Facing Torture and Death Nobly—The Courage of Sts. More and Fisher

[Most of the material in this essay is taken from Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More (1998); and Michael Davies, St. John Fisher (1998). What is shown in brackets are my own additions. ]

St. Thomas More: [I’m glad Justice Blackstone said no jurisdiction upon earth had the power to try His majestie, Henry VIII, because I can assure you from my present vantage point and despite my prayers for his soul that he was tried by an extra-earthly jurisdiction and it would seem by the absence here of his royal dignity, that he was sent into the nether hell, by my reckoning, into the 9th circle reserved for schismatics.]

Bishop (St. John) Fisher: [I recall well the proceedings brought by Henry against Sir Thomas as his sentence was about to be pronounced:]

Sir Thomas More: My Lord, when I was toward the Lawe, the manner in such case was to aske the prisoner before Iudjment, why Iudgment should not be geuen agaynste him.


The court: What, then, are you able to say to the contrary?

Sir Thomas More: Seeing that I see ye are determined to condemne me (God knoweth howe) I will nowe in discharge of my conscience speake my minde plainlye and freely touching my Inditment and your Statute withall. Forasmuch as, my Lorde, this Indictment is grounded vppon an acte of parliamente directly repugnant to the lawes of god and his holy churche, the supreme gouerment of which, or of any parte whereof, may no temporall prince presume by any lawe to take vppon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a sprituall preheminence by the mouth of our Sauiour hymself, personally present vppon the earth, only to St Peter and his successors, Byshopps of the same See, by speciall prerogative graunted; It is therefore in lawe amongst Christen men insufficient to charge any Christen man. This Realme, being but one member and smale parte of the Church, might not make a particular lawe disagreable with the generall lawe of Christes vniuersall Catholike Churche. No more then the city of London, being but one poore member in respect of the whole realme, might make a lawe against an acte of parliament to bind the whole realme. No more might this realme of England refuse obediens to the Sea of Rome then might a child refuse obediens to his owne naturall father.

Duke of Norfolk: We nowe plainely see that ye a malitiously bent.

Sir Thomas More: Nay, nay, very and pure necessitie, for the discharge of my conscience, enforceth me to speake so muche. Wherein I call appeale to God, whose onely sight pearceth into the very depth of mans heart, to be my witness. Howbeit, it is not for this supremacie so much that ye seeke my bloudd, as for that I would not condiscende to the marriage.

The court: Sir Thomas More, you are to be drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged till you be half dead, after that cut down yet alive, your bowels to be taken out of your body and burned before you, your privy parts cut off, your head cut off, your body to be divided in four parts, and your head and body to be set at such places as the King shall assign.”[1]

Bishop (St. John) Fisher: [And at his execution, he kept his stiff upper lip. Consider these vignettes:]

[To the constable of the Tower on the way back from trial, who began to cry:] More: “Good Master Kingston, trouble not yourself but be of good cheer; for I will pray for you, and my good Lady your wife, that we may meet in heaven together, where we shall be for ever and ever.”[2]

[Back in the Tower, a barber was sent to cut More’s beard and hair, but More declined saying:] “The king has taken out a suit on my head and until the matter is resolved I shall spend no further cost upon it.[3]

[At dawn on the morning of his execution, More was visited by one of the kings council who told More that he would not be disemboweled and would be executed at 9:00 am.] More: “Master Pope, for your good tidings I heartily thank you. I have always been much bounden to the king’s highness for the benefits and honors that hath still from time to time most bountifully heaped upon me. * * * And therefore will I not fail earnestly to pray for his grace, both here and also in another world.”[4]

[He dressed in his finest suit, but was warned that the executioner would get the suit. More was persuaded to change into a plainer garment, but insisted on sending the executioner a gold coin in lieu of the suit.][5]

[The steps of the scaffold were not firm; and More had to be steadied on the way up.] More: “When I come down again, let me shift for myself as well as I can.”[6] [He prayed. Then he rose and, according to custom, the executioner now knelt to beg his pardon and his blessing . . . . More kissed him, and said:] More: “Thou wilt give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short: take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty.”[7]

[Prolonged silence.]

