Often, stories of martyrs and saints are so reworked over time that they become outrageously improbable, and it becomes all but impossible to excavate to find what really happened. That’s doubly unfortunate, because some unquestionably genuine stories are so powerful in their own right that they need not the slightest additional coloring.
As a case in point, I offer the story of English saint John Fisher, the legendarily holy Bishop of Rochester under Henry VIII. He was also a noted scholar, with a magnificent library. Despite his achievements, though, he earned the king’s anger by opposing his policies, and particularly his plan to set aside his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. He point blank refused to take an oath of allegiance that would have meant recognizing the king as head of the English church, in place of the Pope. In 1534, he was arrested and imprisoned, at the age of 66 – extreme old age in the circumstances of that time. To encourage him in his resistance, the Pope named John Fisher a cardinal, further infuriating the king.
Certainly, John Fisher was going to be executed – but Henry could not have imagined just how thoroughly that act would be transformed into martyrdom on the highest scale. For whatever astonishing reason, the court ordered that Fisher die on June 22, 1535, which just happened to be the day dedicated to Saint Alban, England’s greatest saint, and its most famous martyr (c.300AD). Unless somebody within the regime was actively trying to make Fisher a martyr, this was a monumental blunder. But never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
A large crowd watched as the frail and sick old man was taken to the place of execution. They also saw John Fisher’s stunning use of scripture in these last moments. Taking the New Testament he carried, he read out these words: “This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. I have glorified Thee upon the earth, I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do” (John 17:3- 5). As he then said, “Here is learning enough for me to my life’s end.”
Ah, but his executioners had not yet finished in giving him the perfect opportunity to transform execution into pure martyrdom.
This was June 22, Midsummer day, and his execution took place early on that glorious morning. Looking to the sun, seconds before his death, what other verse could possibly come to his mind except Psalm 34? “They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed.” His mind undoubtedly roamed over the rest of this wonderful psalm of rescue and refuge, with its potent Eucharistic themes.
Accounts vary of his final words, but they were probably Psalm 31, which asserts trust in God against all persecutors. And so he died.
He was canonized in 1935.
Now, how could any later hagiographer have improved on any of this? Was this not the perfect death of a Christian leader in the face of tyranny?