Of all the Catholic bishops in England, only one, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, declined to take the Oath of Supremacy. Upon hearing of his brother bishops swearing to it, his despairing answer was, "It can only be from lack of faith." Most were probably cowards, thinking they might swear one thing inwardly and another publicly, thus saving their conscience for God. But this is the difference between the ordinary man, even the good man, and the saint, that the latter will set his life at nought to stand upon a principle and preserve the integrity of his soul. "Blessed is he who is not ashamed of me."
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and seated prominently upon the Commission that would try both More and Fisher, was not among the cowards. He was truly enamored of the new doctrines emanating from the continent. He was, I believe, the principal author of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, upon which I was raised and the occasional reading of which is still dear to a Catholic. I was told as a child that the difference between us Episcopalians and the Catholics was very little, just that small matter of the Pope. Later, when I read for myself the Articles of Religion in the back of that book, I saw that the expanse of that "little difference" was in its measure an ocean.
Cranmer may have been ambitious, for he rose with uncommon swiftness to his See in the wake of the King's marriage difficulties, but he was a man of faith and priniciple, as would later be made clear, after some struggle, by the event of his own martyrdom, a struggle born of his desire to serve two masters. In the end he would see what More saw from the beginning: that such a desire cannot be satisfied. At his own execution during the reign of Queen Mary (Bloody Mary), daughter of Catherine of Aragon, he would finally, after much waffling between oaths to Rome and to the doctrine promulgated by Mary's father, hold the hand that had signed those oaths steadfastly in the fire, saying, "This hand hath offended."
At Lambeth, to which both More and Fisher had been called to swear the oath, Cranmer even makes an effort to save More. Noting that More, by his own testimony, condemned not the "consciences of those who swore the oath, that, said Cranmer, showed that he must hold the swearing or not swearing to be a thing uncertain and doubtful; but for a certainty, without doubt, he was bound to obey his King." More, of course, reduced this to its logically absurd conclusion, "For in whatsoever matter the doctors stand in great doubt, the King's commandment, given upon whichever side he list, solveth all the doubt." Cranmer further suggested to the King that Fisher and More be excused from denouncing either the marriage to Catherine or the Papal Supremacy, so long as they accepted the succession of Mistress Anne Boleyn's children (which More had said he would do), and that any oath sworn by Fisher and More be kept secret. In the end Henry demurred, probably at Anne Boleyn's vehement behest, informing Cranmer via a letter from Cromwell that he was to suggest this no more, as it would be a "reprobation of the King's second marriage."
Thus were More and Fisher both committed to the Tower, unjustly, of course, having never "maliciously" denied the King's new title, nor having said anything at all as to their reasons for not swearing. Under English law, silence gave consent, but More knew well before this that the law would offer no refuge. As the Duke of Norfolk had advised him long ago, "By the mass, Master More, it is perilous striving with princes...I would wish you somewhat to incline to the King's pleasure; for by God's body, Master More, Indignatio principis mors est" (the indignation of the prince is death). And More replied: "Is that all, my Lord? Then in good faith is there no more difference between your Grace and me, but that I shall die today and you tomorrow?"
More and Fisher struck up a correspondence, an exchange facilitated by George Golde, the Lieutenant's servant. More would have had Golde keep the letters, as evidence of their harmlessness, but Golde said "there was no better keeper than the fire", and so burned them. The two men also exchanged small gifts of food and drink, and on New Year's Day More sent to Fisher an image of the Magi visiting the infant Christ. A foreign acquaintance of More's sent him meat and a bottle of wine two or three times a week, and to Fisher a quart of French wine every day. But both men were ascetics, and it is presumed their servants helped make short work of these provisions, and George Golde was reported to have been "not always sober."
Fisher's plight had garnered great sympathy in Europe, especially with Pope Paul III, who, in hopes the red hat would afford him protection, made Fisher a cardinal. Henry's response: 'I will so provide, that if he wear it, he shall bear it on his shoulders, nor any head shall he have to put it on.'
On May 7, 1535, the Solicitor General, Richard Rich, came privately to Fisher, saying that he did so on the King's behalf who, "for the satisfaction of his own conscience, wished to know Fisher's opinion", and that no advantage would be taken, and his answer revealed to none save the King. Fisher replied that "he believed directly in his conscience, and knew by his learning precisely, that the King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England." Fisher's life now lay at Rich's leisure, an act of treachery which we need not attribute to the King, for it is generally accepted that Rich was "quite capable of acting on his own." On June 12, Fisher underwent another long interrogation in the Tower, the same day that Rich came to More to take his books away and to attempt the same malfeasance. More would give no answer; for him simple perjury would procure a conviction. But from Fisher they had an answer, though ill-gotten.