St. Thomas More: [That was a kind tribute, my beloved Bishop; but let the record show that it was Bishop Fisher, who was executed before me, who pointed the way for the many martyrs to follow: Here is what the bishop did and said under the doom of death:]


The jury of twelve men dutifully brought in their verdict that the cardinal was guilty of treason. As Fisher had been deprived of his bishopric he was treated as a commoner and condemned to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Then immediately upon this verdict that same Thursday, the 17th day of June, was like judgement of treason given against him as was given against the holy Carthusians, of drawing, hanging, cutting down alive, throwing to the ground, his bowels to be taken out of his belly, and be burnt, he being alive, and his head to be cut off, and his body to be divided into four parts, and his head and quarters to be put where the king should appoint.

As he listened to the dreadful sentence which condemned him to a traitor’s death, he stood erect and the colour rushed into his sunken cheeks, His escort closed around him, to take him back to the Tower. But he still had something to say.

“My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King’s supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, Who is the searcher both of the king his Majesty’s conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the king’s supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity, wherefore, if the king will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and harken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm and the quietness of all Christendom.”

This was giving the lie direct to Henry who had promised the bishops that he would claim no authority which his predecessors had not exercised. The savage sentence imposed upon the cardinal was later commuted by the king to beheading.

And the cause why he was but only beheaded, was (as men say) not for any pity or compassion that this cruel king had on this innocent virtuous bishop, but for that the king thought that if he should be drawn on a hurdle through London to the place of execution, as the Carthusians were, it were likely that he, being aged, sick and very weak, should die by the way; which the king is no wise would, but that the bishop should suffer death by open and public execution, to the terror of all other bishops and learned divines that should grudge and repine at his supremacy.

The saint did not know that his sentence would be modified when he heard the verdict (one tradition states that he was not given the news until the day of his execution). So noble was his bearing when he heard the sentence pronounced, and so manifestly unjust the case against him, based solely on evidence which Rich admitted had been obtained by perjury, that it caused “many of them there present, and some of the judges also, so inwardly to lament, that their eyes burst out with tears to see such a great famous clerk and virtuous bishop to be condemned to so cruel a death by such impious laws and by such an unlawful and detestable witness, contrary to all human honesty and fidelity and the word and promise of the king himself?’

It was a relief to the judges when the escort closed round the cardinal and led him away “with a great number of officers and men bearing halberds and weapons about him and before him and behind him, with the axe of the Tower borne all the way before him, the edge towards him, as the fashion is in England when any condemned of treason is brought from judgement.” Fisher seemed to have found new strength now that his fate had been settled, although he could never have been in any doubt as to what it would be. His new-found strength was such that they did not need to return by the river; he walked some of the way and rode the rest. And when they came to the Tower moat, a crowd of grieving men and women were following behind, making a triumphal procession of his return. They begged his blessing as if they had been his own people of Rochester, and smilingly he gave it, speaking the following words: “I thank you, masters all, for the pains ye have taken this day in going and coming from hence to Westminster and hither again.” A contemporary account continues:

And this spake he with so lusty a courage and so amiable a countenance and his colour so well come to him as though he had come from a great and honourable feast. And his gesture and his behaviour showed such a certain inward gladness in his heart that any man might easily see that he joyously longed and looked for the bliss and joys of heaven, and that he inwardly rejoiced that he was so near unto his death for Christ’s cause.

On 19 June, two days after the trial of Fisher, . . . three more Carthusian monks were executed at Tyburn.

The last four days of the saint’s life were sunshine. All his depression of soul had left him, so that his jailors marvelled at the joy and sense of freedom which possessed him. At five o’clock in the morning of 22 June, the Lieutenant of the Tower came to his bedside and found him fast asleep. Waking the prisoner gently, Walsingham broke the news of his execution with great courtesy and sympathy. The cardinal thanked him, and asked when it was to be. When he learned that the hour fixed was ten o’clock, he made answer:

Well, then, I pray you, let me sleep an hour or two, for I may say to you, I slept not much this night; and yet, to tell you the truth, not for any fear of death, I tell you, but by reason of my great infirmity and weakness.

And he turned over and went to sleep again. When he was awakened he called to his man to help him up, and commanded him to take away the shirt of hair he always wore, and to lay him forth a clean white shirt and all his best apparel, saying: “Dost thou not mark in that this is our marriage day, and that it behoveth us, therefore, to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage sake?”

