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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 9. John Fisher

John Fisher, bishop of Rochester (1504), deserves a place among those scholars who belonged to the close of the reign of Henry VII, more from his sympathy with learning and his successful efforts to revive the intellectual activity of Cambridge university than from his actual attainments in scholarship. He was a Cambridge student, who graduated in 1487, and, by a singularly rapid promotion, became master of Michael house in 1497, and, in the end, chancellor of the university (1504, and elected for life in 1514). He early attracted the attention of Lady Margaret Tudor, countess of Richmond and mother of Henry VII, and became her confessor. He was the first holder of the Lady Margaret professorship of divinity (1502) founded by that lady to provide gratuitous instruction in theology. He was also employed by her to establish in the university her endowment for a preacher in the vernacular. Such preaching had almost died out both in England and on the continent of Europe, and the Lady Margaret foundation attempted to do what was being done all over Germany by endowments such as that of Peter Schott of Strassburg, which found a place for the celebrated John Geiler von Kaisersberg.

Fisher was a patron, not a very highly appreciated one, of Erasmus. He was mainly instrumental, it is said, in procuring for him facilities for taking a divinity degree in Cambridge—facilities of which no use was made. On the accession of Henry VIII, lord Mountjoy, or Andreas Ammonius for him, wrote an extravagant letter to his old preceptor, telling him of the accession of a humanist prince and assuring him that Henry would make his fortune. The heavens were laughing, the earth exulting, all things full of milk, of honey and of nectar. Henry had assured the writer that he would foster and encourage learned men, without whom the rest of mankind would scarcely exist at all. “Make up your mind that the last day of your wretchedness has dawned. You will come to a prince, who will say, ‘Accept our wealth and be our greatest sage.’” Poor Erasmus hurried from Italy to find the king quite indifferent to his needs. It was then that Fisher, eager to promote learning in his university, induced the great humanist to lecture on Greek in Cambridge from August, 1511, to January, 1514. He used, first of all, the grammar of Chrysoloras and, later, that of Theodorus Gaza. He does not seem to have enjoyed his residence much and his letters are full of complaints about the scanty remuneration he received. He saw before him “the footprints of Christian poverty” and believed that he would require to pay out a great deal more than he received. The university authorities, on the other hand, asked lord Mountjoy to assist them in paying the huge salary (immensum stipendium) they had promised their lecturer. Fisher very properly refused to make any advances from the money given him for the foundation of Christ’s College, and sent him a private donation. The complaints of Erasmus must not be taken too seriously. His keen intelligence was enclosed in a sickly body whose frailty made continuous demands on the soul it imprisoned. It needed warm rooms free from draughts, stoves that sent forth no smell, an easy-going horse and a deft servant; and, to procure all these comforts, Erasmus wrote the daintiest of begging letters. We have but little certain information about the results of his work at Cambridge, but it must have been effective. He was a notable teacher, and Colet wished often that he could secure him for his school. He was at the university at the very time when it was in the act of changing from a medieval to a modern seat of learning; and Fisher congratulated himself on having induced the great scholar to remain a long time among its students.

Fisher’s own writings were almost all controversial. He was the determined enemy of the Lutheran reformation, and the nature of his books is recognisable from their titles: Confutatio Assertionis Lutheranae; De Eucharistia contra Johannem Oecolampadium libri quinque; Sacri Sacerdotii Defensio contra Lutherum; a defence of Henry VIII’s Assertio septem Sacramentorum; and so forth. Fisher maintained his opinions loyally to the end. He resisted to the utmost of his ability Henry’s claim to be considered the head of the church of England, and he refused to declare his belief in the invalidity of the marriage of Catharine of Aragon with the king. This resistance cost him his life. He was beheaded 22 June, 1535.