A United Witness: The Lives and Deaths of Thomas More and John Fisher

By Donald Prudlo, Ph.D.

From the moment Christ uttered His stunning doctrine on marriage 2,000 years ago, the Church has stood in unbroken witness to His teaching. Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament of the New Law, linking it with the purity of God’s original design for creation. Through the history of Christianity, the Church has met challenge after challenge regarding this belief. Against the Romans she mandated that people from any social class could marry. Against pagan denigration of women, she demanded full and free consent from both parties. Adultery was held as equally sinful for men as for women. Concubinage was forbidden, polygamy condemned.  Contraception and abortion were anathematized. At the same, the Church defended marriage, procreation, and the goodness of human sexuality, particularly underscoring the value and genius of both genders in a complementary relationship. Generation after generation she handed on to her children a pure, if hard, teaching.

Yet the Church persevered, calling the majority of her sons and daughters to holiness through family life. In particular, the Church had to struggle against the aberration of divorce. Practiced among the ancients — even among God’s chosen people — Christ’s assertion sounded like a thunderclap: “From the beginning it was not so!” Faced with challenges on all sides the Church endured. She maintained it was impossible to dissolve a valid, consummated marriage. Against kings and princes the Church repeatedly stood, suffering greatly but always emerging with her doctrine intact.

fishermoreDuring the sixteenth century, the pattern repeated itself. This time it was to trouble England, called “Mary’s dowry” in the Middle Ages for its devotion. While the events of the “King’s Great Matter” shook England during the Reformation, this was no bottom-up call for purification. The Catholic Church in England was healthy and vital; there was no demand for a Lutheran or Reformed revolution against the Church. Eamon Duffy, in his book The Stripping of the Altars, has masterfully demonstrated the vigor and strength of the Church before Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547).

Henry had been happily married to Catherine of Aragon for 20 years. They had many children, all of whom unhappily died very young, except for one girl who grew to be Queen Mary (r. 1553-1558). As Catherine aged, Henry’s roving eye fell upon a young Anne Boleyn. Unlike his other mistresses, Anne was ambitious and demanded Henry’s full attention, including the dismissal of his queen. Fortunately for himself, Henry was able to generate some scruples of conscience regarding his marriage to Catherine. She had first been married to his sickly 15 year-old brother, who died six months after the wedding. She was then married to Henry, with a papal dispensation to clear Henry to marry his brother’s wife, something necessary in Church law, but not of particular moment since the marriage to the sickly boy Arthur was unconsummated. For 20 years Henry and Catherine reigned together without problems.

When Henry began publically to express these doubts he certainly had supporters, the sycophants who surround every center of power. He quickly dispatched envoys to Rome to secure an annulment. When he was rebuffed, he grew very angry and began maneuvering to remove England from Catholic obedience. He was quite clever about this. Everyday Catholic life in England continued on, the liturgy remained unchanged, doctrine seemed unaltered. To the man in the street, very little was different. Yet some prescient few knew what lay in store. While many of the powerful magnates and churchmen of the kingdom surrounded Henry with support, a few men could sense the direction of events.

The first was the austere, brilliant, and saintly bishop of Rochester, John Fisher. He knew Henry’s canonical suit against Catherine was without foundation. He sensed the king’s real purpose and so he became Catherine’s canonical defender, fearlessly denouncing the king during the court proceedings. He likened himself publicly to John the Baptist, who also lost his head for speaking the truth about marriage to a king. In Henry’s presence, Fisher stood up and pleaded the queen’s cause: “I am a professor of truth, I know that God is truth itself, nor he never spoke [anything] but truth, which said, ‘what God has joined together let no man put asunder.’” Fisher’s performance was enough to get the trial remanded to the Pope, but this only delayed the coming storm. Henry began to bully both Parliament and the convocation of Bishops.  He commanded them to accept him as “Supreme head of the English Church,” only to find his effort thwarted by Fisher’s inclusion of “so far as the law of God allows.” Due to Fisher’s continuing sickness, Henry eventually prevailed over the weak bishops of England, and forced them to his bidding, a sorry historical case of complete episcopal collapse.

