BILNEY, John I, of Cambridge.
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Family and Education
Seneschal, King’s Hall 1388-9, 1398.
Mayor, Cambridge Sept. 1406-7, 1414-18, 1433-4.3
J.p. Cambridge 14 Feb. 1407-Jan. 1409, 8 Feb.-May 1414, 6 Oct. 1415-Oct. 1418, 13 Nov. 1427-Jan. 1430, 4 Dec. 1433-5.
Commr. for the repair of the great bridge at Cambridge July 1413, July 1422, June 1423.
Bilney began his career as petty clerk of the chapel at King’s Hall, having been admitted as a scholar there in 1382. He sued the executor of William Branche, clerk, for a debt of £10 4s. in 1387. Despite his appointment as seneschal of the college, he vacated his fellowship in about 1400, and was not called ‘clerk’ when in 1401 he brought another action for debt, this time against Thomas Weston of London.4 It may have been his decision to marry that terminated his academic career, although the name of his wife is not recorded until many years later.
Evidently a man of commanding personality, Bilney was quickly accepted by the townsmen of Cambridge as a suitable representative in Parliament, and before the third parliamentary session in 1406 he was appointed to his first official post in the town that of mayor. Not long afterwards he was associated with the Cambridgeshire lawyers, John Burgoyne* and Nicholas Morys*, in acquiring from the executors of John Marshall I* 14 acres of land in the fields of Cambridge and Barnwell, with the intention of granting them to the nuns of St. Radegund. They obtained the necessary royal licence in March 1408. A year later Bilney procured for himself alone a 60-year lease of the priory’s messuage in ‘Walyslane’ in the parish of Holy Trinity, and he subsequently rented a close in ‘Alwenslane’ for which he paid the borough treasurers 5s. a year.5
During his terms of office as mayor, Bilney was closely involved in the bitter, often violent, hostility between town and university. Summoned before the university chancellor in 1413, he not only threatened him with violence but boasted that he could resist arrest with 100 armed men. This quarrel continued for several years, and in 1417 the university complained to the King of infringements of its privileges by Bilney in his capacity as mayor. It accused him of exacting money from the townspeople to prosecute false charges against the clerks and bring the university into disrepute. In a counter-petition Bilney complained of interference with the borough’s jurisdiction and of attempts on his life. The latter included a raid on his house by clerks who affixed libellous verses to his door, alluding to his ‘pilled pate’, and violently set upon his friends, including William Wedgwood*, Robert Attilbridge* and John Knapton*, whom they called ‘villains, whoremongers and scoundrels’. The troubles culminated in Bilney’s excommunication by the university on charges of making mischief between it and the town, and of having gone so far as to connive at murder in order to pin blame on the scholars. Besides general charges of corruption, he was also accused of excluding from his mayoral council ‘peaceful burgesses’ such as Simon Bentbow*. Personal animosity against Bilney, no doubt exacerbated by his earlier rejection of the scholars’ way of life, focused on Bilney’s refusal to let to the university a house of his in St. Michael’s parish, which was suitable as a hostel for clerks.6
The counsels of the moderate evidently prevailed in the town, and Bilney was not reappointed to major office for several years. However, in April 1426 he was one of the first eight burgesses to be nominated to the common council of 24, and later that year he even met representatives of the university in conciliatory discussions when, as an alderman, he took part in the Magna Congregatio called by the chancellor. A deed of April 1433 refers to Bilney as the deputy mayor, and he was re-elected to the highest municipal office five months later.7
Bilney is last recorded in 1436, when in the assessment for the graduated income tax he was estimated to be holding lands and tenements in Cambridgeshire worth £6 a year.8
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Authors: E.M. Wade / L. S. Woodger
- 1. Biog. Reg. Univ. Cambridge to 1500 ed. Emden, 62; Trinity Coll. Adm. ed. Rouse and Venn, i. 107.
- 2. CPR, 1429-36, p. 13.
- 3. Add. 5833, ff. 134-6; CPR, 1405-8, p. 490.
- 4. CPR, 1385-9, p. 333; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 418.
- 5. Cambridge Antiq. Soc. xxxi nos. 111, 357; CPR, 1405-8, p. 429; Cambridge Docs. ed. Palmer, i. p. lxix.
- 6. C.H. Cooper