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December 22, 1534 – Bishop Fisher Writes to Cromwell

Bishop John Fisher by Hans Holbein (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This is one of those letters that strikes you (me) to the core – a poignant reminder of the innocence of the time. This letter captures just how revolutionary was Henry’s break with Rome, how hard it was to believe it was actually real and permanent … In our modern times, it is easy to forget that.

Fisher had served as confessor to Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s grandmother; he even preached her funeral sermon. His counsel was valued by Henry VII, who named him Bishop of Rochester and entrusted him with tutoring his sons – specifically the future Henry VIII. Fisher was ornery and opinionated all his life, and he probably thought he had fully earned that position – not only because of his patrons but also because of the life he lived. As Erasmus put it, Fisher was “the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul.” Indeed, Fisher was stern and austere, known to place a human skull on the altar during Mass and on the table during meals to constantly remind himself that his soul depended on his every act.

Fisher believed himself loyal – though his loyalty was to the highest version of the King rather than the real King. Reading this letter, it is clear that he walked the same line as Thomas More: he had sworn to fully accept the succession even though he rejected the King’s position as Supreme Head of the Church. It is even more clear that he thought that should be enough. This is one of those times when I am especially glad to see L&P switch over from summary to quote…

Does not wish to displease the King. When last before him and the other commissioners he swore to the part concerning the succession for the reason he then gave, but refused to swear to some other parts, because his conscience would not allow him to do so. “I beseech you to be good master unto me in my necessity, for I have neither shirt nor sheet nor yet other clothes that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent too shamefully. Notwithstanding, I might easily suffer that if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also God knows how slender it is at many times. And now in mine age my stomach may not away but with a few kind of meats, which if I want I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health.” His brother provides for him out of his own purse, to his great hindrance. Beseeches him to pity him, and move the King to take him into favor and release him from this cold and painful imprisonment. Desires to have a priest within the Tower to hear his confession “against this holy time;” and some books to stir his devotion more effectually. Wishes him a merry Christmas. At the Tower, 22 Dec. Signed.


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December 22, 1534 - Bishop Fisher Writes to Cromwell
Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches

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