from outside. Perhaps this helped give him a certain objectivity regarding Henry VIII. Here is part of his summing up of Henry’s reign:
“Henry’s rule saw many advances in the growth and the character of the English state, but it is a hideous blot upon his record that the reign should be widely remembered for its executions. Two Queens, two of the King’s chief Ministers, a saintly bishop, numerous abbots, monks and many ordinary folk who dared to resist the royal will were put to death. Almost every member of the nobility in whom royal blood ran perished on the scaffold at Henry’s command. Roman Catholic and Calvinist alike were burnt for heresy and religious treason. These persecutions, inflicted in solemn manner by officers of the law, perhaps in the presence of the Council or even the King himself, form a brutal seqeul to the bright promise of the Renaissance. The sufferings of devout men and women among the faggots, the use of torture, and the savage penalties imposed for even paltry crimes, stand in repellant contrast to the enlightened principles of humanism.”
In sharp contrast to Henry, the Eighth of that name, we have the two men he had murdered.
Saint Thomas More enjoyed fame throughout Europe as a scholar, the author of Utopia and the friend of Erasmus. His writings are full of wit, wisdom, piety and humanity. As a Judge, he was regarded as beyond parallel and for the first time in living memory cleared the docket of pending cases, he being a firm believer in the legal maxim of just delayed being justice denied. A counselor of the King he served Henry with all the ability at his command until the matter of The Divorce caused him to retire from public life. He did not seek martyrdom, content to live out the remainder of his life in calm solitude with his beloved family, content to pray for better times. However, when an Oath, on penalty of treason, was required to be signed, acknowledging Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, he would not sign. Master Lawyer as he was, he knew the path that he now tread would almost certainly lead to his death. At his trial, after the perjured testimony of Richard Rich ensured his doom, he made the following address to the Court:
If I were a man, my lords, that did not regard an oath, I need not, as it is well known, in this place, at this time, nor in this case to stand as an accused person. And if this oath of yours, Master Rich, be true, then pray I that I may never see God in the face, which I would not say, were it otherwise to win the whole world.
In good faith, Master Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for mine own peril, and you shall understand that neither I nor any man else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you. And I, as you know, of no small while have been acquainted with you and your conversation, who have known you from your youth hitherto, for we long dwelled together in one parish. Whereas yourself can tell (I am sorry you compel me to say) you were esteemed very light of tongue, a great dicer, and of no commendable fame. And so in your house at the Temple, where hath been your chief bringing up, were you likewise accounted. Can it therefore seem likely to your honorable lordships, that I would, in so weighty a cause, so unadvisedly overshoot myself as to trust Master Rich, a man of me always reputed for one of little truth, as your lordships have heard, so far above my sovereign lord the king, or any of his noble counselors, that I would unto him utter the secrets of my conscience touching the king’s supremacy, the special point and only mark at my hands so long sought for?
A thing which I never did, nor ever would, after the statute thereof made, reveal unto the King’s Highness himself or to any of his honorable counselors, as it is not unknown to your honors, at sundry and several times, sent from His Grace’s own person unto the Tower unto me for none other purpose. Can this in your judgment, my lords, seem likely to be true? And if I had so done, indeed, my lords, as Master Rich hath sworn, seeing it was spoken but in familiar, secret talk, nothing affirming, and only in putting of cases, without other displeasant circumstances, it cannot justly be taken to be spoken maliciously; and where there is no malice there can be no offense. And over this I can never think, my lords, that so many worthy bishops, so many noble personages, and many other worshipful, virtuous, wise, and well-learned men as at the making of the law were in Parliament assembled, ever meant to have any man punished by death in whom there could be found no malice, taking malitia pro malevolentia: for if malitia be generally taken for sin, no man is there that can excuse himself. Quia si dixerimus quod peccatum non habemus, nosmetipsos seducimus, et veritas in nobis non est. [If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.] And only this word, “maliciously” is in the statute material, as this term “forcibly” is in the statute of forcible entries, by which statute if a man enter peaceably, and put not his adversary out “forcibly,” it is no offense, but if he put him out “forcibly,” then by that statute it is an offense, and so shall be punished by this term, “forcibly.”
