King James Bible Translators
Personal and Family Life
Thomas Bilson was born about 1547 in the city of Winchester, Hampshire to Harmon Bilson and his wife, Joan. Harman Bilson was a graduate of Merton College, Oxford and served as an alderman in Winchester. Thomas Bilson's grandfather was a brewer in Winchester and his great grandfather Arnold Bilson was a German married to a daughter of the Duke of Bavaria.
Thomas was educated in Winchester until he entered Oxford to begin his university studies. Upon completion of his M.A. he again centered his life in Winchester where he served his school and his church.
Thomas married Anne Mill, the daughter of Thomas and Jane (Sutton) Mill of Nursling, Hampshire. Thomas became the first married warden of Winchester College and broke a long tradition by dining with his family instead of the students. He and Anne had two children, a daughter, Amy, who married a Sir Richard Norton, and a son, Thomas Bilson, who was eventually knighted (see Bio Bits).
A scholar, school administrator, and churchman, Thomas Bilson was described by historian and biographer, Anthony á Wood as:
So complete in divinity, so well skilled 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 in the spiritual warfare.
Another called him "infinitely studious and industrious in poetry, in philosophy, in physics and lastly (which his genius chiefly called him to) in Divinity".
Always a defender of his queen, king and church, he tried to carve a middle road between the secular control of the church by the monarchy, and democratic government by its members. In all this he was generally Calvinistic in his views but tolerant of Arminianism, and always staunchly Protestant. In his last years he was plagued with ill health including symptoms of sciatica, arthritis, vertigo "and a continual singing in my head… many obstructions and extreme windiness". Thomas Bilson died on 18 June 1616 at Westminster, London and was buried the next day in the south ambulatory of the cathedral. A brass plaque in tribute to him is on the wall nearby.
Thomas Bilson was first formally educated at Winchester College in his native place before going on to New College, Oxford. This was a pattern a number of his fellow Translators followed. He entered Winchester in 1559 at age eleven, and New College in 1563. He graduated B.A. in 1566, proceeded M.A. in 1570, B.D. and D.D. in 1581.
Thomas Bilson's career, like many of the Translators', was spent largely serving in church and academic office. Additionally, he was a very public advocate for church and royal positions on doctrine and church government.
His first and only university related position was as a fellow of New College in 1563. He held this fellowship until 1572 when he resigned to accept a position as headmaster and teacher at his former school, Winchester College. He occupied this post until 1579. Thereafter, he devoted himself to completing his divinity studies. In January of 1581 he was elected warden of Winchester College where he served until 1596. During his tenure at Winchester he wrote several books, The True Difference between Christian Subjection and Unchristian Rebellion (1585) and The Perpetual Government of Christ Church (1593).
His first calling to formal church service came with an appointment as rector of Chawton (1574). He was named canon of Winchester Cathedral in 1576. Subsequently, he was given the rectories of Michaelmarsh (1577), of Droxford (1583), and of Kingsworthy (1586), all in Hampshire.
He was elevated to high church office in 1596, when he was elected bishop of Worcester, and shortly thereafter, in 1597 was made bishop of Winchester, his birthplace and where he had served as canon.
In 1604 his last book was published, entitled The Survey of Christ's Sufferings, setting forth his understanding of Christ's atonement. He was not especially active in diocesan affairs, rather spending time in London attending Parliament and proceedings of the Star Chamber. In 1613 he found himself on the opposite side of his fellow Translator, George Abbot in the sensational divorce case between Robert Devereaux III, Earl of Essex, and his wife, Lady Francis Howard. Howard was seeking an annulment of her marriage in order to marry Robert Carr, a favorite of the king. The earl was opposed to thus ending his union. Bilson was asked to render a decision in the case by King James I, who clearly desired an outcome in favor of Howard. Bilson decided in favor of Howard. Archbishop Abbot opposed Bilson's decision, but was powerless to stop it. The king, obviously pleased with this outcome and other services performed by Bilson, appointed him a member of the Privy Council in 1614. While a member of the council he urged the king to release Sir Walter Raleigh from imprisonment, but to no avail. Raleigh was executed in 1618.
Thomas Bilson's death in 1616 brought an end to a long and distinguished career.
Thomas Bilson and the Translation
Though Thomas Bilson was not a Translator per se, he was a critical member of the translation team. Bilson was, along with Miles Smith, assigned to be a member of the committee of two final revisers. In addition to doing a last read of the translation, Bilson and Smith undoubtedly were called upon to resolve all outstanding issues left by the committee of revisers. Smith was one of the Translators and knew the difficult questions that had been debated. Bilson's views on these matters may have been decisive. He, like Smith, no doubt had the respect and confidence of all the parties. As mentioned, he had grappled with the divisive religious topics of his day and had tried to find a middle way.
In addition to his review, it has been suggested that Thomas Bilson was responsible for writing the summaries that appear at the beginning of each chapter of the King James Bible. They are skillfully and artfully constructed to assist the reader.
Bilson was present at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604 when the translation project began. It must have been enormously satisfying to have been a final reviewer of the masterpiece which had been created.
The lives of those involved in the translation were, like most, filled with accomplishments and disappointments, failure and success, praise and ridicule. Thomas Bilson's was no different. Perhaps the most difficult episode in his career involved the aforementioned divorce proceeding of the Earl of Essex and his wife, which Bilson was called upon to decide. The king's position on the matter was well known, and it was supposed by some that Bilson would decide in favor of an annulment to garner added preferments for himself and his family. Indeed, when the decision was to the king's liking, Bilson received a place on the coveted Privy Council and his son, Thomas, was knighted. Public opinion was strongly in the opposite direction on the annulment and Archbishop Abbot made his objection to the outcome widely known. All of this combined to bring ridicule and scorn on Thomas Bilson and his family. He and his son were mercilessly lampooned. Young Thomas became the butt of jokes and was derisively called "Sir Nullity". This particularly depressed his father. To add to the family's distress, the archbishop's brother, Robert Abbot, published an article unfairly criticizing Thomas Bilson's performance as headmaster of Winchester years before. Thomas Bilson weathered this and other storms in his life leaving a legacy of great value even if only his contribution to the King James Bible is considered.