Cardinals were first given their iconic scarlet mitre by Pope Innocent IV in 1245, a reminder they must give themselves to the Church even if it means their own bloodshed.
Many cardinals have suffered for their Faith, but just one suffered martyrdom as a prince of the Church.
Saint John Fisher was a stout defender of the sanctity of marriage, and for that was beheaded by King Henry VIII of England on June 22nd in 1535.
Prior to ordering his execution, the king most famous for his six marriages actually admired Fisher for his holiness and intellect, calling him affectionately: “my Rochester.”
When rumors of the royal divorce from Catherine of Aragorn became the talk of the kingdom, Fisher publicly declared he was willing to die defending the sanctity of marriage when the King sought his blessing (or silence).
Fisher even served as advisor to Catherine of Aragorn during her trial, urging an appeal to Rome. He also wrote at least seven books speaking against the divorce, making him the most prominent target for the king’s ire.
When the Parliament passed the Act of Succession, all royal subjects were ordered to accept the king’s marriage to Anne as “undoubted, true, sincere and perfect.”
Fisher was imprisoned, along with his friend Thomas More, for refusing the oath. Several bishops visited him in prison, unable to persuade him. Pope Paul III went so far as to name him a cardinal in May of 1535, hoping Henry would not execute a prince of the Church.
The pope’s delegation bringing the scarlet mitre for Fisher was denied entry, and King Henry promised to send his head to Rome.
A bright morning on June 22nd, Fisher spoke to the crowd gathered before where he was set to be beheaded and said his last words.
“Christian people, I am come hither to die for the Faith of Christ’s holy Church; and, I thank God, hitherto my stomach hath served me very well thereunto; so that yet I have not feared death. I desire you all to help and assist with your prayers, that, at the very point and instant of death’s stroke, I may in that very moment stand steadfast without fainting in any one point of the Faith; free from any fear. And I beseech Almighty God of his infinite goodness to save the King and this realm, and that it may please him to hold his holy hand over it, and send the King a good council.”
Fisher spoke cheerfully with such courage it is said “he appeared to all, not only void of fear, but also glad of death.”
His martyrdom was not forgotten. Pope Leo XIII beatified Fisher and 54 English martyrs in 1886, and Pope Pius XI canonized him and More in 1935.