A few leaves fluttered lazily in through the window, landing beside a bottle of ink and a quill.
Bishop Alphonse Roberts looked out the window. The sight of the ancient oak tree greeted him like an old friend. When he came to take over his responsibilities as Bishop of Shoreborough, they told him that the tree had always been there, probably long before St. Augustine of Canterbury came to convert the English to Christianity. Something about that must have inspired him, so his coat of arms featured the tower of Shoreborough Keep, the castle beside the city, and an oak tree, whose symbolism he himself wasn't quite sure of. Beneath it was his motto, "Si mortuum fuerit, fructum affert", if it dies, it bears fruit.
He returned to the letter he'd received from Sir Michael Geoffrey, the Lord Mayor of Shoreborough:
'Your Grace, Bishop Roberts,
As you may have heard, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and the former Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, have been executed for the crime of treason against our Lord and King, Henry, whom they denied of his rightful title of Supreme Head of the Church in England. We appeal to you, as a fellow subject of His Majesty, not to cause discord among the people, and take the Oath of Supremacy recognizing His Majesty's title.'
Alphonse crossed himself and said a prayer for the souls of the deceased. He'd met Bishop Fisher a few times, when the Bishops of the Realm met, and had been impressed with his intellect and his defense of the legality of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the issue which started this whole controversy in the first place. He agreed with Fisher that it wasn't lawful for the King to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, without the permission of the Pope, but he hadn't stood up to defend his friend. He knew it was foolish to resist. It would only mean confiscation of properties, stripping of titles and certain death, and he intended to keep his Shoreborough lands and his head.
From somewhere or other, the oak tree came to mind, though how it was connected to the Oath of Supremacy, he didn't know.
In the evening, Alphonse put on his purple skullcap and cloak (it was Italian silk, of course; only the best for a bishop of his stature and riches). It had long been his custom to take a walk around the square. It helped him clear his mind of the troubles that came with being a bishop.
The square was full of people. Sir Geoffrey stood up on the scaffold, wearing his rich ermine-trimmed robes and gold chain. He was witnessing the people take the Oath of Supremacy. He was a Reformista Protestant, as some people would sayand wouldn't have a problem denying the Pope's authority. A rough-looking man in peasant's clothing stood beside Alphonse, looking on at the scene.
"Will you take the oath, too?" the peasant asked him.
"I will," Alphonse replied. "I'm not a fool."
"You look like a learned man. Well, I'm not a scholar; I don't know whether the King was right or not, but still, it all seems something beastly."
"A man's got to have his own thoughts. 'Tis wrong to force them to think otherwise or lose their heads."
"You know, you shouldn't say that here. It's treason."
"If it is, it is, and if it's not, then it's not. All I know is, we're all God's children, as those priests would say, and a man's a man for all that."
Alphonse nodded and walked away, thinking about his friend Fisher.
That night, Alphonse dreamed.
He was sitting in his office, but he was not in it. He seemed merely to be . . . what was the expression? Looking in through a mirror darkly.
Presently he heard a sound like a staff or a walking stick tapping against the floor, and a purple-robed bishop leaning heavily on a walking staff ambled into the room. The bishop smiled at him.
"Hello, Alphonse," said John Fisher.
"John! It's you!" He frowned. "Aren't you dead?"
"Oh, so I am." Fisher sat down in front of him, looking pensive. After a while, he said, "Did you really think I was a fool?"
"I don't think you're a fool, John, it's justI'm not willing to sacrifice all this." He gestured around the room.
"Aye, Christ had less than you have, but He sacrificed it all for you."
"I'm not Christ."
"True, but you are a bishop, and called to be like Him. Be not afraid."
"How can I not be afraid?"
"I was afraid too, Alphonse, but you can overcome it. All you need is faith, as sturdy as . . . ah!" Fisher smiled, "Faith as sturdy as an oak tree."
"But there's no resurrection on the third day for me! I'll die!"
"Si mortuum fuerit, fructum affert, 'if it dies, it bears fruit'." Fisher looked out. Alphonse followed his gaze and saw the oak tree. "Will you come with me, to Heaven?"
Alphonse sighed. "I don't know."
"Give me your answer tomorrow."
And Fisher faded away with the breeze . . .
Sir Michael looked at Alphonse, waiting. He'd come to the Bishop's office this morning bearing the text of the Oath and accompanied by armed guards. The threat was very clear.
Alphonse picked up his quill and dipped it into the ink bottle. He was going to sign it; he was going to save his life. But before the quill could touch the parchment, he saw the crucifix on his desk. Give me your answer tomorrow, Fisher had said.
Familiar names looked back at him from the parchment: wealthy merchants, scholars and guild masters who had donated much to the Church, and most of whom had become his friends. Maybe, just maybe, he could sign it, for conformity.
With a sigh, he put down the quill. Sir Michael gasped.
"What is it now?" he said, hastily adding, "Your Grace."
"If I sign this, what will I get?"
"Whatever you desire."
"Can it give me happiness, too?"
The Mayor stared at him, perplexed. "Can you sign it, if not for riches, then for friendship?"
"And if the Angel of Death were to visit me tomorrow to take me with him, will you come with me for friendship?"
There was no reply. Alphonse leaned back in his chair.
"I refuse to sign it," he said.
"It is repugnant to the Faith."
"No other reason?"
"Love takes on where reason leaves off. Always remember that."
Several weeks later
The guards led the prisoner out of Shoreborough Keep. He was dressed in a black robe which clung to his gaunt figure. A long white beard hid his chin.
The prisoner was Alphonse Roberts.
On the way up the scaffold where the executioner waited, he lost his footing. He felt a strong arm helping him to his feet. It was Sir Michael Geoffrey.
"I'm sorry it had to come to this," he said sadly.
"Don't be sorry," Alphonse replied. "When it's time for them to chop off my head, tell them not to cut off my beard. It hasn't committed treason."
He mounted the scaffold and faced the people. He traced a cross in the air.
"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sanctii."
"Amen," they replied, crossing themselves.
He looked toward the oak tree, and fancied seeing his friend Fisher there, giving him his blessing.
"Good people," said Alphonse, "I have only this to say: Henry is my Lord and King, whom I pray for, but I have another Lord and King. His name is Jesus Christ."
He knelt down and placed his head on the block, and after a brief prayer, he stretched out his arms to signal the executioner . . .