Today marks the feasts of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, two men linked inextricably with each other, education, the Tudors, and the last days of Catholic England.
Full disclosure time. I am fascinated by English history and most particularly by two families: the Plantagenets and Tudors. Leaving the Plantagenets aside (Becket’s feast day isn’t until December you know!), let us take up the Tudors. I imagine that most of you are familiar with the broad brushstrokes: Henry VII comes out of nowhere at the end of the War of the Roses, the edge of a twig on a dead branch of the house of Lancaster and emerges the victor from a battle that left large chunks of the Houses of York and Lancaster dead and buried. He married Elizabeth of York for good measure, was blessed with 2 sons and 2 daughters that made it to adulthood, and was succeeded to the throne by his son, also Henry. Henry VIII reigned for 38 years, succeeded by his son Edward, then daughters Mary and Elizabeth.
The key points for our story are these. Henry was the 2nd son, the spare heir destined for a life in the Church. He was never truly prepared to rule the country, his lessons in kingship crammed into the space between when his brother and father died. His older brother Arthur married Catherine, the Infanta of Spain, and died shortly thereafter. Catherine’s parents Ferdinand and Isabella secure a dispensation that will allow Catherine to marry Henry regardless of whether the marriage was consummated. Henry and Catherine would remain married for 24 years before all manner of hell broke loose. Most are familiar with the players and events at this point: Henry, Catherine, the Bolyens, the break with the Church, and the executions of Fisher and More. I could go on (and on, and on) about what I think of the players, the events, the interplay, the what-ifs and if you all care then I may. For today, lets take a look at a few resources for you.
The story of the ends of their lives are well known, but what of the remaining balance of their lives? The easiest way to become familiar with these men are through their words. The Luminarium has put together free digital copies of the major works of both St John Fisher and St Thomas More.
Beyond that, some considerations:
- Fisher was of the merchant class, though he earned degrees at Cambridge and became Master of Michaelhouse and personal confessor & chaplain to Margaret Beaufort (you know, Henry VIII’s grandmother)
- He acted as a tutor to the future Henry VIII
- Despite the fact that he was close to Henry he stood by the Queen during the trial over her marriage, acting as her chief counselor and speaking on her behalf. He did not allow his history with Henry nor Henry’s considerable rage dissuade him.
- He did not shy away from calling out the abuses he saw in the Church. Let’s be honest, how difficult must it be to stand there defending the Church while also clearly calling out excesses and errors that you see? Its a fine line.
- Fisher had a reputation for being straightforward and ascetic, a quiet dignified presence wherever he went. Contrast that to More, who was known for being lively and merry, with something of a wicked sense of humor.
- Where Fisher was within the Church, More was firmly in the laity, two sides of the same coin.
- More attended Oxford, becoming a lawyer. He did not spend all his time on the law, however, as his prolific writing attests. Both Fisher and More maintained a friendship with Erasmus. To have been a fly on the wall if all three were in a room!
- More progressed up the ranks within the court, having been identified as a talent that Wolsey and Henry simply had to have. He would ascend as high as being the Lord Chancellor of England, the first layman to hold the office.
- More’s position put him in close proximity to Henry VIII on a daily basis. He had to be close to Henry as well. He wrote, he fought, and he ultimately climbed the scaffold as well.
The links above will provide links to a good portion of the works of both of these men, though you should consider reading Utopia first. Along with being More’s most famous work and famously misunderstood, this year is also the 500th anniversary of the publication of Utopia.
For those looking for more biographical information, see the Catholic Encyclopedia’s articles on St John Fisher and St Thomas More.