John Fisher (1469-1535)

Saint John Fisher, humanist, prelate, and later martyr, was instrumental in the founding of St John's College. He had originally come to Cambridge in the 1480s, gaining his BA in 1488. He went on to become one of the Fellows of Michaelhouse, one of the two Colleges later refounded as Trinity College by Henry VIII. After ordination he became confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and, later, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and Bishop of Rochester (both 1504). It was through his influence that Lady Margaret was to found both Christ's College (1505), and St John's. She was not to see the opening of the latter, but after her death in 1509, Fisher was to secure the College's establishment in 1511. Subsequently he was to become a controversialist against Lutheranism. Eventually, however, his opposition to the dissolution of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and his refusal to take an oath supporting Henry's right to act as Supreme Head of the Church in England, led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London. Henry made this a treasonable offence for which the punishment was death, and Pope Paul III's creation of Fisher as a cardinal did not help his cause. He was executed for treason on Tower Hill.

Fisher and the Library at St John's

Fisher amassed an enormous scholarly Library which he bequeathed to St John's after his death. After his execution for treason, however, this was forfeit to the Crown and the College was never to see it, in spite of continuing appeals over the next decade from the likes of Roger Ascham. But Fisher had already been involved in giving and purchasing books for the Library, and on the first inventory of its stock drawn up ca. 1516 four items appear to have been given by him, and another six purchased by him for the Library. All were volumes of canon law and scholastic theology, as befitted the stated purpose of the College's foundation. Of these items only two appear to remain in the Library, both biblical commentaries: Simon da Cascia's Expositio super totum corpus Evangeliorum (ca. 1484-7) and Alfonso de Tostado de Madrigal's Floretum sancti Matthaei (1491). Neither volume bears any marks of provenance relating to Fisher, but, considering the fact that any reference to him was excised from the College's history after his fall from grace, this is perhaps unsurprising, and these volumes were clearly rebound at the period of the move to the current Old Library buidling, so they may once have borne his marks (see the volume on The university and college libraries of Cambridge in the Corpus of British medieval library catalogues series for more details.)