Marginalia1531.NOw in the yere after the deathe of the holye martir Thomas Hytten, it commeth to hande to make mentyon of the famous and worthy man Thomas Bilney, who with no lesse constancye, putte hym self forth for the Gospel of Christ.
Unlike Robert Barnes or other Cambridge men who were among the earliest English evangelicals, Thomas Bilney left few written works at the time of his execution by burning on 19 August 1531. Posterity therefore has had to depend very largely on Foxe's martyrology for his portrait. When Patrick Collinson wrote that John Foxe's beautiful stories are `indispensable' for our understanding of the Reformation, because `we cannot and never shall be able to see the events' that he recounted `except through his spectacles' (Patrick Collinson, `Truth and legend: the veracity of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs', in Elizabethan Essays, (London, 1994), p. 177), we may appreciate that Foxe is also indispensable for what we can know about Bilney. In this section of his text it is particularly clear how Foxe and his printer John Day looked through the spectacles of the men who had actually known Bilney, and how they interwove the contradictory accounts of his life, examinations, retractions, and death into a memorable portrait of a man who was sacrificed at a delicate moment in the life of the Christian Church.[Back to Top]
In the 1563 edition, their source material was drawn from the official records kept by Cuthbert Tunstall, then bishop of London, in his episcopal register; the sermons of Hugh Latimer; as well as the polemical denunciations of Sir Thomas More. In the second edition of 1570, Foxe and Day were assisted by those who had known Bilney, and were still alive at the time that they were writing, most notably their great patron the archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who was a Norwich native, and as a young fellow of Corpus Christi College had accompanied Bilney when he went to the stake. The reason why Foxe consulted these sources about Bilney's death was that he was responding to charges made by Thomas More, and repeated later by Nicolas Harpsfield in 1566, that Bilney had died a penitent sinner, reconciled with the Catholic church.[Back to Top]
Latimer's first printed references to Bilney appeared during the reign of King Edward VI, when Day (while he was working with William Seres in the late 1540s) began to disseminate his sermons with the backing of Katherine Brandon, the widowed duchess of Suffolk, whose arms appear at the beginning of Latimer's books. After Latimer was burnt in 1555, Foxe and Day continued to gather his sermons as they prepared their successive editions of the A&M. Day printed a fresh assemblage of Latimer's sermons in 1562, with previously-unprinted additions that contained further references to Bilney. Even at the end of Day's life, he discovered more sermons by Latimer to put into print.[Back to Top]
To Latimer, we can attribute the evocative portrait of `Bilney, little Bilney' the vulnerable and harmless scholar, which he created in three sermons:1) 'Bilney, litle Bilnei, that blessed martyr of GOD', first appeared in Latimer's Seventh Sermon preached before King Edward VI: The seconde sermon of Maister Hughe Latimer, whych he preached before the Kynges Maiestie within his graces Palayce at Westminster, the xv. day of Marche M.ccccc.xlix. (London: John Day and William Seres , STC 15274.7), sigs. Bb3A-Bb3B; (reprinted in the Parker Society edition of Latimer's Sermons, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1844), p. 222.2) Bilney asked Latimer to hear his confession (1524): first printed in Latimer's First Sermon on the Lord's Prayer in 27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende father in God and constant matir [sic] of Iesus Christe, Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other commyng to our handes of late, whych were yet neuer set forth in print, (London: John Day, 1562, STC 15276) in the section known as Certayn Godly Sermons, made vppon the Lordes Prayer, at fol. 13B (reprinted in Latimer's Sermons, ed. pp. 334-5).3) Bilney's `anguishe and agonie' following his recantation of 1527 appeared in one of the final books Day printed, in Latimer's Lincolnshire Sermons for the Second Sunday in Advent Fruitfull sermons preached by the right reuerend Father, and constant martyr of Iesus Christ M. Hugh Latimer (London: John Day, 1584, STC 15280), fols. 247-247v; reprinted in Sermons and Remains, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1844), p. 51.Latimer's reminiscences of Bilney's life and sufferings, as they were adapted in the A&M, have proved to be definitive over the centuries, or rather, the chief means by which Bilney has been understood, at least until recently.[Back to Top]
