Bilney Day in Norfolk

Report by Valerie Offord
June 2004

A street in Norwich
A street in Norwich

This spring Mary Clow and Michael Hammond resumed their successful collaboration of the previous year by organising another spring day conference for Tyndalians and their friends in Norfolk. This year’s theme was Thomas Bilney (1495-1531), Protestant martyr and contemporary of William Tyndale, who was born and bred in Norfolk, studied and preached in Cambridge and was condemned and burned to death in Norwich – an East Anglian to the hilt!

On the morning of Saturday 24 April, a glorious spring day, a group of us met the London train at Norwich station and set off by mini bus into the depths of the Norfolk countryside for East Bilney, the first destination of the day-long programme. Slightly later than anticipated, after a companionable drive through the county’s endless narrow lanes, our small party arrived at St Mary’s Parish Church to be greeted by a band of intrepid map-literate car drivers and local residents. Thomas was born and grew up in East Bilney and then moved to Cambridge for higher education. The house where he and his family lived now known as ‘The Martyr’s Cottage’ is still there in the tiny village – now sympathetically restored by its current owner, an enthusiastic historian.

Latimer\'s pulpit
Latimer’s pulpit c.1510 in the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge from which Hugh Latimer and Thomas Bilney preached.

After a welcome coffee break we modern-day pilgrims settled down in the pews to listen to an enthusiastic account of the history of East Bilney Church and its restorations by John Crick, the churchwarden. Many of us remained sceptical about his account of Bilney’s ashes being accidentally discovered when digging a grave in the churchyard. However, we were able to admire the two panels of the stained glass window made by Shrigley and Hunt in 1886: the first depicted the 16th century martyr expounding on a new translation of the Bible and the second showed him bound in chains with red flames curling round him and Norwich Cathedral in the background.

Our convoy, maps at the ready or simply armed with blind faith and a herdlike instinct, then set off again arriving miraculously intact at Waterfall House, Swanton Morley, to be warmly greeted by the friendly and hospitable Diggle family who had prepared an aperitif followed by a sumptuous lunch for all of us. This was no mean achievement since the number of participants seemed a little uncertain!

Martyr's Cottage
The Martyr's Cottage, East Bilney where Thomas Bilney was born in 1495

The after lunch lecture by Dr Korey Maas, St Cross College, Oxford, was a triumph – a wonderful lunch is a hard act to follow. The lecturer’s fascinating paper, entitled Thomas Bilney: ‘simple good soul’? (printed in full in this issue of the Journal) was delivered in such a professional manner that the entire audience was enthralled, wide-awake and thoroughly informed. To attend a lecture about a person when one is literally treading the same soil he trod some 500 years previously makes the whole subject so immediate, so relevant.

It was with great reluctance that we broke off our post lecture discussions in the idyllic mill garden and took leave of its owners to continue on our way. Those who went on to Norwich for a guided walking tour of the Bilney sites in that city led by Michael Hammond saw the Guildhall where he was tried and the dungeon where he was imprisoned, and ambled through the mediaeval streets of Norwich past the Cathedral to the Lollard’s pit set in a low amphitheatre beyond the Bishop’s Gate beside the river Wensum. It was here within sight of the Cathedral that Bilney was burnt on Saturday 19 August 1531.

In all it was a very informative day – a living history day - spent in agreeable, lively company. My one small regret was that so few Tyndale members availed themselves of the opportunity to come to Norfolk to discover the story of a brave man who died for his beliefs. I should like to take this opportunity to extend thanks on behalf of the participants to those who devoted so much time and effort into bringing off a great logistical feat by organising this event.

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