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Bilney, Thomas (DNB00)

BILNEY or BYLNEY, THOMAS (d. 1531), martyr, was a member of a Norfolk family which took its name from the villages of the same designation in that county. Local historians (Blomefield's Norfolk, iii. 199, ix. 461) assert that he was born either at East Bilney or Norwich; but these statements seem to rest on probability rather than definite evidence. The date of his ordination as priest makes it impossible for him to have been born before 1496, and as both his parents were alive at his death, it is improbable that he was born much earlier. When still very young he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His ardent religious temperament drew him from legal studies towards an active clerical life. In the summer of 1619 he was ordained priest by Bishop West, at Ely, on the title of the Priory of St. Bartholomew, in Smithfield (MS. Cole, xxvi. 161, from West's Register; MS. Add. 5827). The absence of any reference to his status in Bishop West's Register proves that he did not take his degree of LL.B. or become a fellow of his college until some subsequent time.

The earlier period of Bilney's manhood seems to have been passed in a series of spiritual struggles analogous to those of Luther. He sought for relief in those mechanical theories of 'good works' which the reigning scholasticism inculcated. But fastings and watchings, penances and masses were powerless to relieve the sense of sin that weighed so heavily on his sensitive temperament. At last the fame of the great scholar's Latinity attracted Bilney to the edition of the New Testament which Erasmus had published in 1516. That Erasmus's Latin, rather than the Greek text, should have allured Bilney, suggests that he, whose early studies had been in the civil and canon laws, had little or no knowledge of the latter language. Like Luther, Bilney found in the teaching of St. Paul what he had so long sought for in vain in the arid tenets of the schoolmen. 'Immediately I felt,' he exclaims, 'a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch as my bruised bones leapt for joy.' Henceforward the scriptures were his chief study. A bible which once belonged to Bilney is still preserved in the library of Corpus College, Cambridge. Its frequent annotations and interlineations show how diligent he had been in its study. The doctrines of justification by faith, of the nothingness of human efforts without Christ, of the vanity of a merely external religion of rites and ceremonies, became for Bilney, as for so many others of his generation, the starting points of a new and brighter existence. Other young Cambridge men were groping on the same path, and these earliest English protestants formed a sort of society, of which Bilney became one of the leaders. Barnes and Lambert ascribed their conversion to his influence. Matthew Parker, who, in 1521, had come up from Norwich to Corpus College, soon acquired an enthusiastic affection for one who was perhaps his fellow-townsman. In 1524 Hugh Latimer, then as ardent a conservative as he afterwards became a strenuous reformer, read for his B.D. thesis a violent philippic against Melanchthon. Bilney, who nad perhaps studied Lutheran books in secret, and who had been present at the recital of the dissertation, visited Latimer the next day, and reasoned with him with such convincing subtlety that Latimer ended by completely accepting his position. From that day began a lifelong friendship between Bilney and Latimer. Henceforth they were constantly in each other's society, and in their daily walks on 'Heretic's Hill,' as the people called their favourite place of exercise, Bilney quite won over his new friend. 'By his confession,' said Latimer, 'I learned more than in twenty years before.' Their position had this in common, that with a burning zeal for righteousness and spiritual religion their unspeculative intellects were never seriously troubled with mere doctrinal and theological difficulties. To the last Bilney remained orthodox, after mediaeval standards on the power of the pope, the sacrifice of the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the powers of the church. Foxe is quite pitiful on his blindness and grossness on these points. Bilney remained where Luther started, and died too early to be influenced, like Latimer, by external changes of a later date.

The little band of Cambridge reformers were zealous in preaching and in works of charity, however opposed they were to the formal 'good works' of the schoolmen. Bilney and Latimer constantly visited together the foul lazar-house and equally foul prison of Cambridge. On one occasion they discovered a woman in gaol who had been unjustly sentenced to death for child-murder, and Latimer's influence with the king procured her pardon. This must have been at the very end of Bilney's career.

Though a zealous opponent of the ceremonial fastings of the church, Bilney set in his own life a rare example of abstinence and self-denial. He allowed himself little sleep. He generally contented himself with one meal a day, and distributed the rest of his commons to the prisoners and the poor. 'He could abide,' says Foxe, 'neither singing nor swearing.' The 'dainty singing' of the greater churches was to him mere 'mocking against God;' and whenever Thirlby, the future bishop, who had rooms beneath him, played upon his recorder, Bilney 'would resort straight to his prayer.' Latimer is always enthusiastic upon the simplicity, the unworldliness, and the transparent honesty of 'little Bilney,' as he affectionately calls him. He was 'meek and charitable, a simple good soul not fit for this world.'

