Life & Soul

The priestly ‘hit squad’ that uplifted England

a scene from 'Wolf Hall' with Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell (PA)

I was invited recently to give a talk to the University of Cambridge Catholic Chaplaincy’s Graduate Society. On a typically East Anglian winter afternoon, with the light dying early and a cold, damp wind seemingly straight from the Urals, I found my way to Fisher House, a medieval building in Guildhall Street not far from King’s Coll­ege and the market place. A recent appeal allowed the conversion of a former market hall which was also part of the property to be turned in a worthy chapel and library, so that Fisher House now has good space for wor­ship and meetings – and even a bar.

Even after the repeal of the University Tests in 1871, the English Hierarchy discouraged Catholics from attending Oxford and Cambridge, concerned at what could happen to young minds in an atmosphere of heady intellectual debate if they were not nourished in their own faith. To obviate these dangers,a Catholic chaplaincy was est­ablished with the help of the Duke of Nor­folk, so that Catholics who did attend Camb­ridge could receive formation in Catholic philosophy and apologetics. This remains one of the essential tasks of any university chaplaincy, for the danger is still a real one, that the Devil might seem to have all the best arguments.

Thus I delivered my talk, met some very inspiring graduates and enjoyed a convivial supper cooked by them in a panelled room in the old house.

Since then, I have been thinking a good deal of John Fisher, who rose to the unique distinction of being elected chancellor of the university for life.

In 1482, a 13-year-old Fisher became a student at Michaelhouse, later to become part of Trinity College. The first stage of study, the Trivium, consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic or dialectic. This was followed by the Quadrivium: astronomy, music, arithmetic and geometry. Most of the teaching and learning was oral. (Fisher was eight when Caxton’s press published its first book.) As in the works of Aquinas, a question was posed, disputed and the objections answered.

A student would have to spend seven years disputing through these subjects to become a Master of Arts. If you managed only half the course you became a Bachelor of Arts, and it seems that many students only stayed long enough to acquire sufficient proficiency in Latin to be able to pursue a clerical or administrative career. Interestingly enough, theology was not, at this time, required study.

Fisher received his Master’s degree in 1491 and seems to have been ordained a priest around the same time. Only then does he seem to have begun the long training in theology, earning his doctorate in 1501.

Fisher was a great force for raising intellectual standards in the university but also in the Church more widely. His interest was not narrowly academic, but also “pastoral”, as we would say these days. Too few priests and bishops were well-formed theologically.

He wanted to raise the standard of theology in order to raise the standard of preaching. There was, he believed, a catechetical crisis in parishes. He persuaded influential people, most notably the Queen Mother, Margaret Beaufort, to endow readerships and scholarships for theological study. The tenure of these also incurred the duty of preaching
out­side the university.

In 1501, by which time he was the vice-chancellor, he successfully petitioned Rome to allow a kind of “hit squad” of university-educated priests who were to be licensed to preach “throughout the whole kingdom under the common seal of the university”, as a way of raising standards.

Since Fisher’s nemesis, Thomas Crom­well, is currently being lionised in a fictional drama on BBC, it is important that Catholics are immunised from the myth-making about what really caused the break with Rome. Fisher’s actions alone show that real reformation was already in progress in England.

It is hardly surprising that two of its greatest supporters, Fisher and More, men of out­standing talent and probity in their chosen vocations, became insurmountable obstacles to a call for reformation which was a fig leaf for the dynastic and libidinous ambitions of Henry VIII, egged on by men like Cranmer and Cromwell, whose own self-interest made them his natural allies.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/02/14)