Reviewed by Sarah Covington (Department of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2001)
Martyr and Traitor
Martyr and Traitor
Martyrs' lives are shaped by their deaths, and nowhere is this more the case than with John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and the only martyr aside from Thomas More and the Carthusian monks to meet his end under Henry VIII over the question of the divorce. But what if Fisher hadn't died the way he did, as defender of the church and Catherine of Aragon? Would he (or should he) deserve the attention he has gotten without the subsequent illuminations bequeathed by hagiographers? Maria Dowling argues that he should, and in her short biography of Fisher examines aspects of the man overshadowed by the dramatics of his death.
Fisher was a difficult and austere figure, without the humor or even perhaps the humanity of More, but Dowling's is a sympathetic portrait of a man who was Margaret Beaufort's confessor and executor, the founder of St. John's College, Cambridge, a humanist (in Dowling's view), a prelate, preacher, cardinal and, finally, a traitor. Structured thematically, Fisher of Men divides the life into chapters which focus on Fisher's establishment, through Margaret's patronage, of St. John's College and its curricular program, his place and correspondence among leading humanists of the day, and his tenure as bishop of the small see of Rochester, where he emphasized preaching, wrote devotional works, confronted heretics and an emerging Protestantism, and administered the diocese, to somewhat mixed result. Only is the last chapter devoted to Fisher's visible and aggressive role in the king's break with Rome, and the issues which made him such a relentless thorn in Henry's side.
Along with its treatment of the relationship with Margaret Beaufort, the book's strengths lay in Dowling's treatment of Fisher's erudition, and she makes a convincing case for his position in the early sixteenth-century humanist gallery. At St. John's, Fisher would initiate a program requiring the study of Greek and Hebrew (which he would also learn), and bring over Erasmus -- with whom he corresponded -- to lecture in 1511. Indeed, one of the more intriguing examinations in Dowling's book concerns Fisher's acquaintance with the great Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin, who sparked in him an interest, though not an embrace, of cabalistic philosophy. Fisher's dispute with Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples over the identity of Mary Magdalen has tended to contribute to subsequent claims that he was not a humanist; but his extensive library, pursuit of the biblical languages, and literary productions, Dowling writes, make him a significant intellectual figure of the time.
As bishop of the poor and unprestigious diocese of Rochester, Fisher did not perhaps enact as many reforms in administration and clerical abuse as he could have, but he was present and apparently well-liked by his flock, and placed great emphasis on preaching. As Dowling writes, for Fisher "the preaching ministry was an essential instrument to bring sinners to repentance" (p.89). Equally important was the necessity of counteracting emerging heresies through treatises, most notably his Confutation of Luther's Defence, written in 1521. Interestingly, no heretic was burned in the diocese of Rochester during Fisher's tenure -- a fact which Dowling attributes (somewhat questionably) to Fisher's ability to persuade heretics to recant; nevertheless, Fisher did preside over dealings with heretics, if not quite as brutally as John Foxe would describe, and was forced to confront Protestants, including Hugh Latimer, at his own university of Cambridge.
Dowling finally treats Fisher's relationship to the king's divorce in a straightforward fashion, arguing that the animus between the bishop and Henry has been overstated, and revolved above all around questions of papal authority and Christian unity. Relying heavily on the (somewhat problematic) dispatches of the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Dowling describes the dilemmas at stake and the intransigence on all sides, which would finally lead Fisher to treasonous intrigues. Dowling goes on to argue that Pope Paul III was motivated primarily by a desire to recognize Fisher's "notable learning and talent" (p. 163) when he bequeathed the cardinal's hat on him; one wonders whether the pope would have been so naive as to not foresee Henry's explosion at the news, but in any case, Fisher's fate was sealed. Moreover, according to Dowling, after the execution of Cardinal Fisher, "there was no way back to Rome unless [Henry] humbly submitted," which he would not do; thus did Fisher's death represent "the turning point in Henry's ecclesiology" (p. 174) -- and, one might add, England's.
Dowling's biography can feel somewhat redundant and truncated at times, as it moves quickly through the themes which animated Fisher's life and work. One wishes, for example, that more analysis had been given to the larger theological and political battles concerning the divorce, including the arguments brought forth by the king and his men. In addition, greater attention could have been paid to Fisher's choice of death, especially as it existed within a larger context of martyrdom and the ideal of suffering and imitatio christi. While Fisher's pursuit of humanist studies may have marked him as a man of his age, he also died in full embrace of tradition and the church, harkening back to older ideals at the same time that he represented one of the first in what would become a new, sixteenth-century wave of Roman Catholic martyrs. Similarly, a lengthier examination of the news of Fisher's execution, including the reaction on the continent, would have been interesting, not only in illuminating larger international relations but in examining the ways in which one particular martyr was subsequently memorialized through the ages. In general, however, and despite these lapses, Dowling has written a very good and readable short account of Fisher's life, shedding valuable light on important aspects of the man before he came the martyr, dying for the true church and attainment of "the glorious country of heaven" (p. 89).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Sarah Covington. Review of Dowling, Maria, Fisher of Men: A Life of John Fisher, 1469-1535.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.