On June 17 he was tried "before the same Commission which had condemned the Carthusians six days earlier." Richard Rich gave his testimony, Fisher admitted to having used the "fatal words, but appealed to the pledge of secrecy from the King...Rich neither denied Fisher's words for false nor confessed them for true, but said, 'If I had said to you in such sort as you have declared, I would gladly know what discharge this is to you in law'. It was in vain that Fisher asked how 'by all equity, all justice, all worldly honesty, and all civil humanity' he could be charged with denying the Supremacy 'maliciously' when he spoke at the request of the King, and under a pledge that his reply would be divulged to none save the King...Fisher was found guilty, and condemned to the full penalty of Treason. The sentence was commuted to beheading. Indeed, had Fisher been dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn, he probably would have died on the way."
"On June 22nd, early, the Lieutenant of the Tower came to Fisher's chamber, and...told him that the King's pleasure was that he should suffer in that forenoon.
'Well,' quoth the bishop, 'if this be your errand hither, it is no news unto me; I have looked daily for it. I pray you, what is it o'clock?'
'It is,' quoth the Lieutenant, 'about five.'
'What time,' quoth the bishop, 'must be mine hour to go out hence?'
'About ten of the clock,' said the Lieutenant.
'Well then,' quoth the bishop, 'I pray you let me sleep an hour or twain. For..I slept not much this night - not for fear of death, I tell you, but by reason of my great sickness and weakness.'
The Lieutenant returned about nine, and found Fisher up, putting on his clothes. Fisher asked the Lieutenant to reach him his furred tippet. 'Oh! My Lord, what need you be now so careful of your health? Your time is very short, little more than half an hour.' 'I think none otherwise,' said the bishop, 'but I pray you, yet give me leave to put on my furred tippet, to keep me warm for the while until the very time of execution. For I tell you truth, though I have, I thank our Lord, a very good stomach and willing mind to die at this present, yet will I not hinder my health in the meantime not a minute of an hour.'
"He mounted the scaffold unaided", described by an eyewitness as 'a long, lean, slender body, nothing in a manner but skin and bare bones..' All who saw him 'marvelled to see any man, bearing life, to be so far consumed...a very image of death, and, as one might say, Death in a man's shape, and using a man's voice.' Then, speaking strong and clearly, Fisher begged the prayers of those gathered: 'Hitherto,' he said, 'I have not feared death. Yet I know that I am flesh, and that St. Peter, from fear of death, three times denied his Lord. Wherefore help me, with your prayers, that at the very instant of my death's stroke, I faint not in any point of the Catholic faith for any fear.' He was offered pardon several times, if he would but comply, but he would not. His head was felled, his body stripped naked, and "left all day, till about eight in the evening commandment to bury it came to the guard who tarried above the scaffold with halberds and bills. They dug a shallow grave under the north wall of All Hallows, Barking, and tossed the headless corpse in, very contemptuously, as the King had commanded, and scraped the earth over. The head was placed on London Bridge, 'as though it had been alive, looking down on the people coming into London,' till folk began to talk of a miracle." Fisher's head, it seems, was reluctant to decay, and to assume the normal posture of death. Two weeks later, when the executioner placed More's head upon the bridge, "he threw that of Fisher into the river."
More and Fisher were tried, convicted, and executed under the Acts of Treason, which followed hard upon the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, all in the wake of the original Oath. But for this reader, at the bottom of it all lay one thing, which More, following his condemnation at trial, bore witness to: that they sought his blood because he would not "condescend to the marriage." Henry may not have been the first 'cafeteria Catholic,' but he may well have been the first to promulgate his own doctrine and then drag an entire nation after him in pursuit of it. More would not sign the oath because it would condone the marriage, which would usurp the Pope's authority to have the final say. Like certain groups today - those who agitate for abortion, for example, or for homosexual rights - Henry wanted whatever air of moral sanctity might be lent him by a law. In his case, he wanted protection from what he knew would be perceived as an act of adultery, and it drove him to one of the most paradigmatic acts of solipsism in Western history: he enforced a temporal law that would make him a spiritual potentate with authority to grant himself the moral approval he sought. To this day, the Head of the Church in England is no ordained eminence, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the pleasingly dowdy Elizabeth II. Thankfully, she is not the sort to send heads rolling over a point of doctrine, but some would say that's because it's no longer necessary. The points of authority, doctrine, and morality upon which More and Fisher (and even Henry, at one time) would have said a man's soul hung in the balance, are no longer seen as relevant, let alone as urgent matters, especially not in the Church of England. They've come a long way since Thomas Cranmer. I can't see the Anglican prelates of today holding their hands in the fire, nor Catholic ones for that matter. But I still pick up that Book of Common Prayer from time to time, just for its beauty. I don't think either More or Fisher would object.