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Thomas Bilney preaching (Shrigley & Hunt, 1890s) | by Simon Knott
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Thomas Bilney preaching (Shrigley & Hunt, 1890s)

St Mary, East Bilney, Norfolk


This fine Victorian church sits remote from its village in the hills between Dereham and Fakenham. It was built to replace the ramshackle church that Ladbroke drew here in the 1820s. It is hard to perceive any part of it that survives from the medieval structure, but it was all done well and broadly on the plan of the original, including the replacement of a south transept.


Now, you might wonder if such a building has anything inside to offer the church explorer. But unable to resist temptation, you step into a bright, clean interior coloured by the flanking late 19th and early 20th century windows. The font and tower arch survive from the earlier building, and I wondered if the lower part of the chancel arch was medieval too. Whatever, the interior is all very harmonious, and very well done. Much of the glass is rather serious in that turn of the century manner, culminating in the magnificent war memorial window depicting St Michael and St Alban. There are two earlier roundels, continental glass of the 17th century each set in a ring of English medieval fragments, both with intriguing inscriptions. One declares itself to be from Monasterium Leodiense Duodecim Apostolorum, the Monastery of the Twelve Apostles at Luyden.


Another figure remembered in the glass at East Bilney is Thomas Bilney. Bilney was a Catholic Priest, who would have been quite at home with much of the teaching of the modern Catholic Church. However, his doubts about some medieval practices drew the attention of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII's thought police. They cautioned him, but released him to preach again because he was so articulate in his arguments against Lutheranism and the protestant reformers. Eventually, as battle-lines hardened, he was arrested under the authority of the Bishop of Norwich, and burned at the stake as a heretic.


It would have taken a lawyer with a fine eye for the small print to find Bilney guilty of heresy, but what was more to the point was that the Bishop of Norwich had acted without authorisation from above. In turn, he was arrested, and he forfeited his possessions as a punishment for his treatment of Bilney. This, of course, could not bring Thomas Bilney back. His influence over his pupils at Cambridge University meant that there were articulate and ardent advocates of his cause, among them the increasingly protestant Hugh Latimer. In martyring Bilney, the Church authorities set in motion a chain of events that would lead directly to the horrific conflicts of the middle years of the 16th century, and several centuries of sectarian prejudice and conflict.


A window in the chancel shows Bilney in two scenes, firstly preaching, and then in chains outside Norwich cathedral awaiting his execution. I must say that he looks remarkably cheerful under the circumstances. A panel of glass positioned in a wooden frame beside the chancel arch is a copy of a medieval panel at Dunston depicting St Nicomedes. It is probably intended to portray Bilney in a rather different manner, as a pious saint, which he certainly was.

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Taken on April 7, 2016