As a young student Bilney had been under the wing of the priests who had been driven to despair and penury. After much thought and fear, knowing the new translation of the New Testament by Erasmus was banned by the priests, he finally gathered together the nerve to secretly buy a copy and locked himself away to read it. He was greatly moved by what he read and much happier thereafter – feeling great relief at being saved by Gods word. His experience at this time moved him to join with his colleagues – John Fryth, the son of an innkeeper at Sevenoaks in Kent, and William Tyndale who had moved on from the persecuting clerics in Oxford. Together they were a formidable trio against the priests and gathered many adherents , including Thomas Arthur and Master Hugh Latimer – the cross-bearer at Cambridge on processions days. Tyndale left Cambridge in 1519, but the principles of the Reformation in Oxford, Cambridge and London had already started through the work of Erasmus, even before Martin Luther`s
protest in 1517, and the emerging reformed ideas at Oxford led by John Colet.
Bilney and Arthur left Cambridge and went to London where they preached to high and low, In Whitsun week 1527, at St Magnus church, Bilney preached against a new and incomplete rood (cross) that had been erected, calling it idolatrous. For this he and Arthur were arrested and ended in the Tower pending the pleasure of Cardinal Wolsey.
They appeared before him and his bishops at the chapter house, Westminster on 27 November 1527. On the following day the interrogations were held at the Bishop of Norwich`s house. The long list of cavilling charges, some 34 articles, followed the usual pattern, and also whether they held or preached any Lutheran views ( Luther having been recently condemned by Pope Leo X ). In a later gathering charges were made arising from Bilney`s sermon which included an outright encouragement to go against the teachings of the Roman church.
“These five hundred years there has been no good pope; and in all the times past we can find but fifty: for they have neither preached , nor lived well, nor conformably to their dignity; wherefore, till now, they have borne the keys of simony. Against them good people! we must preach and teach unto you, for we cannot come to them; it is a great pity that they have sore slandered the blood of Christ.”
On 4 December Bilney was brought before Cuthbert Tunstal, the Bishop of London, for what turned out to be one of several visits in the next few days. Despite the relevant strength of the case against him the Bishop of London was amenable to several adjournments of sentence for heresy, in order that Bilney might seek guidance from certain friends. Returning on 7 December Bilney said that he would abjure and return to the fold of the
Catholic church. For his penance he was sentenced to prison in the pleasure of the Cardinal, and ordered that he should go before the procession to St Pauls, bearing a faggot, and stand before the cross there during the sermon.
Having endured the humiliation at St Pauls, Bilney was then kept prisoner
for a year. His friend Thomas Arthur was detained at Walsingham, where he
died five years later.
When released Bilney returned to Cambridge where his friends described him as in great conflict such that they were afraid he would do himself harm. In the event Bilney suffered great depression and regret for having abjured for two years when. still in torment, he decided to leave his associates at Trinity Hall, saying that he was would `go to Jerusalem`. He went to Norwich taking with him Tyndale`s New Testament and Obedience of a Christian Man. He preached privately in houses, then ventured to do so publicly in the fields. Inevitably he was taken up and cast into prison where he was surrounded by priests, friars and monks who sought to get him to abjure again ( such was their desire for publicity ).
Bilney was formally judged a heretic and sentenced to the law ( to be burnt) and handed over to the Sheriff of Norwich , Thomas Necton, a close friend of Bilney. Many friends visited him at the Guildhall where he was held during which Bilney out his finger in the candle flame exclaiming
“I feel by experience, and have known it long by philosophy, that fire, by God`s ordinance, is naturally hot; but yet I am persuaded by God`s holy word, and by the experience of some, spoken of in the same, that in the flame they felt no heat, and in the fire they felt no consumption: and I constantly believe, that howsoever the stubble of this my body shall be wasted by it, yet my soul and spirit shall be purged thereby ; a pain for the time, whereon notwithstanding followeth joy unspeakable.”
The next day, being a Saturday, he was taken to the Bishops Gate into an area called `The Lollards Pit` – a depression around which the people could gather to watch the executions. After a short peroration to the people he knelt in private prayer. Rising up he cast off his jacket and doublet and went to the stake where he was chained. To the last the friars and monks continued to rail at him and even asked him to say to the crowd that it was not their fault – ere they were denied alms in future. Avarice and greed filled them with pleading! Reeds and faggots were stacked about him and the fire lit but it was a while before it took hold as a strong wind blew the flames away from him. Eventually the wood caught fire and he was consumed. His body bowed down but was held by the chains, which were then struck off so that his mortal remains fell into the embers; more wood was added and he was totally consumed. The year was 1531.