In contrast to Latimer's portrait of Bilney as the noble victim, Sir Thomas More's characterization was polarized between Bilney's obvious reputation for goodness, contrasted against the harm that More believed Bilney inflicted when he preached and distributed books in London and East Anglia. So More wrote during Bilney's lifetime that he had heard that his reputation, was of 'a good honest vertuous man/ farre from ambycyon and desire of worldely worshyp/ chast/ humble/ and charytable/ free and lyberall in alm[h]ouse dede[s]/ and a very goodly prechoure' in A dyaloge of syr Thomas More knyghte . . . touchyng the pestylent secte of Luther [and] Tyndale (London: William Rastell, 1530, STC 18085), especially sig. B3B. B5A-C6B; reprinted in Sir Thomas More, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, eds. Thomas M. C. Lawler et al., in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 6, pt. 1 (New Haven, 1981), especially pp. 27-8, 35-51. As Lord Chancellor, More was asked to investigate some of the legal disarray that accompanied Bilney's execution, which he discussed in The confutacyon of Tyndales answere (London: William Rastell, 1532, STC 18079), sig. Cc3B-Dd1A, reprinted in The confutacyon of Tyndales answere, ed. L. A. Schuster et al., in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 8, pt. 1 (New Haven, 1973), pp. 22-5. More's nuanced and complicated understanding of Bilney, which moved in turns from sympathy through to acidulation, has been especially influential in recent decades in the work of John F. Davis and Gregory Walker, among others.[Back to Top]
What was Bilney's own religious complexion? The term `Protestant' began to emerge only from 1529, after the second Diet of Speyer and it did not gain any currency in English until long after Bilney's death. Probably it is not fair to call Bilney a Protestant, for he died before doctrinal lines and confessional identities had been sufficiently developed to make their meanings clear (this was also the view of the Jesuit Robert Parsons writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century). Bilney's opinions reveal a certain fluidity that was characteristic of the Cambridge men of his generation. Also, it may not be completely appropriate to refer to his conversion, as Foxe and Day did, nor to his converting of others, for they defined with the benefit of hindsight what has become known as `the conversion experience' in a manner that might not be said to match the type of profound religious and emotional engagements that Bilney or Latimer knew. Some profound transformations occurred in their devotional lives, but `conversion', as Foxe and Day labeled them, might be too limiting to express the complexity of what actually occurred. Elements of Lollardy have been identified in Bilney's thinking, but many of his ideas were also unexceptional in the broad currents of the Christian Church. It is hard to discern how much of Luther's ideas he accepted. In 1527 he agreed that Luther's opinions had been justly condemned, and that Luther and his followers were wicked and detestable heretics. Four years later, however, some of his ideas sound very much influenced by Luther indeed. But by the time of his death, Bilney may have already been surpassed in his thinking by other Cambridge men. This is apparent if we can believe a comment the A&M attributed to Richard Nix, bishop of Norwich, who exclaimed, `I feare I haue burnt Abell & let Cain go', after learning that Nicholas Shaxton had preached during a University Sermon on Ash Wednesday 1531 that it was wrong to say publicly that there was no purgatory, but not damnable to think so privately. John F. Davis, followed by P. R N. Carter, termed Bilney an `evangelical': one who believed that scripture defined faith, devotion, and practice. Evangelical is the term for Bilney that will be embraced here.[Back to Top]
Why was Bilney burned in 1531? The circumstances of his execution go back to his defiant to return to Norwich and preach publicly. His adversaries held the advantage once he decided to repudiate his abjuration and 'go to Ierusalem'), and see his friends no more (like Christ on his way to Golgotha). As a relapsed heretic, he could expect little mercy. More importantly, his execution came about as one element in the larger struggle that was taking place in England between the clergy and Henry VIII for control over the English Church. