In 1535 the University of Cambridge lost its chancellor, John Fisher, to the scaffold. His death was a far-reaching display of royal power, for Fisher had been convicted for denying a proposition that the university itself had officially upheld a year earlier: that the pope held no power over the English Church. Fisher's death was thus a shocking declaration of the consequences of Henry viii's new order, bringing a brutal edge to a controversy that the university had long been engaged in. The message was further underlined for Cambridge later that year when Fisher's successor as chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, acting on royal commission, sent visitors to inspect Cambridge and to administer the oath of supremacy. As Damian Riehl Leader put it, this visitation underlined the university's ‘subjugation’ to the royal will, revealing the vulnerability of the institution in the face of seemingly ever-growing royal ambition.
Five years later Fisher's foundation, St John's College, systematically removed the many visible traces of his influence upon its buildings, ‘transforming’ his symbol of the fish into other, less politically-charged images. By this time, though, there had been further turns of the wheel and in that same year, 1540, Cromwell, just like Fisher, would face a traitor's death. Fisher's execution, then, was neither the first nor the last time that the upheavals of reformation, in all its forms, shaped and disrupted Henrician Cambridge. This chapter traces some of the ways in which the state tried to control this process, and some of the reactions that this met with inside the university. There is a longstanding historical tradition that sees Cambridge as one of the reform movement's natural homes, as an institution that was quickly and largely easily won to the evangelical cause. There is some truth in this, and it is an idea with contemporary roots. None the less, this story has often obscured another, more nuanced one: a university where evangelical ideas remained deeply contested throughout the period, and where the primary outcome of the new ideas was religious division. Cambridge conservatism in the early years of the Reformation has previously received relatively short shrift. If these years in the university are to be understood, though, it requires closer examination. We must also begin a little before 1535.