Just after this Thomas More, chancellor of England, resigned his high office rather than be implicated in Henry’s nascent schism. Thomas was, like Fisher, an accomplished scholar. He was a Renaissance humanist of the highest caliber, a first-rate lawyer, and a politician of humility and honesty. Like Fisher, he had assailed abuses in the pre-Reformation church, wishing for a purified, holy Christianity. He reluctantly undertook public service with his very good friend Henry. They had been the closest of associates, recalling almost uncannily the last Henry and Thomas to have been best friends, only to end in tragedy (Henry II and St. Thomas Becket). More knew Henry was wrong, and his resignation was a stinging rebuke to the king, proclaiming to Europe that the two most respected Christian men in England opposed the King’s will and found it to be sinful and unchristian. Both More and Fisher knew that the state had limits that it could not transgress.  Henry’s methods presaged the coming of the omnicompetent modern state that claims authority over every area of human existence. These two men knew that there were some things, like marriage, that are beyond the power of the state, that are prior to its existence, and that it can have no authority over whatsoever.

Matters were quickly moving to a head. Anne was pregnant. The marriage needed to be legitimized quickly for the offspring to have title to the throne. Henry had appointed the pliant Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer, who had perjured himself during his episcopal consecration, quickly annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine and confirmed Anne as queen.  In 1534, the Reformation Parliament passed the Act of Succession, depriving Princess Mary of title, and confirming the succession of the Princess Elizabeth (a female, much to Henry’s chagrin). Both More and Fisher refused to take the oath, not because of the succession issue, but because it required them to repudiate papal authority. They were both imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Henry began to consolidate his position, and to round up his opponents. A great number of these were from Catholic religious orders, who were faithful to their Church and their vows. Starting in April 1535, the executions began. The war against the Church had come to England.  Paul III made Fisher a Cardinal while still in prison. Instead of moving Henry from his intransigence, the gesture only enraged him more. Fisher was convicted of high treason and put to death on 22 June. More followed soon after, at a trial where several people perjured themselves to gain his conviction. On 6 July More was beheaded, leaving a legacy of holiness, along with last words that offered the greatest lesson possible for Catholic politicians, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Together Fisher and More gave a united witness. Here was the greatest representative of the English clergy, and the most esteemed representative of the laity together, united in life and death, united in faith. They were some of the most powerful intellectuals of their day, for Christian faith is not only an affair for simple souls. Their sentiments were one with those of the English peasantry who marched in Queen Catherine’s favor. These martyrs did not seek to adapt the teaching of Christ to the weakness of men. They knew it was no mercy to abrogate the doctrine of God to spare the feelings of the weak. Henry’s lust plunged England into bloody war, with thousands dying on both sides.

Fisher and More knew that the “hard” teaching of Christ was true, which meant it also was mercy. They also knew that the Church had no authority whatsoever to change this doctrine, for the magisterium is the servant of truth, not its master. The task of the clergy and laity then was not to agitate for such impossible change; it was to defend that teaching in the public square. Such sins and errors about marriage wounded humanity, which Christ had come to heal. There could be no healing by inflicting more wounds. The fact that it was a hard teaching did not detract from its being a true teaching. Christ is mercy and justice together; the head and the heart are never found apart from one another and there must be no artificial separation of the two. John Fisher and Thomas More were faithful to the generations of Christians who had borne this teaching to them through the struggle of 1500 years. To weaken the words of Christ today would be not only to betray Christ Himself, but to mock the millions who live faithfully the difficulties of sacramental marriage, and to devalue the sacrifice of those who have undergone the pain of divorce but are yet living in concert with the Church’s teaching about adultery. Ultimately such a capitulation would be gravely to trivialize the ultimate sacrifice men like Fisher and More, who gave their lives in most powerful witness to the Truth that is both justice and mercy together.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
Articles by Donald:

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Superb article! You explain so clearly and thoroughly the evil of divorce both then and now. Marriage is God-ordained and not to be manipulated, modified, or rewritten according to man’s wishes. The slightest deviation from God’s laws–despite all the elaborate rationalizations and excuses–always leads to the suffering, tragedy, and great cost everyone pays, not just the King but the whole nation of England for all these centuries.

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  • Richard John Mathews

    A brillliant article. A reminder that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We see the same struggles today for those who would stand for truth and morality. So accurate to say that the fact that something is a hard teaching, does not detract from it being a TRUE teaching. We have seen the “sycophants who surround every center of power” – within government, within organizations – and even churches – who once stood for virtues and timeless values. We each have our “Thomas More moments.” May we be as strong as these Saints when facing them.