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (who examined Bilney in 1527) was discarded as the king's chief advisor in 1529 after he failed to obtain an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon from Pope Clement VII. From mid-1530, the king became emboldened to assert his own authority against the jurisdiction of the pope. Henry began to press forward the understanding that he was the supreme head of the Church in England, and that English kings had always held spiritual sovereignty in their realm. Under this line of reasoning the papacy was a mere usurper in England, and the pope was only the bishop of Rome. In 1527, Bilney made the daring suggestion that kings and princes should assume the role of an Ezechias and destroy any religious images that detracted worshippers from the sacrifice that Christ had made on the cross. In essence, Bilney attempted to push Henry into the role of acting like an Old Testament ruler like Hezekiah, or Josiah, which was a trend that gained greater success late in his reign, and became the standard attribute for the young King Edward VI. During his trial in Norwich in 1531, Bilney appealed to have the king hear his case as the supreme head of the English Church (a strategy that saved his colleague Edward Crome when he was accused of preaching heresies). But Bishop Richard Nix and his chancellor Thomas Pelles refused to allow Bilney to appeal to the king, and they moved swiftly to have him condemned and executed. He was burnt in a place outside Norwich known as the Lollards Pit. It may have seemed singularly appropriate to burn Bilney on the feast day of St. Magnus as a means to repair the insult that he had inflicted four years earlier by preaching against idolatry in a church dedicated to the saint.[Back to Top]
Bilney's execution (like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's in 1556) was marked by vexing irregularities that fed contentious controversies for decades to come, and they informed the narrative that Foxe created in the A&M. At the last moment, just before the fire was lit, a written recantation was thrust into Bilney's hands to give him a final chance to submit. But he did not take advantage of the opportunity, even though he might have saved his life had he read the document loud enough for the people standing by to hear him. His execution was vastly disturbing. Bilney was a Norfolk native. He had many friends in Norwich, and a number of his colleagues from Cambridge University attended him in his last hours. The fact that his appeal was not brought before the king worried many, and Sir Thomas More, as Lord Chancellor, was asked to investigate. More decided that Bilney had indeed `redde hys reuocacyon hym selfe' as he stood at the stake, but `so softely' that those standing by could not hear him. Had Bilney then revoked at the last moment? If so, was it correct to burn him? In The confutacyon of Tyndales answere More continued to associate Bilney with the teachings of Martin Luther and William Tyndale, but he concluded that Bilney had revoked. As God had given Bilney grace to cast all of his errors to the devil, then Bilney `with glad herte was content to suffer the fyre' as a punishment for his offences. Then, More hoped, God had 'forthwith from the fyre taken hys blessed soule to heuen', where Bilney now could pray for all of those still alive whom he had deluded.[Back to Top]
What Bilney wanted to achieve, at least in terms of dismantling shrines, was done later in Henry's reign, and under King Edward. Bilney was audacious, and he pushed the pace too early. In 1531 he became the victim, but as matters developed, his enemies also failed, for the reaction to his death was extreme. The English clergy was forced to submit to Henry VIII's supremacy over the Church. More's pursuit of Bilney and other heretics in his defense of the papacy and tradition was among the factors that led to his surrender of the office of Chancellor in 1532. Latimer and other evangelicals played a part in bringing him to his execution in 1535. Latimer of course read every word that More had printed against Bilney. He took his own opportunity avenge his friend when he preached before King Edward. 'Wo, wil be to that byshoppe that had the examynacyon of hym,' he warned (Nix had died in 1535, hounded to the end by Cranmer for killing Bilney), 'if he repented not.' (Hugh Latimer, The seconde sermon of Maister Hughe Latimer, whych he preached before the Kynges Maiestie within his graces Palayce at Westminster, the xv. day of Marche M.ccccc.xlix. (London: John Day and William Seres , STC 15274.7), Bb3v).More's writings remained influential long after his death, and were newly relevant after Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1555) brought about a rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. Foxe and Day used their account of Bilney in successive editions of the A&M as a means to discredit Catholic politics and theology, and to prevent any possible backsliding toward Rome under Queen Elizabeth. They reconciled the conflicting and divergent interpretations of Bilney's actions largely following Latimer's lead. Bilney was a good man who was overcome by the enemies of the true Church. The heightened competition between Protestant and Catholic traditions had solidified by the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. Foxe and Day reinterpreted the confusing 1520s and 1530s in light of their own present-day circumstances. Thus they smudged some aspects of Bilney's career. They made some of the details of his 1527 submission harder to understand, and cloaked the fact that Bilney had agreed that Luther was a heretic. They also stressed the word 'conuersio' or 'conversion' when they referred to the astonishing and elusive life-altering interviews that passed between Bilney and his friends.[Back to Top]
