Bilson, Thomas (DNB00)

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BILSON, THOMAS (1546-7–1616), bishop of Winchester, was eldest son of Herman Bilson, grandson of Arnold Bilson, whose wife is said to have been a daughter of the Duke of Bavaria, 'natural or legitimate,' says Anthony à Wood, 'I know not'. He was born in the city of Winchester in 1546-7, and went to the school there. Thence he proceeded to Oxford and entered New College, where he passed B.A., 10 Oct. 1566; M.A., 25 April 1570; B.D., 24 June 1579; and D.D., 24 Jan. 1580-1. He became 'a most noted preacher' on taking holy orders, in 'these parts and elsewhere,' says Wood. He is also stated by some (adds the Athenæ) to have been a schoolmaster. He was installed a prebendary of Winchester on 12 Jan. 1576, and warden of the college there. He was consecrated bishop of Worcester on 13 June 1596, and translated to Winchester on 13 May 1597. 'He was.' continues Anthony à Wood, 'as reverend and learned a prelate as England ever afforded, a deep and profound scholar, exactly read in ecclesiastical authors and with Dr. Richard Field of Oxon (as Whitaker of Cambridge) a principal maintainer of the church of England, while Jo. Rainolds and Thomas Sparke were upholders of puritanism and nonconformity … In his younger years he was infinitely studious and industrious in poetry, philosophy, and physics,' and also in ecclesiastical divinity. To the last, 'his geny chiefly inciting him, he became,' says the same authority, 'so complete in it, so well skill'd in languages, so read in the fathers and schoolmen, so judicious in making use of his readings, that at length he was found to be no longer a soldier but a commander-in-chief of the spiritual warfare, especially when he became a bishop and carried prelature in his very aspect.' His 'True Difference between Christian Subjection and Unchristian Rebellion, where the Princes lawful power to command and bear the sword are defended against the Pope's censure and Jesuits' sophisms in their Apology and Defence of English Catholics; also a Demonstration that the Things reformed in the Church of England by the Laws of the Realm are truly Catholic against the Catholic Rhemish Testament' (Oxford, 1585), is a powerful answer to Dr. William Allen's 'Defence of English Catholics,' but otherwise shows want of judgment. Elizabeth had given him the task in view of her intended aid to protestant Holland; and, as was swiftly perceived by nonconformists, Bilson (in Wood's words) 'gave strange liberty in many cases, especially concerning religion, for subjects to cast off their obedience.' Historically, it is unquestionable that whilst this 'True Difference' served the queen's present purpose, it contributed more than any other to the humiliation, ruin, and death of Charles I. The weapons forged to beat back the king of Spain were used against the Stuart.

His 'Perpetual Government of Christ his Church' (1593), and his 'Effect of certain Sermons concerning the Full Redemption of Mankind by the Death and Blood of Christ Jesus' (1599), are superfluously learned and unattractive. His magnum opus was also assigned him by Elizabeth, who commanded him to answer Henry Jacob. It is entitled 'Survey of Christ's Sufferings and Descent into Hell,' and is, like Bilson's other works, halting in its logic and commonplace in its proofs. 'At length,' concludes Wood, 'after he had gone through many employments and had lived in continual drudgery as 'twere, for the public good, he surrendered up his pious soul, 18 June 1616,' and on the same date he was interred in Westminster Abbey. Curiously enough, John Dunbar (a Scottish poet) furnishes the only contemporary praise of him in an epigram which the Oxford historian deigns to allow might have been inscribed for his epitaph. It runs thus:—

Ad Thomam Bilsonum, episcopum l'intoniensem.
Castalidum commune decus, dignissime præsul
 Bilsone æternis oommemorande modis:
Quam valide adversus Christi inperterritus hostes
 Bella geras, libri sunt monumenta tui.
His Hydræ fidei quotquot capita alta resurgunt,
 Tu novus Alcides tot resecare soles.

Anthony à Wood possessed various manuscripts of his—Orationes, Carmina Varia, &c., &c. Besides 'occasional' sermons, there is among the Lambeth MSS. Bilson's 'Letter on the Election of Warden of Winchester and New College' (943, f. 149). There is also a 'Letter to the Lord Treasurer soliciting his Interest for the Bishoprick of Worcester' in Strype's 'Annals of the Reformation,' iv. 227, and there are letters of Bishop Bilson at Hatfield. Letters of administration were granted to his relict Anne on 25 June 1616. The baptism of a grandson on 5 Dec. 1616 is entered in Westminster Abbey Registers.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 169-71; Chester's Westminster Abbey Reg. 113; Bodleian Wood MSS.; Lambeth MSS.; Hatfield MSS.; Bilson's books.]

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