Saints and Cults in Medieval England
edited by Susan Powell, Shaun Tyas, £49.50
It is common today to hear that more Christians died for the faith in the 20th century than in the other 19 centuries combined. In these early years of the 21st, matters have grown worse still, with the Christians of the world suffering perhaps the greatest religious persecution ever recorded, if Aid to the Church in Need is to be believed.
Yet on the eve of the Reformation, martyrdom was uncommon. There had not been a martyr canonised for almost 300 years, and England, the “island of saints”, as St Edmund Campion would later describe this country, had produced not one martyr since St Thomas Becket was hacked to death in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Some historians have argued that this meant that the papacy lacked the intellectual framework to recognise the first martyrs of the Reformation for what they were, even as they mounted the scaffolds of Tyburn and Tower Hill in 1535.
For those facing execution, however, things were naturally different. They had often spent years contemplating whether to accept death for their faith and grasped precisely what they would become.
Among the many fine essays in this anthology, which predominantly concerns the veneration of saints in England up to the Reformation, is an examination by David Harry, of the University of Chester, of how St John Fisher in particular made sure that his death was, in the end, only ever going to be interpreted as a martyrdom. That Fisher is a martyr is taken for granted nowadays, but back then Thomas Cromwell used murderous force to crush any sign of a cult at home while at the same time trying to convince the courts of Europe that Fisher was really a traitor. Sadly for Henry’s henchman, he was no match for the saintly Bishop of Rochester, even in death.
Moreover, the intellectual and theological legacy of St John Fisher even today goes beyond martyrdom and extends to the Catholic understanding of sacramental marriage and the cause of Christian unity. For Fisher, the three were inextricably linked, all manifestations of the faithful spiritual union between Christians and their Lord and between each other.
Harry’s essay is valuable because it expounds clearly what Fisher believed and how he came to express it and, perhaps inadvertently, what such beliefs offer to problems with how marriage is understood today. The Church in our own time, after all, is very much marked by martyrdom, confusion over marriage and the ever-present threat of disunity.
From the outset, Fisher was concerned about the consequences of Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for adultery, apparent from a homily he delivered in 1521 against the extravagant Field of the Cloth of Gold. By then, Henry was actively engaged in extramarital affairs, having fathered a two-year-old son with his former mistress, Elizabeth Blount, and being well into an affair with Mary Boleyn, the elder sister of Anne, his future queen. Salvation belonged to those who “have trewly kept theyr bonde of matrimony”, declared Fisher in the sermon at St Paul’s. He also spoke of the folly of Herod, a foretaste, perhaps, of his intervention at the legatine trial of 1529 when he vigorously defended the validity of the royal marriage to Catherine. On that occasion, he again alluded to Herod as he cited the example of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist.
Quite presciently, Fisher had seen Henry’s infidelity as a threat to the unity of the Church, and he had noted the same flaw in Martin Luther, whom he accused of taking another’s wife by marrying Katharina von Bora, a nun espoused to Christ.
It is difficult to avoid wondering where the saint would have stood in the controversy over Amoris Laetitia if he were alive today, especially when this essay tells the reader that Fisher, in his theology, sets out the role and limits of the papacy on the subject of marriage. He argued that, while a ruling by a pontiff is absolute, it “can only be in accordance with divine Scripture, and its sole purpose was defence of the unity of the faith … that it maintains the unity of the faith upon which the Church is built”.
Harry writes: “For Fisher, matrimony was a matter on which the mystical body of the Church depended. It represented the unity of faith, the bond of charity which tied all Christians together in love and worship. Those prepared to die in defence of that principle stood in stark contrast to those – Luther, Herod, Henry – who threatened it.”
Fisher died a martyr for marriage by opposing Henry. But his martyrdom was, in his eyes, a marriage itself: the consummation of a spiritual union with Christ. He dressed accordingly on the day of his death in his best clothes, with hose trussed and his coat buttoned, and displaying “a mery countenance”.
In this book, the saint also features in an essay by David Starkey (such is the quality of the contributors) who reflects on how Henry VII pulled out the stops to have his uncle, Henry VI, recognised as a saint.
There is so much in these 22 essays that recalls the glory of Catholic England and her saints, what they meant to the life of the Church, the monarchy and the people, and how they were depicted in shrines, sculpture, stained glass and text. The book is very academic and not always an easy read, but it’s a gem.
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