In the propagation of his teaching, Bilney gave his small and spare frame no rest. Cambridge and London were not enough for him. The election of Stephen Gardiner to the mastership of Trinity Hall in 1525 may have made his college a less pleasant place of abode to him. On 23 July 1526 he obtained from Bishop West a license to preach throughout the whole diocese of Ely (Cole MS. as above, xxvi. 116). He also preached frequently in Norfolk and Suffolk, but his admission into so many churches almost proves that his general teaching seemed orthodox in character. But his denunciations of saint and relic worship, and of pilgrimages to Walsingham and Canterbury, his rejection of the mediation of saints, and of many other cherished portions of the popular religion, drew the attention of Wolsey to his case, who, as legate a latere then exercised a jurisdiction that transcended both the diocesan and metropolitical authorities. Wolsey had been and accused of remissness in dealing with heresy. He began to take a severer line. About 1526 he seems to have had Bilney before him and to have dismissed him on taking an oath that he did not hold, and would not disseminate, the doctrines of Luther (Foxe, iv. 622). But next year (1527) Bilney, in conjunction with his Cambridge friend Arthur, fell into more serious trouble. About Whitsuntide he preached a series of sermons in and near London. At St. Magnus's, near London Bridge, he exclaimed 'Pray you only to God, and to noo saynts, rehersing the Litany, and when he came to Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, he said Stay there.' He also said that 'Christen men ought to worship God only and not Saynts.' At Willesden, in Midalesex, he taught the same doctrines in the same Whitsun week, and declared that but for the idolatry of the Christians the Jews would long ago have been converted to the christian faith. At Newington, in Surrey, which was also in the diocese of London, he again denounced prayer to saints. A sermon at Christ Church, Ipswich, on 28 May, and a disputation in that town with Friar Brasiard against image worship, together with a previous 'most ghostly sermon' on 7 March, had excited general suspicion. Tunstal, who had obtained evidence of his Ipswich proceedings (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, vol. iv. pt. 2, No. 4390, Denham's confession), caused Bilney and Arthur to be arrested. They were confined in the Tower, where the society of a fellow-sufferer for his religion somewhat consoled Bilney. On 27 Nov. 1527 Wolsey, after solemn mass and sermon in the abbey, held a great court in the chapter house at Westminster. The Archbishop of Canterbury, yielding precedence to the legate a latere, the bishops of London, Norwich, and several other bishops, with a large number of theologians and jurists, were present. Bilney and Arthur were brought before them. Bilney was asked by the cardinal whether he had not, contrary to his oath, again taught the doctrines of Luther. He replied 'not wittingly,' and willingly swore to answer plainly the articles brought against him. In the afternoon witnesses were heard. Next day (28 Nov.) the court met at the house of Richard Nix, bishop of Norwich, who, with the bishops of the London, Ely, and Rochester, heard the case as the legate's deputies. On 2 Dec. another meeting was held at the same place, and elaborate articles and interrogatories were laid before the two prisoners. In his answers Bilney, while assenting altogether to the majority of the articles, while admitting that Luther was 'a wicked and detestable heretic,' and accepting power of the pope, expressed a desire that at least some part of the scriptures should be in the vulgar tongue, and that pardons should be restrained, and, by his qualified and elaborate answers to other points, seemed not to be fully in agreement with his interrogators. Accordingly, when on 4 Dec. the court met again in the chapter house of Westminster, Tunstal, who had now taken the chief place in it, exhorted Bilney to recant and abjure. He replied, 'Fiat justitia et judicium in nomine Domini.' Then the bishop solemnly declared him convicted of heresy, but deferred sentence to the next day. Tunstal seems to have acted with much moderation and forbearance to Bilney, if, indeed, the very unsubstantial character of his heresies did not almost require his acquittal. On 5 Dec. Bilney was again brought up, and again refused to recant. Tunstal exhorted him to retire again and consult with his friends; but in the afternoon Bilney returned with a request that his witnesses might be heard, and said that if they could prove that he was guilty he would willingly yield himself. But the bishops resolved that it was irregular for him to renew the trial, and again pressed his abjuration. He refused point-blank, though petitioning again for more time. After some reluctance Tunstal gave him two days more, which he employed in consulting with his friends Farmer and Dancaster. On Saturday, 7 Dec, the court met finally, and in answer to the stereotyped request to abjure, Bilney said that by Dancaster's advice he was resolved to abjure, and trusts they would deal lightly with him. He then formally read and subscribed his abjuration, and the bishop, after absolving him, imposed as penance that he should the next day (Sunday) go before the procession at St. Paul's bareheaded with a faggot on his shoulder, that he should stand before the preacher at Paul's Cross all sermon time, and that he should remain in a prison appointed by the cardinal as long as the latter thought fit.

Bilney seems to have been kept in the Tower for more than a year. In 1529 he was released, and went back to Cambridge. Perhaps the influence of Latimer, which had been actively used to help him all through proceedings, may have led to his release. But freedom brought no relief to Bilney. His sensitive temperament and scrupulous conscience were tormented with remorse for his apostasy. His friends did their best to console him, but to no purpose.

'The comfortable places of scripture,' says Latimer, 'to bring them unto him, it was as though a man should run him through the heart with a sword, for he thought the whole scriptures sounded to his condemnation.' Into such despondency did he fall, that his friends were afraid to leave him day or night. He endured this life of misery for more than two years. At last he resolved to go out again and preach the truth which he had denied. Late one night he took leave of his friends in Trinity Hall, and said 'that he would go to Jerusalem.' Forthwith he set out for Norfolk. At first he taught privately but growing bolder he preached publicly in the fields, for, his license to preach having been withdrawn, the churches were no longer open to him. Ultimately he went to Norwich, where he gave 'the anchoress of Norwich' a copy of Tyndale's Testament. Soon after he was apprehended by the officers of the bishop.

Convocation was now assembled in London, and on 3 March it drew up articles against Bilney, Latimer, and Crome. Court favour made it easier for the latter two to escape, but Bilney's case as a relapsed heretic was now desperate. He seems to have taken up a bolder line in the last short period of field preaching in Norfolk, and even Latimer disavowed any sympathy with him if he were a heretic (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, v. 607). Arraigned before Dr. Pellis, chancellor of the bishop, Bilney was degraded from his orders, and handed over to the secular arm for execution. With great cheerfulness and fortitude he prepared for his end. He wrote a letter of farewell, that still survives (Nasmith, Cat. MSS. in C. C. C. Cambridge, p. 355), to his father and mother, and drew up two discourses (printed in Townsend's Foxe, vol. iv. ap. v.) that are almost wholly devotional in their character. He was constantly assailed by the arguments and entreaties of the chiefs of the four orders of friars who had houses in Norwich; and Dr. Pellis also pressed him to recant. Bilney's gentle and simple soul could hardly be unmoved by these efforts. Differing so little as he did from the church, it was doubtless a great consolation to him to hear mass, to confess, to receive the eucharist and absolution. The clergy and the Norwich townsmen were glad to see him so penitent. On the morning of his execution (19 Aug. 1531) he heard mass in the chapel of the Guildhall where he was imprisoned, and was exhorted to make n thorough recantation before the people at his execution. He was led through the Bishopsgate into a low valley called the Lollard's Pit under St. Leonard's Hill, which was thronged with the crowd assembled to witness his martyrdom. He spoke to the crowd, admitted his error in preaching against fasting, exculpated the anchoress and even the friars, but exhorted the people to believe in the church and eulogised chastity. Dr. Pellis then produced a bill, saying, 'Thomas, here is a bill; ye know it well enough.' 'Ye say truly, Mr. Doctor.' answered Bilney. He then read the bill, but apparently either to himself or in an inaudible voice, so that none knew what the tenor of the document was (Appendices to Foxe; Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, vol. v. No. 372-3, but cf. 522 and 560. Foxe's account seems the less trustworthy).

The flames were then lighted, and Bilney soon perished. A controversy as to the precise nature of his last utterances sprang up between Read the mayor and an alderman Curatt, and their contradictory depositions still remain. Sir Thomas More, relying upon Curatt, asserted in the preface to his pamphlet against Tyndale that Bilney recanted all his heresies. This the protestants denied. Foxe argues with much violence against More, but More had seen the depositions of which Foxe was ignorant, and Foxe's main argument is the denial of Matthew Parker, who was present at his old teacher's execution. The truth seems to be that Bilney was so little of a heretic, that a mere statement of his views would have borne the appearance of a recantation to those who, like More, regarded him as a thorough Lutheran. Had Bilney's over-scrupulous conscience allowed him to stay quietly at Cambridge a year or two more, he would have found all and more than he contended for accepted by the very men who hounded him on to death. The execution of a man so gentle and harmless as Bilney was peculiarly disgraceful to the government, even if, as most people then admitted, it was right to burn heretics and sacramentaries.

[Our main authority for Bilney's life is Foxe's Acts and Monuments, vol. iv. in Townsend's edition, which also gives valuable appendices of documents and state papers, all of which, with the other documents bearing on the subject, are summarised in Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, vol. v., edited by Mr. Gairdner; Foxe's account can be verified and checked by comparison with the extracts from the register of Tunstal, MS. Baker xxi., and by Cole's transcripts from the register of West. MS. Cole xxvi.; Latimer's Sermons; Blomefield's Norfolk; Tanner's Bibliographia Britannica; an excellent modern summary is in Cooper's Athenæ Cantabrigienses, i. 42, a longer one in Dean Hook's Ecclesiastical Biography.]

T. F. T.