Was Foxe and Day's account of Bilney's life mainly the literal truth, or was it art? We may never know, and here we suggest some approaches to this difficult issue. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Jesuit Robert Parsons criticized Foxe for his 'bragg & glory' (N. D. [Robert Parsons], A Treatise of Three Conversions of England from Paganisme to Christian Religion (St. Omer, 1603- , STC 19416), 547), and he dismissed the story of Latimer hearing Bilney's confession as a vain thing. Parsons maintained that Bilney had held but few Protestant opinions and that he died in his adjuration. Recently, Bilney could seem (Gregory Walker has argued) more the 'scheming lawyer than the persecuted saint' in 1527 (Walker, 'Heresy Trial', p. 163). If Foxe and Day drifted in their stories, then perhaps they learned some of their strategies from what they called the 'Poeticall fictions' (1563, p. 1009) of Sir Thomas More. Beyond all doubt, however, is the fact that Foxe and Day's portrait of the life and martyrdom of Thomas Bilney is among the elements that make the A&M one of the supreme religious and literary masterpieces of sixteenth-century England.[Back to Top]
Thomas Bilney proceeded to the degree of bachelor in Canon Law at Cambridge in 1521. Grace Book B, Part II: Containing the Accounts of the Proctors of the University of Cambridge, 1511-44, ed. Mary Bateson (Cambridge, 1905), p. 95.
Foxe is our chief source of information that Bilney `conuerted' Thomas Arthur. The best account of Arthur's life has been written by Andrew Hope for the ODNB. Arthur was a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, which had been built by the chancellor of the university, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, using a legacy from Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. Fisher maintained a strong influence over St. John's in the 1520s. The word was Day's and Foxe's anachronistic term for Bilney's influence on his contemporaries. 'Conversion' was not a term that the early evangelicals often used (see Peter Marshall, 'Evangelical conversion in the reign of Henry VIII', in The Beginnings of English Protestantism, eds. Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie [Cambridge, 2002], 14-37). 'Conuerted' also appeared as a gloss in 1562, when Day printed Latimer's story of how Bilney had come to his chambers and asked him to hear his confession in 1524 (about the same time that he was proceeding to his bachelor's degree in theology) when he preached his first sermon on the Lord's Prayer in Lincolnshire before the Duchess of Suffolk and her household in 1553. 27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende father in God and constant matir [sic] of Iesus Christe, Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other commyng to our handes of late, whych were yet neuer set forth in print, (STC 15276) in the section known as Certayn Godly Sermons, made vppon the Lordes Prayer, at fol. 13B (reprinted in the Parker Society edition of Latimer's Sermons, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1844), pp. 334-5. In the marginal comments Day wrote in 1562: 'Bilney was gods instrument to conuert Latymer.' Also, 'Latymer is conuerted by hearing Bilneys confession.' In contrast, Latimer said that he 'learned' more from Bilney than he had for many previous years, and that he from thenceforth relinquished his studies in the scholastic doctors, as well as `began to smell the word of god' in increasing his interest in Biblical studies. What actually occurred seems to have been more subtle and less cataclysmic, at least at first, than Day and Foxe would have their readers believe.[Back to Top]
Hugh Latimer's famous account of what passed between him and Bilney when Bilney 'conuerted' him in 1524. 27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende father in God and constant matir [sic] of Iesus Christe, Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other commyng to our handes of late, whych were yet neuer set forth in print, (STC 15276) in the section known as Certayn Godly Sermons, made vppon the Lordes Prayer, at fol. 13B (reprinted in the Parker Society edition of Latimer's Sermons, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1844), pp. 334-5. The word 'conuersion' was Day's and Foxe's anachronistic term for Bilney's influence on his contemporaries. 'Conversion' was not a term that the early evangelicals often used (see Peter Marshall, `Evangelical conversion in the reign of Henry VIII', in The Beginnings of English Protestantism, eds. Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie [Cambridge, 2002], pp. 14-37).[Back to Top]
