Rochester has two martyrs. Both are now saints and commemorated next to each other.
The first is John Fisher, whose name you will have heard in the Chatham school and the church on the Rochester-Maidstone road. His name lives on in thousands of other schools throughout the world.
Fisher was born at Beverley, Yorkshire, in 1469, and was sent to study at Cambridge University at the age of 14. He became a doctor of theology, and stayed on to teach. At the age of 22 he was ordained a priest. Throughout his life, Fisher believed that understanding Christianity through making sense of the Bible and the church’s tradition gave insight into the most important things in life: the choices between good and evil and the forgiveness of God.
Fisher’s brilliance shone throughout the university city and he became involved in the foundation of two more colleges, Christ’s and St John’s. He began to make powerful friends and was appointed Bishop of Rochester.
His rise was initially helped by the patronage of King Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and he became chancellor of Cambridge University.
Henry VIII’s ways with wives proved Fisher’s undoing. Henry’s campaign in the 1530s to control the English church forced Fisher to choose between his standing at court and his commitment to the Catholic faith. He was confessor to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon, and could not support Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Fisher was arrested and confined to the Tower of London, tried and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, on the morning of his execution, 22 June 1535, the method of death was changed because it was thought that Fisher — by this time aged 66 and frail through illness — would not survive being dragged behind a horse four miles to Tyburn.
Instead he was carried to Tower Hill in a chair, where he pardoned the executioner, recited the Te Deum, was blindfolded and beheaded. He was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935.
Bloody end to devout baker’s pilgrimage
The second city saint is a different sort altogether. He was neither learned nor powerful, and little if written of him — but like John Fisher he suffered a horrible end. And like Fisher he has a school named after him.
The name of St William of Perth, also known as St William of Rochester, lives on in the Rochester hospital, now the Wisdom hospice, and the road in which it lies. It was near here that the godly William was murdered about 1201.
His death would substantially benefit traders and the cathedral funds in Rochester. And William was commemorated in the Bishop of Rochester’s coat of arms.
William was born at Perth and nearly all that is known of him comes from the Nova Legenda Anglie chronicle. As a young man, William was wild, but on becoming a man, and taking up the trade of baker, he devoted himself wholly to the service of God. William set aside every 10th loaf for the poor. He went to mass daily, and one morning, before it was light, found by the church door an abandoned child, whom he adopted and to whom he taught his trade.
Later he took a vow to go on a pilgrimage to the holy sites in Britain, and set out with his adopted son, whose name is given as Cockermay Doucri — Scots for David the Foundling. They stayed three days at Rochester, and were to travel next day to Canterbury, but instead David wilfully misled his benefactor and, with robbery in view, felled him with a blow on the head and cut his throat.
The body was discovered by a mad woman, who plaited a garland of flowers and placed it first on the head of the corpse and then her own — and instantly lost her madness.
It was a miracle! And upon learning her tale the monks of Rochester carried the William’s body to the cathedral and buried him there. In 1256 the Bishop of Rochester, Lawrence de S Martino, obtained the canonisation of William by Pope Innocent IV.
Canonisation of a local saint was big business — even if the saint’s connection was merely that he had the bad fortune to be murdered while passing through. Rochester had to act quickly to cash in — so a shrine was built in the north-east transept. It attracted crowds of pilgrims. At the same time a small chapel was built at the site of the murder, which became known as Palmersdene. The Catholic Encyclopaedia says that remains of this chapel “are still to be seen near the present St William’s Hospital, on the road leading by Horsted Farm to Maidstone”. I regret to say I’ve never found it. Can anyone help?
In February, 1300, King Edward I gave 14 shillings to the shrine. On 29 November, 1399, Pope Boniface IX granted an indulgence to those who visited and gave alms to the shrine on specified days. St William is represented in a wall-painting, which was discovered in 1883 in Frindsbury church which is supposed to have been painted about 1256-66. His feast was kept on 23 May.
The coat of arms of See of Rochester bore St Andrew’s cross as well as a scallop shell in its centre, symbolising St William. St William of Perth Primary School, Rochester, is named after him — and is next to St John Fisher Church.