This address was given by Dr Richard Rex at the Fisher Mass in Great St Mary’s Church on on Monday 7th May 2012.
John Fisher was a Cambridge man, who came here from grammar school in Beverley in the 1480s. He was a student at the same time as a future Carthusian brother called John Bouge, an old schoolfriend from Beverley, who recalled, after Fisher’s death, how ”˜we were scholars together in Cambridge, of one form and of one parish; and for a little pastime I might speak to him out of my chamber window into his chamber window‘. An early biographical account tells us that ”˜In Cambridge he was in Michaelhouse under Doctor Melton, and continued his whole study there, as appeared by the study which he dressed there, which was the fairest in Cambridge.‘
And Fisher himself recalled in later years how: ”˜My tutor, William Melton, now Chancellor of York … when I was a youngster and studying Euclid, used to say that if I thought the slightest little letter in a geometrical figure was superfluous, I had not yet thoroughly grasped Euclid’s meaning.‘
This was written many years later, in the preface to one of his books against the Protestant Reformers, and it looks as though Fisher loyally sent copies of all his books to his old tutor, for they are all listed in Melton’s library left at his death in 1528. Then, as now, Cambridge was a place of friendships.
Fisher, as you know, had a stellar career at Cambridge. BA, MA – socially the equivalent of a PhD today – and Fellow of Michaelhouse, Proctor, DD, Vice-Chancellor, Chancellor, and eventually Chancellor for Life. It’s not surprising he loved the place. In the course of that astonishing rise, he met and instantly won the favour of the mother of King Henry VII, Lady Margaret Beaufort, by a combination of address, ability, and attractiveness:
”˜He was tall and comely, exceeding the common or middle sort of men … six foot in height … very slender and lean, straight backed, big jointed, and strongly sinewed. His hair by nature black … his eyes … neither full black nor full grey, but of a mixed colour…; his forehead smooth and large … Not only of his equals, but even of his superiors, he was both honoured and feared’.
Lady Margaret, that thrice-married power-dresser, was instantly smitten, and later wrote to tell Fisher that it was to him that she had been ”˜since the first time I saw you admitted, verily determined … to owe mine obedience in all things concerning the weal and profit of my soul‘. He became her spiritual director, and thanks to his influence, her munificent patronage was diverted almost entirely towards this university, where she founded the Lady Margaret Professorship, the Lady Margaret Preachership, and two colleges – Christ’s and St John’s. Throughout his life, Fisher was a ruthless and relentless development officer for his alma mater. On top of Lady Margaret’s billionaire-level endowments and legacies, he lobbied wealthy friends and acquaintances to such good effect that he brought in endowments for over 50 fellowships and scholarships at St John’s. In today’s terms, that would mean a staggering £100 million. And he led from the front, founding four fellowships and scholarships himself (perhaps around £10 million today). He persuaded King Henry VIII to finance lectureships in Greek and Hebrew at the university – the equivalent of at least £50,000 a year each in our prices. It has often occurred to me that if we wanted to identify St John Fisher with a specific trade oroccupation, we should declare him the patron saint of fundraisers.
When Fisher was about my age, in his early 50s, the world suddenly began to change around him rather fast. (That may just be something that happens when you find yourself in your early 50s.) The Protestant Reformation broke out, under the initial inspiration of the German friar Martin Luther. This spurred Fisher to a humbling burst of intellectual energy, as he published five major books in as many years in defence of the Catholic Faith against heretical innovations, books packed with learning and insight. He would have had nothing to fear from such modern inquisitions as the Research Excellence Framework, nor even from the bugbear of ”˜Impact’ (sorry students – that one’s for the dons).
But what most hurt him, I suspect, about the Protestant Reformation was its impact at Cambridge. In June 1521 they had a bonfire of Luther’s books outside this church in the Market Square, and nailed on the west door, which served as a university noticeboard, thepapal bull condemning Luther’s errors. But overnight, predictably enough, a mysterious hand scrawled some Latin antipapal graffiti on the bull. Fisher was aghast, and came to Cambridge three Sundays in a row to preach in this very church against Luther and his followers. With tears in his eyes he called upon the unknown culprit to own up and repent. Needless to say, no evidence was forthcoming. Students, then as now, protected their own. We happen to know from a later sourcee that the miscreant was one Pierre de Valence, a refugee from Normandy who was studying at Gonville Hall, and went on to become chaplain to the first Protestant Bishop of Ely, Thomas Goodrich.
A few years later, on Christmas Eve 1524, the Prior of the Cambridge Austin Friars, which occupied a site on Benet Street, not far from our Fisher House, preached a cautiously Lutheran sermon in the little church of St Edward’s just behind King’s Parade. They still have the pulpit from which he preached, while busy and spiteful dons sat beneath taking notes to use later in evidence against him. Fisher was part of the tribunal that sat in judgement on Barnes, and he preached at the ceremony in London where Barnes did public penance for his temerity a year or so later. Barnes would eventually die for his beliefs, burned as a Protestant at Smithfield in July 1540. Fisher had gone to his death on Tower Hill, five years before. Fisher defended the execution of obstinate or relapsed heretics, while Barnes applauded the execution of the so-called traitors who, like Fisher, refused to renounce the papacy and to acknowledge Henry VIII’s grandiose claim to be Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England. We can all agree that, on those two points, they were both wrong.
Fisher and Barnes both died for ”˜conscience’. That is, they accepted execution rather than act against their consciences: Fisher refused to deny papal supremacy; Barnes refused to deny justification by faith alone. That Fisher would find himself, in 1535, called upon to solemnly deny a doctrine that had been taught by the Church of England all his life, and for centuries before, was something he could hardly have imagined back in his days as a student at Michaelhouse. More surprising though, and more disturbing, is how few others, even among the bishops and the clergy, were prepared to follow his lead and act in accordance with their conscience rather than swear an oath in despite of it. The reason was partly fear, but more the spirit of the age. Monarchy was the rising tide in politics and philosophy. The ”˜divine right of kings’ was the ”˜human rights’ of its day, the dominant ideology. Even Fisher and More reckoned Christian kings a special kind of men, divinely called and divinely favoured, almost priestly. ”˜It is on the vigilance of kings and priests,’ wrote Fisher, ”˜that the safety or peril of … Christendom chiefly depends’. How easy it was to go with the flow, to embrace the consensus, rather than risk death or even mere disadvantage.
We shall not be called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice. But look out for the dominant ideology. Check out the consensus. Today it is just straws in the wind. Rocco Buttiglione in effect disqualified from the European Commission because, in response to a question, he affirmed his adherence to Catholic teaching on sexual morality. The closure of Catholic Adoption Agencies in England because of their refusal to place children with same-sex couples. The lobbying that has already begun for doctors and nurses to be disqualified from service in the NHS unless they affirm their commitment to take part in abortions. How long will it be before a formal affirmation of so-called ”˜liberal’ principles becomes a prerequisite for employment in the public sector, or in any institution which receives public money? How long before it becomes a prerequisite for appearance in the public sphere?
The consensus is strong and, like all consensuses, it is increasingly determined to have its way. For now we are rightly content to let them have their consciences if we can keep our own. Perhaps we should pray to St John Fisher that if – when – they come for our consciences, we have the grace and strength to keep them for God.
Dr Richard Rex
7th May 2012