Hugh Latimer became University Chaplain in 1522. Although one of his duties was the custody of Cambridge's elaborate silver processional cross, which was brought out at several important occasions during the academic year, Latimer was more correctly known as Chaplain of the University rather than as its `croskeper'. Foxe's source for his information here was from Ralph Morice in British Library, Harley MS 422, fols. 84-8, 90.[Back to Top]
Bilney and Thomas Arthur went preaching together from the university to Ipswich and Norwich and onward to London during the summer of 1527. Theirs was an aggressive preaching itinerary, and they were followed at every step by Dominican friars. At Ipswich, Bilney was heard to say that Christ was the only mediator between us and the Father. To petition the saints was to injure the blood of Christ. Bilney was accused of preaching in the churches of St Helen's Bishopsgate, St Magnus, and also in the churches of Willesden (in the week of Pentecost), Newington (in the week of Pentecost), Kensington, and Chelsea outside the city, as well as Ipswich on 28 May. At Willesden, Bilney spoke against going on pilgrimages and offerings to saints. He recommended that worshippers stay at home. At the church of St Magnus (which was always an important City church, as it stood on the north end of London Bridge), the parishioners were gilding their new rood, and here Bilney denounced idolatry. Chelsea is particularly noteworthy, as Sir Thomas More's residence was next to what is now known as Chelsea Old Church, where he intended to be buried next to the chantry chapel he built there. Arthur preached at Cambridge on Whitsunday; and also at Walden; and St Mary Woolchurch in London at the feast of the Trinity. Susan Wabuda, Preaching during the English Reformation (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 119-120; Gregory Walker, 'Saint or schemer?: the 1527 heresy trial of Thomas Bilney reconsidered', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 40 (1989), pp. 219-38; Patrick Zutshi and Robert Ombres, `The Dominicans in Cambridge 1238-1538', Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum, vol. 60 (1990), pp. 313-73.[Back to Top]
Robert Barnes had shocked the university and the hierarchy of the English Church when he was the first of the Cambridge evangelicals to openly criticize Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in a sermon he delivered at St. Edward's Church in Cambridge on Christmas Eve in 1525.
Then it was time for the Cardinall to awake, and spedely to loke about his busynesse, neither lacked he in this poynte any crafte or subtiltye of a Serpent, for he vnderstode well inough vpon how slender a foundation, theyr ambitious dignitye was grounded, neyther was he ignoraunte, that their Luciferous and proud kingdome coulde not longe continue a-gainst the manifest woord of God, specially if the light of the Gospel shoulde once open the eyes of men.[Back to Top]
For otherwise he did not greatlye feare the power and displeasure of kinges. Thys was the onlye thinge that he feared, the voyce of Christ in his Gospell, whiche would dysclose and detecte their hipocrisye and disceytes, and force them to come into an order of godly dyscipline. Wherfore he thought good, spedelye in time, to wythstande theese beginnynges. Whervpō he caused the saide Bilney and Arthur to be apprehended and cast in prison.[Back to Top]
The records of Bilney's and Arthur's examinations are preserved in the Register of Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, in Guildhall Library, MS 9531/10 fols. 130B-136A.
Among the other examiners whom Foxe did not name was the bishop of Carlisle. The octagonal chapter house of Westminster Abbey has remained relatively unchanged in the intervening centuries. It is reached from the Cloister and it retains its original tile floor and wall paintings.
Wolsey's examination of Latimer, as related by Ralph Morice in British Library Harley MS 422, fols. 84-8, 90, should be compared with his examination of Arthur and Bilney.
It had been illegal to preach or teach any of Martin Luther's doctrine any where in western Europe since mid 1520, when his books and sermons were banned by Pope Leo X in his Bull 'Exsurge Domine'. When Luther continued to defy the pope by burning the Bull publicly in late 1520 with books of Canon Law, Leo excommunicated him at the beginning of 1521.[Back to Top]
The date of any previous conversation between Arthur and Sir Thomas More is not known.