Like St Thomas More, whose feast day he shares, St John Fisher had a reputation for holiness long before his actual martyrdom. A Yorkshireman by birth (in 1459), he went to Cambridge, where the Catholic chaplaincy is named after him.
Fisher rose in the university, eventually becoming chancellor, and in the Church: Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, asked Fisher to be her confessor. In 1504 he became Bishop of Rochester.
This was a time of widespread clerical corruption, when bishops used their placements to climb the career ladder. Fisher, by contrast, stayed in this little-regarded diocese and cared profoundly for his flock. He went about his diocese comforting the poor and sick, disciplining his clergy and preaching against heresy. He prayed, fasted and studied hard, but was also close to the people of his diocese.
“To scholars he was benign and bountiful,” reads one biography, “and in alms to the poor very liberal as far as his purse extended; and himself visited his poor neighbours when they were sick, bringing them meat or drink, and many times, to him that lacked, he brought coverlet and blanket from his own bed, if it could find none other meet for the sick person.”
So he might have lived and died; but the reign of Henry VIII brought him to the centre of public affairs. Henry asked his advice on whether he could marry Anne Boleyn. Fisher replied with an unambiguous “no”, and so began a confrontation which would only have one conclusion.
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