THOMAS BILNEY (d. 1531), English martyr, was born at or near Norwich. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but at all events it was not before 1495. He was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, graduating LL.B. and taking holy orders in 1519. Finding no satisfaction in the mechanical system of the schoolmen, he turned his attention to the edition of the New Testament published by Erasmus in 1516. "Immediately," he records, "I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness." The Scriptures now became his chief study, and his influence led other young Cambridge men to think along the same lines. Among his friends were Matthew Parker, the future archbishop of Canterbury, and Hugh Latimer. Latimer, previously a strenuous conservative, was completely won over, and a warm friendship sprang up between him and Bilney. "By his confession," said Latimer, "I learned more than in twenty years before." In 1525 Bilney obtained a licence to preach throughout the diocese of Ely. He denounced saint and relic worship, together with pilgrimages to Walsingham and Canterbury, and refused to accept the mediation of the saints. The diocesan authorities raised no objection, for, despite his reforming views in these directions, he was to the last perfectly orthodox on the power of the pope, the sacrifice of the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the authority of the church. But Wolsey took a different view. In 1526 he appears to have summoned Bilney before him. On his taking an oath that he did not hold and would not disseminate the doctrines of Luther, Bilney was dismissed. But in the following year serious objection was taken to a series of sermons preached by him in and near London, and he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Arraigned before Wolsey, Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, and several bishops in the chapter-house at Westminster, he was convicted of heresy, sentence being deferred while efforts were made to induce him to recant, which eventually he did. After being kept for more than a year in the Tower, he was released in 1529, and went back to Cambridge. Here he was overcome with remorse for his apostasy, and after two years determined to preach again what he had held to be the truth. The churches being no longer open to him, he preached openly in the fields, finally arriving in Norwich, where the bishop, Richard Nix, caused him to be arrested. Articles were drawn up against him by Convocation, he was tried, degraded from his orders and handed over to the civil authorities to be burned. The sentence was carried out in London on the 19th of August 1531. A parliamentary inquiry was threatened into this case, not because parliament approved of Bilney's doctrine but because it was alleged that Bilney's execution had been obtained by the ecclesiastics without the proper authorization by the state. In 1534 Bishop Nix was condemned on this charge to the confiscation of his property. The significance of Bilney's execution lies in the fact that on essential points he was an orthodox Roman Catholic.
See Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. vols. iv.-v.; Foxe's Acts and Monuments; Gairdner's History of the Church; Pollard's Henry VIII. (A. F. P.)
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