When he came out of the Tower, a summer morning’s mist hung Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good over the river, wreathing the buildings in a golden haze. Two of the Lieutenant’s men carried him in a chair to the gate, and there they set him down, while waiting for the Sheriffs. The cardinal stood up and leaning his shoulder against a wall for support, opened the little New Testament he carried in his hand. “O Lord,” he said, so that all could hear him, “this is the last time I shall ever open this book. Let some comforting place now chance to me whereby I, Thy poor servant, may glorify Thee in my last hour”—and looking down at the page, he read:

Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent I have glorified Thee on earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do (John, 17:3-4).

Whereupon he shut the book, saying: “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.” His lips were moving in prayer, as they carried him to Tower Hill. And when they reached the scaffold, the rough men of his escort offered to help him up the ladder. But he smiled at them: “Nay, masters, now let me alone, ye shall see me go up to my death well enough myself, without help.” And forthwith he began to climb, almost nimbly. As he reached the top the sun appeared from behind the clouds, and its light shone upon his face. He was heard to murmur some words from Psalm 33: Accediteo deum, et illuminamini, et fades vestra non confundentur.[8] The masked headsman knelt—as the custom was to ask his pardon. And again the cardinal’s manliness dictated every word of his answer: “I forgive thee with all my heart, and I trust on Our Lord Thou shalt see me die even lustily.” Then they stripped him of his gown and furred tippet, and he stood in his doublet and hose before the crowd which had gathered to see his death. A gasp of pity went up at the sight of his “long, lean, slender body, nothing in manner but skin and bones . . . the flesh clean wasted away, and a very image of death, and as one might say, death in a man’s shape and using a man’s voice.” He was offered a final chance to save his life by acknowledging the royal supremacy, but the saint turned to the crowd, and from the front of the scaffold, he spoke these words:

Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.

The power and resonance of his voice, the courage of his spirit triumphing over the obvious weakness of his body, amazed them all, and a murmur of admiration was still rustling the crowd when they saw him go down on his knees and begin to pray. They stood in awed silence while he said the Te Deum in praise of God, and the psalm In Thee 0 Lord have I put my trust, the humble request for strength beyond his own. Then he signed to the executioner to bind his eyes. For a moment more he prayed, hands and heart raised to heaven. Then he lay down and put his wasted neck upon the low block. The executioner, who had been standing back, took one quick step forward, raised his axe and with a single blow cut off his head. So copious a stream of blood poured from the neck that those present wondered how it could have come from so thin and wasted a frame. There was certainly divine irony in the fact that 22 June, the date of the execution, was the Feast of St Alban, the first martyr for the Faith in Britain. If the king had realized this he would certainly have arranged for the execution of Cardinal Fisher to take place on another day. The judgement passed upon the king in a contemporary account could hardly be more severe:

More monstrous was it that the king or any man could be so cruel to put such a man to death, yea, though he had been an offender; for very shortly he must have died by nature. And surely, I think, if he had been in the great Turk’s land, and guilty of a great trespass there, he would never for pity have put him to death, being all ready so near the pit’s brink. For it is the most cruel thing that can be, to put any to death that is presently dying. Wherefore in this point I think that this king Henry passed all the Turks or tyrants that ever was read or heard of.

The headless body of the martyr was stripped of its clothes by the executioner, the clothes of the condemned were one of his perquisites, and lay on the scaffold for most of the day until out of pity and humanity someone stepped forward and cast a little straw over the naked remains.

At about eight o’clock in the evening commandment was come to bury the body to certain men that tarried there about the scaffold with the body all that afternoon with halberds and bills. Whereupon one of them took up the dead body without the head upon his halberd and carried it to a churchyard of a parish church there hard by called Barking, where on the north side of that church, he and his fellows with their halberds digged a grave (for other grave had he none but this that they digged with their halberds) and therein without any reverence they vilely threw this holy, innocent bishop’s dead body, all naked, flat upon his belly, without any winding sheet or any other accustomed funeral ceremonies, and then covered it quickly with the earth, and so, following herein the commandment of the king, buried it contemptuously.[9]

[1] The Life of Thomas More, pp. 396-98

[2] The Life of Thomas More, p. 401

[3] The Life of Thomas More, p. 402

[4] The Life of Thomas More, p. 403

[5] The Life of Thomas More, p. 404

[6] The Life of Thomas More, p. 405

[7] The Life of Thomas More, p. 406

[8] From somewhere in Psalm 33: http://www.newadvent.org/bible/psa032.htm

[9] Michael Davies, St. John Fisher, pp. 108-113

Published in: on March 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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