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John Bunyan

John Bunyan - a pencil drawing in The British Museum
John Bunyan a pencil drawing in the British Museum

John Bunyan is undoubtedly the most famous man not just from Elstow but from Bedfordshire as a whole. He was born on 28th November 1628 in a cottage immediately west of Bunyan's Farm and just on the Elstow side of the modern parish boundary with Eastcotts.

Sadly this building no longer survives; neither does the cottage in which he supposedly lived in Elstow, which was demolished in the latter part of the 20th century, the site being now a driveway.

Bunyan's Cottage [Z50/43/16]

Bunyan's Cottage [Z50/43/16]

In the very first volume of The Bedfordshire Magazine in the Summer of 1947 Cyril Hargreaves wrote a brief biography of Bunyan which will do as well as any other to set down here.

“It is not without misgiving that I, a North countryman, write of John Bunyan in the county of his birth. My justification must be that Bunyan’s fame has far overstepped the boundaries of your captive plain. His famous Pilgrim story has reached the wildest places of the earth, it has been carried to the boundaries of Christendom”.

“Nevertheless, it is a matter of pride to Bedfordshire that here he was born, here his great work was written, and the drama of his life took place almost entirely within this county”.

“A survey of his background gives little clue to the mainspring of his greatness. Education – he had practically none; worldly opportunities – they were negligible. He was of the stock of yeomen farmers. The family had been landowners, but at the time of Bunyan’s birth they were so no longer. His father, Thomas Bonnion, was the village tinker of Elstow”.

Bunyan's birth place [X567/117]
Bunyan's birth place [X567/117]

“John Bunyan was born in a cottage (no longer standing) near Old Harrowden in 1628. We know little of his childhood or schooling. Suggestions have been made that he attended a grammar school. The balance of evidence is very much against it, and Bunyan’s statement that he very soon forgot what little he had learnt, seems to indicate that his formal education was very meagre, for he was destined to follow his father in the trade of a tinker. The family were quite poor: ‘I was brought up at my father’s house in a very mean condition’”.

“At the age of sixteen he lost his mother and sister and his father married again, all within the space of two months, and these events no doubt influenced the youth of Bunyan adversely; he fell into wild ways; he became ‘the very ringleader of all the youth in all manner of vice and ungodliness’. Nevertheless, the good influence of his mother persisted, and his conscience pricked him with dreadful dream and visions of the dire consequences of his wickedness. But soon these warnings ceased; his conscience became blunted”.

“In 1644, Bunyan enlisted in the Commonwealth Army, where he appears to have served for about three years. We know little of his service life, except two incidents which he briefly records – how he escaped being shot by the fact that another soldier had taken his turn of sentinel duty and was killed by a musket ball; and how he escaped death by drowning in an inlet of the sea. He must have been influenced by the very puritanical temper of the Parliamentary Army, for the companies were exhorted day and night by their religious leaders; its character was very high at this time”.

“On leaving military service at the age of 19, Bunyan returned to Elstow, and continued his trade of tinker. In 1649 – the year of King Charles’ execution – he married”.

“We know little of his wife, Mary, except that she was good and of godly parentage; she brought him no dowry – except two books bequeathed to her by her father, The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. These, husband and wife used to read together; under her influence he began to desire religion, and at length to follow its observances, though privately he admits that he continued in his wicked ways. Their first child, Mary, was born blind. Bunyan was passionately fond of her”.

“Then came the turning point in Bunyan’s life, and it happened on the village street of Elstow. One morning, he listened to a sermon on Sabbath breaking by the Vicar of Elstow, Christopher Hall, which troubled his conscience, for he was greatly addicted to gaming on Sundays. He tried to dismiss the matter from his mind, and in the afternoon went to play ‘cat’ on the village green. In this a small piece of wood, the cat, is struck into the air from a hole and as it rises is given a second blow with the aim of knocking it as far as possible. It is still played here; I have seen boys playing in Russell Park quite recently. Now Bunyan had no sooner struck the cat into the air than ‘a voice did suddenly dart from Heaven into my soul which said “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to Hell?”’ Bunyan left the game and began his long fight for salvation; he tells of his conscience-haunted struggles, upward striving and (he was very human) his recurrent backsliding”.

Elstow Village Green September 2007
Elstow Village Green September 2007

“When at last he though he had become a good Christian man – ‘Our neighbours did take me to be a very Godly man’ – he was one day walking in Bedford upon the business of his trade, when he came upon some poor women seated at their doors, ‘talking about the things of God’. They condemned their own attempts at righteousness, and laid the emphasis Ion the saving power of Jesus. This, to Bunyan, was a new idea. He had thought he could win his way to Heaven by his own efforts. These women convinced him that any seeming righteousness he had so far attained was but a straw. He began to consort with these people; he became acquainted with John Gifford, who with others, had founded a Gospel Church in Bedford. Gifford, like Saint Paul, had been a great persecutor of Puritans but had later been so convinced of his former error that he had become their accepted leader in Bedford.

“The Corporation made Gifford rector of Saint John’s and his guidance and that of members of his congregation convinced Bunyan that only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can man be saved”.

“Then a further burden weighed upon him. He believed that by his backsliding he had committed the unforgivable sin. He began to search the Scriptures for messages of comfort, a habit which he never discontinued. Bunyan’s final conflict was resolved when ‘these words did suddenly with great power break in upon me, “My Grace is sufficient for thee.”’”

“It is difficult in our day fairly to assess the degree of mental suffering through which Bunyan passed on his way to that tranquillity which eventually came to him in the confidence of his salvation. Men of great imaginative power are capable of great suffering. I think that the late Dr. Frank Mott Harrison is on the mark when he says, ‘It must be remembered that Bunyan had a restless mind. Its activity led him into great suffering. He had no doubts about God, but great doubts about himself. His introspection was a great affliction’”.

“About 1655 John Bunyan became a deacon of the church, and moved to a house, no longer standing, in Saint Cuthbert’s Street, