Thomas Bilney (1531)

Thomas Bilney was born around 1495 near Norwich, and he might be called the father of the Reformation. While at Trinity Hall, Cambridge reading canon law, he became very depressed and thought that taking advice from priests would cure him. He was advised to fast, do prolonged vigils, go to mass, pay indulgences (paying the Church money to reduce the penalty for sins committed), but none of these worked. One day he heard that someone was selling Erasmus’s New Testament, that was translated from the original Greek into Latin, and he thought about buying it but was afraid because it was banned. He eventually got up enough courage to visit the house where it was being sold, and he bought a copy. He hoped that these words of God would bring him some relief from his torment. The verse that converted him was 1 Timothy 1:15 ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst.’

Bilney would invite his friends to read the precious new book with him and many were touched. At this point William Tyndale arrived in Cambridge from Oxford and John Fryth became ‘born again’ and the three of them would meet together. These three young scholars set to work with a passion. They met to discuss and formulate this nascent Protestant theology. Oh, to have been there to listen to these amazing men! Bilney was the leader of the group in Cambridge and over time others joined him, who could have included, Robert Barnes, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, who were in Cambridge at the time.

They declared that neither absolution by priests or any other religious rite could give remission of sins; that the assurance of pardon is obtained by faith alone; and that faith purifies the heart. They then told everyone they could the saying of Christ that so offended the monks: Repent and be converted!

Bilney, who longed for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, shut himself up in his room, fell on his knees, and called upon God to come to the assistance of his church. Then rising up, he exclaimed, as if prophesying: ‘A new time is beginning. The Christian assembly is about to be renewed...... Someone is coming to us, I see him, I hear him, it is Jesus Christ...... He is the King, and it is He who will call the true ministers to be commissioned to evangelise his people.’Tyndale, full of the same hopes as Bilney, left Cambridge in 1519. Therefore, the English Reformation began independently of those of Luther and Zwingle; deriving its origin from God alone.

Through the work of Bilney several influential men in Cambridge came to know Jesus. The most important of these was Hugh Latimer, the future Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester. Latimer was a priest known for his ardent fanaticism. Bilney watched him for some time and was impressed with his passion, even though it was misplaced. He had a great gift for discerning character which enabled him to recognise error, and to select the best method for combating it. Bilney prayed and made a plan to get close to Latimer. This was on the face of it quite a job as Latimer would not have anything to do with an evangelical. He went to the college where Latimer lived. ‘For the love of God,’ he said to him, ‘please hear my confession.’What an inspired strategy! Latimer was only too happy to hear Bilney’s confession as he saw this as a chance of persuading him to turn back to the Church, and if Bilney turned back, everyone else in Cambridge would. Bilney told Latimer all about the pain he had experienced before his salvation and he explained what happened to him on reading the New Testament. Bilney’s words were simple, but they cut into Latimer. Latimer said later, ‘I learned more by this confession, than by much reading and in many years before ......I now tasted the word of God and forsook the doctors of the school and all their fooleries.’ Latimer was horrified at the war he had been waging against God; he wept profusely with Bilney consoling him.

The conversion of Latimer was not lost on the University; many young men came to hear Bilney preach. He would spend much of his time in prayer and reading the Word. His body was weak; he kept a strict diet, normally only having one meal a day, and he would sleep just four hours a day. He and Latimer would spend a lot of time visiting the mad houses, the jails and the leper hospitals.

Another person whom Bilney targeted was the influential Dr Robert Barnes. He spent a lot of time in prayer and after many conversations with Barnes, Holy Spirit did His work and Barnes was converted. Notice how Bilney targeted people of influence; understanding that it would ease the spreading of the Gospel. Something we should do today.

In 1525 Bilney obtained a licence to preach throughout the diocese of Ely. He denounced saint and relic veneration, together with pilgrimages to Walsingham and Canterbury, and refused to accept the mediation of the saints. The diocesan authorities raised no objection, because, despite his reforming ideas, he was perfectly orthodox on the power of the Pope, the sacrifice of the Mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the authority of the church.

In 1526 Bilney was called to London and ordered not to preach Martin Luther’s doctrines. In 1527 Bilney, with his friend Thomas Arthur, preached powerfully around the country. In Ipswich he maddened the monks so much that twice, two of them pulled him out of the pulpit at St George’s. He was arrested and taken to London. Arthur continued to preach the same message and was also arrested; ending up with Bilney in the same dungeon. They were brought before Cardinal Wolsey in the chapter house at Westminster and they were told to abjure or die.