Besides this, the manifold goodness of the King’s Highness himself, that hath been so many ways my singular good lord and gracious sovereign, and that hath so dearly loved and trusted me, even at my first coming into his noble service, with the dignity of his honorable privy council, vouchsafing to admit me; and finally with the weighty room of His Grace’s higher chancellor, the like whereof he never did to temporal man before, next to his own royal person the highest office in this whole realm, so far above my qualities or merits and meet therefor of his own incomparable benignity honored and exalted me, by the space of twenty years or more, showing his continual favors towards me, and (until, at mine own poor suit it pleased His Highness, giving me license with His Majesty’s favor to bestow the residue of my life wholly for the provision of my soul in the service of God, and of his special goodness thereof to discharge and unburden me) most benignly heaped honors continually more and more upon me; all this His Highness’s goodness, I say, so long thus bountifully extended towards me, were in my mind, my lords, matter sufficient to convince this slanderous surmise by this man so wrongfully imagined against me….
Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man….
More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.
He went to his death by the headman’s axe cheerfully on July 6, 1535, making jokes to the end, glad to know that he would soon be with God.
Where are now the kings and princes that once reigned over all the world, whose glory and triumph were lifted up above the earth? Where are now the innumerable company and power of Xerxes and Caesar? Where are the great victories of Alexander and Pompey? Where are now the great riches of Croesus and Crassus? But what shall we say of those who once were kings and governors of this realm? Where are they now whom we have known and seen in our days in such great wealth and glory that it was thought by many they would never have died, never have been forgotten? They had all their pleasures at the full, both of delicious and good fare, of hawking, hunting, also of excellent horses and stallions, greyhounds and hounds for their entertainment, their palaces well and richly furnished, strongholds and towns without number. They had a great plenty of gold and silver, many servants, fine apparel for themselves and their lodgings. They had the power of the law to proscribe, to punish, to exalt and set forward their friends and loved ones, to put down and make low their enemies, and also to punish by temporal death rebels and traitors. Every man held with them, all were at their command. Every man was obedient to them, feared them, also honored and praised them, everywhere now? Are they not gone and wasted like smoke? Of them it is written in another place, mox ut honorificati fuerint et exaltati, dificientes quemadmodum fumus deficient (when they were in their utmost prosperity and fame, they soon failed and came to nothing, even as smoke does) (Ps. 36:2). St. James compares the vanity of this life to a vapor, and he says it shall perish and wither away as a flower in the hay season. (James 4:15).
Saint John Fisher
Born in 1469, John Fisher was noted for his great learning, the austerity of his life and his piety. He was made Bishop of Rochester, the poorest diocese in England, at the personal insistence of Henry VIII in 1504. Usually this was a stepping stone to ecclesiastical preferment, but Fisher stayed there for 31 years, doubtless because he had the courage to oppose the King whenever he was wrong, and so he did when Henry attempted to divorce Queen Katherine and when he broke with Rome. Fisher made a strange champion to stand against a King. He was noted as a scholar throughout Europe, a man of exceeding mildness and friendliness and someone clearly made for peace and contemplation and not for turmoil and strife in public life. However, for Truth and the Faith Fisher was willing to stand virtually alone with a handful of others, including Saint Thomas More, against his terrifying Sovereign.
John Cardinal Fisher was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III in May of 1535, King Henry stopping the cardinal’s hat from being brought into England and bellowing that he would send Fisher’s head to the Pope. Tried by a kangaroo court and convicted, the only testimony brought against him was by Richard Rich, a specialist in lying men to the headman’s block. Fisher was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.
A public outcry was brewing among the London populace who saw a parallel between the judicial murder of Fisher and that of his namesake, Saint John the Baptist, who was executed by King Herod Antipas for challenging the validity of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. For fear of the mob King Henry commuted the sentence to that of beheading, to be accomplished before 23 June, the Vigil of the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Fisher’s martyrdom on Tower Hill on 22 June 1535, had the opposite effect from that which King Henry VIII intended as it created yet another parallel with St John the Baptist who was also beheaded; his death also happened on the feast day of Saint Alban, the first martyr of Britain.
Fisher met death with a courage which greatly impressed those present. His body, on Henry’s orders, was stripped and left on the scaffold until the evening, when it was taken on pikes and thrown naked into a rough grave in the churchyard of All Hallows’ Barking. Two weeks later, his body was laid, fittingly, beside that of Sir Thomas More in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. Fisher’s head was stuck upon a pole on London Bridge, but its lifelike appearance excited so much notice that, after a fortnight, it was thrown into the Thames, its place being taken by that of Sir Thomas More
These two great saints continue to speak to us almost five centuries after their mortal lives were cut short. They will continue to do so to men who treasure courage, faith and liberty.