Fortnight For Freedom: Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher v. Henry VIII

 Fortnight For Freedom 2015

A spot of blood and grease on the pages of English history.

Charles Dickens, referring to King Henry VIII

For English speaking Catholics, June 22 is a bright day on the calendar of the Saints.  On this day we remember the two saints who stood against King Henry VIII, for the great principal that the State must never be allowed to control the Church.  Much that we Americans celebrate as freedom was born out of Church-State struggles down through the ages.  Sometimes those who stood against the State fell in the struggle, but the concept that the State is not absolute, that there are limits to its authority, is one of the great gifts of the Catholic Middle Ages to all of mankind.  It is only in modern times, since 1500, that the heresy that the State may exercise absolute authority has been a constant source of misery and strife in the history of the West.

When he ascended to the throne of England Henry VIII was popularly known as the Golden Hope of England.  His father Henry VII had never been loved by the people of England:  a miser and a distinctly unheroic figure no matter what Shakespeare would write in Richard III.  He had brought the end of the War of the Roses and peace to England, but that was about as much credit as his subjects would give the grasping, unlovable Henry Tudor.  His son by contrast looked like an Adonis when young, strong and athletic.  He had a sharp mind and had been well-educated, intended, ironically, for a career in the Church before the death of his elder brother Arthur.  He was reputed, correctly, to be pious.  He had considerable charism in his youth and knew how to make himself loved with a well timed laugh or smile, and loved he was, by the nobles, commons, his wife Katherine, and the Church.  Few reigns started more auspiciously than that of Henry, eighth of that name.

By the end of his reign he was widely despised by most his subjects.  Called a crowned monster behind his back, his reign had brought religious turmoil to England and domestic strife.  The best known symbols of his reign were the headman’s axe, the stake and the boiling pot in which he had some of the luckless individuals who roused his fury boiled to death.

It of course is small wonder for a Catholic to have little love for Henry VIII and his reign, but the distaste for Henry extends well beyond members of the Church.  Winston Churchill, the great English statesman and historian, in his magisterial History of the English Speaking Peoples has this to say about the executions of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher:

The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand.  They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom.  They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter.  More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook.  He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness.  Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”


Go here for a video of the martyrdom of Saint John Fisher.

Churchill himself was not noted for being a churchgoer.  When asked if he was a pillar of the Church of England, he quipped that perhaps he could be considered to be a flying butress of the Church, supporting it from outside.  Perhaps this helped give him a certain objectivity regarding Henry VIII.  Here is part of his summing up of Henry’s reign:

“Henry’s rule saw many advances in the growth and the character of the English state, but it is a hideous blot upon his record that the reign should be widely remembered for its executions.  Two Queens, two of the King’s chief Ministers, a saintly bishop, numerous abbots, monks and many ordinary folk who dared to resist the royal will were put to death.  Almost every member of the nobility in whom royal blood ran perished on the scaffold at Henry’s command.  Roman Catholic and Calvinist alike were burnt for heresy and religious treason.  These persecutions, inflicted in solemn manner by officers of the law, perhaps in the presence of the Council or even the King himself, form a brutal seqeul to the bright promise of the Renaissance.  The sufferings of devout men and women among the faggots, the use of torture, and the savage penalties imposed for even paltry crimes, stand in repellant contrast to the enlightened principles of humanism.” 

The final word on the reign of Henry VIII we will give to Saint Thomas More, one of the few men, with Bishop Fisher, with the courage to stand against Henry during his bloody reign, and who gives us an example to emulate in times of persecution:

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Henry Tudor was one of the most despotic, evil men to wield political power from the time of Caligula to the 20th century. In that time period, few men , one of them being Ivan the Terrible could rival him.

  2. Henry VII, ably seconded by Cardinal Morton, had laid the foundations of the Tudor despotism. He was able to do so because the old nobility had effectively exterminated each other in the Wars of the Roses.
    Henry VIII could send More & Fisher to the scaffold; the Emperor Charles V could not send John of Saxony or the Margrave of Hesse to the scaffold. Similarly, in Scotland, the royal power, even when wielded by the redoubtable Mary of Guise as Regent, proved no match for Argyll (Chief of the Clan Campbell), Glencairn, Morton, Ruthven and the other Lords of the Congregation, backed as they were by the unswerving loyalty of their vassals or their clansmen. George Buchanan remarked that in England rent was paid with silver; in Scotland it was paid with steel.

  3. Henry VIII was to blame for not producing a male heir. Catherine of Arragone was one of Henry VIII’s victims. In his rapaciousness, Henry VIII never permitted his seed to mature, a prerequisite for producing a male heir. Henry VIII died of syphilis contracted from a lack of celibacy.

  4. a minor but noteworthy attention to fact- Donald, the text says in a line ” the stake and the boiling pot in which he had some of the luckless individuals who roused his fury boiled to death.” note the plural. boiling pots were provided for blanching the quartered body parts maintained near view by the victim at Tyburn etc.etc.

    Boiling to death was reserved for poisoners attempting their craft on peers of the Realm. history tells us a special law permitting boiling as a death sentence was passed by parliament in 1531 to kill Richard Roose was the only ‘tudorite’ [singular] to end his days in 1532 via that seemingly horrible punishment. The starvation of the Carthusians and Margaret Clement is a magnificent story of courage and compassion – https://www.tudorsociety.com/henry-viii-and-the-carthusian-monks/ to see being DRAWN, HUNG AND QUARTERED …..

    Love all your postings donald and the comments .et al. ….they always makes me think !!

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