There’s an unassuming little memorial just northwest of the Tower of London, often missed by tourists because of the large World War I and II naval memorials that stand directly adjacent. The memorial is just a series of plaques with lists of names; individuals who, in many cases, are lost in history books. An inscription reads that the simple plaques “commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost.”
On that spot, Bishop John Fisher died on this day in 1535. Sir Thomas More followed a few days later on July 6.
Both of these men, canonized together in 1935, “staked their lives” on the same faith, the same ideals, and “lost.”
For what? What could have been so important that these men were willing to commit treason and give up their heads?
A few simple sentences.
The drama of Henry VIII and his (first) divorce and remarriage had come to its climax. Henry was not free to marry Anne Boleyn because Rome hadn’t annulled his first marriage to Catherine. Henry didn’t just ignore Rome; he declared himself supreme and head of the Church of England. The preamble to the First Succession Act, which declared the children of Henry and Anne to be heirs to the throne, declared that the Pope had no right to judge these matters. That was the sticking point. Thomas More and John Fisher both refused to take the oath and were sent to the Tower of London for treason.
To most of their colleagues in the government and British Church leadership, it seemed scrupulous to refuse. Couldn’t they take the oath and ignore that part of the preamble? Even Thomas More’s wife and daughter tried to convince him to take the oath and rationalize his actions. Every English bishop took the oath… except John Fisher.
Hindsight tells us that these men opposed the beginning of the English Reformation, which would alter the history of England forever. But it wasn’t that clear at the time that England had reached this turning point. To most of their colleagues, More and Fisher were making a big deal out of nothing.
But it wasn’t nothing. They were remaining true to their consciences, which had been well-formed by the truth of the Gospel. They were remaining true to their Church, their Pope, and to their faith.
These were not the actions of crazy men who loved tyranny and rebellion and hated their government. Sir Thomas More held one of the highest positions in the English government as Lord Chancellor, until resigning his post to stay true to his conscience. He was a friend of Henry VIII, well-respected by his contemporaries. These were learned men who did not act rashly. They were men who loved England , who loved the Crown… but loved God first.
They staked their lives on ideals: the authority of the papacy and the sanctity of marriage. John Fisher famously declared publicly that he was willing to die as St. John the Baptist died: in defense of marriage. Pope Paul III made him a Cardinal while he was in the Tower of London, but Henry refused to allow the red hat come to England, proposing he send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.
Although few realized it at the time, “it was a time of national crisis,” British author Ronald Knox commented. “There were only a few people who kept their heads, and those few who kept their heads lost their heads.”
Are we willing to stake our lives on such ideals? For a few small sentences? Have we formed our consciences so as to rely on them in times of crisis? Have we prayed for the courage to face the consequences if we stake our lives on ideals … and “lose”?
Thomas More and John Fisher show us that we are called to be good citizens of our homeland, but good citizens of Heaven first. Even when our colleagues and friends tell us that the issue at hand doesn’t matter and compromise is the better route, we know that Jesus Christ and His Church are worth staking our lives on and losing.
Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, pray for us.
“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” -St. Thomas More