Cardinal Wolsey left and the verdict was left to Tunstall, Bishop of London. From his cell Bilney thought that Tunstall, who was a friend of Erasmus, might be influenced when he heard that it was Erasmus’ New Testament that converted him. He therefore wrote a series of eloquent letters to Tunstall, trying to influence him. The bishop was touched and did not want Bilney’s death, as Bilney was one of the most admired men in the nation; loved not only by his friends, but also by his enemies, so he gave him every chance to recant. He kept threatening Bilney with death and then giving him time to reflect. Many of his friends came to see him and stayed with him day and night. Slowly, the idea of a compromise came to Bilney, so that he would be allowed to live to further carry out God’s work on earth. Following his friend Arthur, he abjured before the bishops. Latimer later commented that if ever one was in prison you should not see your friends as they would do more harm than your enemies.

Bilney did penance at St Paul’s Cross and was then put in prison. Realising what he had done he was in torment; his friends were unable to console him. He was in the Tower of London for over a year but was released in 1529. Back in Cambridge it seemed as if even the Scriptures condemned him. Fear made him tremble constantly, and he could hardly eat or drink. Then in 1531 Holy Spirit spoke to his heart, and he fell at the foot of the cross, shedding floods of tears, and there he found peace. The more God comforted him the greater seemed to be his crime, so he decided to become a martyr. At ten o’clock one night, when everyone in Trinity Hall was going to bed, Bilney called his friends around him, reminded them of what he had done and added: ‘You shall see me no more...... Do not stop me: my decision is made up, and I shall carry it out. My face is set to go to Jerusalem.’He shook hands with each of them and left Cambridge for Norfolk where he encouraged believers and preached to the unbelievers.

He preached near Norwich, openly in fields, to great crowds. His voice was heard in all the county; weeping over his former fall, he said: ‘That doctrine which I once abjured is the truth. Let my example be a lesson to all who hear me.’He stopped off in Ipswich on the way to London. He preached there, violently attacking the errors of Rome. A friar was listening and noted down what he said. Back in London he bought some New Testaments, one of which he gave to a lady in Norfolk who lent it to those who visited her. The local bishop heard of this, reported it to Sir Thomas More who had Bilney arrested and brought to the Tower of London.

The blind octogenarian bishop of Norwich wanted to make an example in his diocese, so Bilney was taken to Norwich for trial. Many priests came to his cell to persuade him to recant. The trial began and the witness gave their testimony; there was no question as to what the result would be. Latimer tried to help his friend by urging the judges to decide according to justice. This was a very brave thing to do, but at this time he had a lot of favour with the King and this protected him from any repercussions.

Bilney was condemned, degraded and handed over to the sheriffs. A few of his friends went to Norwich to say goodbye, including Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. His friends found him full of joy. During their last talk with him, Bilney put his finger in the flame of the lamp and said, ‘When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.’He was quoting Isaiah 43:2, and this passage is marked in Bilney’s Bible.

Thomas Bilney became only the third person to be burned in England during the Reformation. His execution in August, 1531 took place beyond the city gate known as Bishop’s Gate in a valley called Lollard’s Pit (so named because of the Lollards who were burned there over a hundred years earlier) which was in the shape of an amphitheatre. He died repeating the word ‘Credo’(I believe). Even Bilney’s enemies recognised the sort of man he was. The bishop of Norwich exclaimed, ‘I fear I have burned Abel and let Cain go.’Latimer was inconsolable and twenty years later he said that his friend was always doing good, even to his enemies.

Thomas Bilney was not perfect; he recanted when tested, but who can judge him for that; anyway, he soon made up for that weakness. Also, his theology only went part of the way towards Reformation, however, he was probably the first person of note to start formulating the Protestant theology. As an evangelist he made a significant contribution to the Reformation as he did through his prayers. In my book he was a great man. 

This is taken largely from ‘The Reformation in England’ by Merle d’Aubigne.

Thomas Bilney, professor of civil law at Cambridge, was brought before the bishop of London, and several other bishops, in the Chapter house, Westminster, and being several times threatened with the stake and flames, he was weak enough to recant; but he repented severely afterwards.

For this he was brought before the bishop a second time, and condemned to death. Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, "I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven." He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, "Jesus, I believe"; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.

This is taken from 'Foxe's Book of Martyrs.'

Additional Information

Thomas Bilney was imprisoned in the Norwich Guildhall Undercroft for some time before he was taken to his execution at the Lollards Pit. One can see the prison by special arrangement. The Lollards Pit was approximately on the road between the two buildings at the far end of the picture. Bilney walked over this bridge. There is a memorial to the right of the bridge down by the river.

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