William was a son of John and Margaret Bill of Ashwell in the county of Hertfordshire. His brothers were John, a lawyer of Ashwell and Thomas, M.D. (died 1552), physician to Henry VIII and Edward VI. His sisters were Mary, who married Francis Samwell and Elizabeth, who married Thomas Gosnold. William was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, becoming Master there and Doctor of Divinity in 1547. He was elected Master of Trinity College in 1551, became Lord High Almoner 1558-61 and assisted Archbishop Parker in revising the liturgy of Edward VI. He was installed as Dean of Westminster 30 June 1560 (the first Dean since Elizabeth I established the Abbey as a Collegiate Church). But he died the following year and was buried in the chapel of St Benedict in Westminster Abbey, where his small figure in brass on a low tomb still remains. He was not married.
The inscription around the edge of the tomb can be translated:
"Here lies William Bill, D.D., Dean of Westminster, President of Eton College and head of Trinity in Cambridge, and Chief Almoner to the most serene princess Queen Elizabeth. He died 15 July 1561."
The inscription on the brass plate below his effigy can be translated as
"Bill was himself a good man and a lover of virtue; he taught the learned and was himself learned. He was careful of his office and a teacher of probity. He accomplished many things well by speaking little. The country has lost a prudent and the Queen a faithful servant, and the poor man laments at his father's passing. And their Head has left three colleges mournful, a Head such as I deem they will not have again for a long time. Either I loved him too much while he lived, or he was a great loss to his country when he died."
The epitaph was obviously written by someone who knew him well. Originally there were four shields with coats of arms but all have now disappeared from the tomb. In heraldic terms his arms are 'ermine, two bills (or billhooks) in saltire proper, on a chief azure, between two pelicans heads erased argent, a pale of the last charged with a rose gules (ie. two silver pelicans heads between a red rose at the top of the shield, with two crossed billhooks on an ermine background below).
Photos of the brass can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
(rubbing of this brass is not permitted)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 for William and Thomas Bill.
Click on the images to enlarge