23 Aug A Centuries-Old Island Mystery
Beheaded in England, his family terrorized into hiding. Did Saint John Fisher’s family find refuge in the remote Azores Island?
My mother was born in the Azores, a pleasant archipelago in the Atlantic, known for its mild weather and strategic position half way between Europe and America.
Mother was related to the Fisher family, which by tradition was related to St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. Fisher was beheaded in 1535 by order of Henry VIII. He had been Chancellor of Cambridge College, and fell into disfavour for refusing to renounce his Faith. (Editor’s Note: In May 1535, the newly elected Pope Paul III in the hope of saving Fisher’s life, made him a Cardinal. The effect was precisely the reverse: Henry forbade the cardinal’s hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.)
Mother’s family treasured jewels and vestments which had belonged to the martyred Fisher; in particular, she remembered the Bishop’s small alabaster statue of two deer. These jewels and vestments are now deposited in the Matrix Church of the capital city of Azores, Ponta Delgada.
Englishmen Fled For Their Lives to the Azores
The early 17th century must have been particularly unpleasant for Englishman and Scotsman, as so many abandoned their homes and fled. Most of these emigrants went to the New World colonies but some tried to find a home nearer to England.
The Fishers were not the only expatriates to seek the Azores. Throughout the 17th century, while war and persecutions raged in Europe, several other English and Dutch families made their way to these islands. Other surnames common in Azores, such as Berquó and Cymbron, are probably of Northern European origin as well.
This was the case when two brothers, William and Ambrose Fisher, established themselves in the island of Terceira in Azores around 1655. We know the story of the Fishers from the point of their setting foot in the Azores. The brothers arrived quietly, simple small traders or sailors and they married locally. But they managed to ascend the social ladder, first becoming quite successful in the trade with Brazil and then using the proceeds to purchase large tracts of land in the islands of Terceira and S. Miguel. In time, they were recognized as landed gentry with the corresponding rights and obligations. Their seat is near the city of Lagoa in S. Miguel.
The Mysterious Fisher Brothers
It has been far more difficult to establish the claimed link between the Fishers of the Azores and the family of St John Fisher. St. John’s family was from Yorkshire; William and Ambrose hailed from East Anglia, some 100 miles further south. They were born in 1633 and around 1640 respectively, the first and second sons of Edward Fisher and Priscilla Park and grandsons of another Edward Fisher from Westleton in Suffolk and Barbara, daughter of Samuel Hasnet from Great Fransam in Norfolk. Their great-grandfather was Richard Fisher from Shermeborne in Norfolk, married to Anne, daughter of Robert Monring from Wells in the same county. This Richard, in turn, was the son of Edward Fisher from Great Wichingham in Norfolk, of whom we know little. Here, the trail ends.
More than a century had elapsed between the martyrdom of Saint John Fisher and the arrival of the two brothers in Azores. During this time, the Fishers could well have moved to Norfolk. (Editor’s Note: They would have found East Anglia to be particularly inhospitable, as in these years was a hotbed of Puritan dissent. In fact, America’s Pilgrim Fathers came from this area.)
The Fisher family in the Azores were known to be practising Catholics, pious and charitable.
In favour of their claim is the fact that the Fisher brothers were known in the Azores to be truthful and fair in their trade. They were also known to be practising Catholics, pious and charitable. Louis, one of the ten sons of William, entered the Company of Jesus. He spent his life in South America, in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay and Brazil. He died in Rio in 1745.
Finally, it is worth noting that those who claimed their ancestry in the family of St. John Fisher did not enjoy any advantage for that. At the time of the arrival of the Fishers in the Azores and until much later, the memory of the Saint did not elicit any special popularity in Azores or elsewhere. Most probably he was utterly unknown. Indeed, John Fisher was beatified only in in 1886 together with dozens of other English martyrs; he was canonized as late as 1935, together with Thomas More. Until then, Fisher was unheard of in the Azores or even Catholic circles other than the English.
Personally, I believe in such an honourable link between my mother’s family and one of the first English martyrs. I hope you enjoyed my account of it; and may the example of St. John Fisher help us to be valiant in defence of the Faith.ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Duarte Trigueiros is the Professor of Business Studies at the University of Algarve in Southern Portugal. He studied in Lisbon and in Norwich in the UK. Before entering academy he worked in industry during almost two decades. Besides teaching in Algarve, Duarte also taught in Lisbon, in Macao (China) and in Dili (East Timor). Duarte an enthusiast of G. K. Chesterton and amongst his other interests is the study of history of the Catholic missionary efforts in Asia.