The Death of Thomas Bilney – Martyr of the Reformation

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220px-Thomas_BilneyEach year in early September the Protestant Alliance organise a Memorial Service for Protestant Martyrs of Norwich, there were ten of them in total, all burned at the stake in the Lollard’s Pit off Riverside Road, Norwich, the site had been excavated as a chalkworks and that the time was owned by the Bishop of Norwich, a memorial marks the place of execution today. The best known of the Norwich Martyrs was Thomas Bilney who was ordained in 1519 by the Bishop of Ely to the title of St Bartholomew’s Priory, Smithfield. The following is an account of the execution as detailed by J.H. Merle d’Aubigné.

The Death of Thomas Bilney
Martyr of the Reformation
Burnt at the Stake at the Lollard’s Pit, Norwich
Saturday 19th August 1531.

by J. H. Merle d’Aubigné

[Thomas Bilney, ‘whose conversion had begun the Reformation in England’ was, in God’s hands, the instrument of Hugh Latimer’s conversion. The story of his life ‘in strength and weakness’, leading to his martyrdom in 1531, is eloquently recorded in The Reformation of England, volumes 1 and 2 by J. H. Merle d’Aubigné. These volumes trace the history of the Reformation from its earliest origins to the end of the reign of Henry VIII. Written in a lively evangelical spirit, they are both instructive and heart-warming. The following extract comes from volume 2.]

A few of Bilney’s friends went to Norwich to bid him farewell: among them was Matthew Parker, later archbishop of Canterbury. It was in the evening, and Bilney was taking his last meal. On the table stood some frugal fare [ale brew], and on his countenance beamed the joy that filled his soul. ‘I am surprised’, said one of his friends, ‘that you can eat so cheerfully’. — ‘I only follow the example of the husbandmen of the country’, answered Bilney, ‘who having a ruinous house to dwell in, yet bestow cost so long as they may hold it up and so do I now with this ruinous house of my body’. With these words he rose from the table, and sat down near his friends, one of whom said to him, ‘To-morrow the fire will make you feel its devouring fierceness, but the comfort of God’s Holy Spirit will cool it for your everlasting refreshing.’

Bilney, appearing to reflect upon what had been said, stretched out his hand towards the lamp that was burning on the table and placed his finger in the flame. ‘What are you doing ?’ they exclaimed. — ‘Nothing’, he replied; ‘I am only trying my flesh; to-morrow God’s rods shall burn my whole body in the fire.’ And still keeping his finger in the flame, as if he were making a curious experiment, he continued: ‘I feel that fire by God’s ordinance is naturally hot; but yet I am persuaded, by God’s Holy Word and the experience of the martyrs, that when the flames consume me, I shall not feel them. Howsoever this stubble of my body shall be wasted by it, a pain for the time is followed by joy unspeakable.’ He then withdrew his finger, the first joint of which was burnt. He added, ‘When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.’ These words remained imprinted on the hearts of some who heard them, until the day of their death, says a chronicler.

Beyond the city gate—that known as the Bishop’s gate—was a low valley, called the Lollards’ Pit: it was surrounded by rising ground, forming a sort of amphitheatre. On Saturday, the 19th of August, a body of javelin-men came to fetch Bilney, who met them at the prison gate. One of his friends approaching and exhorting him to be firm, Bilney replied: ‘When the sailor goes on board his ship and launches out into the stormy sea, he is tossed to and fro by the waves; but the hope of reaching a peaceful haven makes him bear the danger. My voyage is beginning, but whatever storms I shall feel, my ship will soon reach the port.’

Bilney passed through the streets of Norwich in the midst of a dense crowd: his demeanour was grave, his features calm. His head had been shaved, and he wore a layman’s gown. Dr Warner, one of his friends, accompanied him; another distributed alms all along the route. The procession descended into the Lollards’ Pit, while the spectators covered the surrounding slopes. On arriving at the place of punishment, Bilney fell on his knees and prayed, and then rising up, warmly embraced the stake and kissed it. Turning his eyes towards heaven, he next repeated the Apostles’ Creed, and when he confessed the incarnation and crucifixion of the Saviour his emotion was such that even the spectators were moved. Recovering himself, he took off his gown, and ascended the pile, reciting the hundred and forty-third psalm. Thrice he repeated the second verse: ‘Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.’ And then he added: ‘I stretch forth my hands unto thee; my soul thirsteth after thee.’

Turning towards the officers, he said: ‘Are you ready ?’ — ‘Yes’, was their reply. Bilney placed himself against the post, and held up the chain which bound him to it. His friend Warner, with eyes filled with tears, took a last farewell. Bilney smiled kindly at him and said: ‘Doctor, pasce gregem tuum [feed your flock], that when the Lord cometh He may find you so doing.’ Several monks who had given evidence against him, perceiving the emotion of the spectators, began to tremble, and whispered to the martyr: ‘These people will believe that we are the cause of your death, and will withhold their alms.’ Upon which Bilney said to them: ‘Good folks, be not angry against these men for my sake; as though they be the authors of my death, it is not they.’ He knew that his death proceeded from the will of God. The torch was applied to the pile: the fire smouldered for a few minutes, and then suddenly burning up fiercely, the martyr was heard to utter the name of Jesus several times, and sometimes the word ‘Credo’ [‘I believe’]. A strong wind which blew the flames on one side prolonged his agony; thrice they seemed to retire from him, and thrice they returned, until at length, the whole pile being kindled, he expired.

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The Protestant Martyrs of Norwich

A booklet entitled “The Protestant Martyrs of Norwich” compiled by Charles Scott-Pearson has been published by, and is available from The Protestant Alliance, 77 Ampthill Road, Flitwick, Bedford MK45 2TT. The author of this booklet has researched all the details of all ten of the Protestant Martyrs who died at Lollard’s Pit, Norwich. Full contact details for the Alliance can be found on their web site

www.protestant-alliance.org

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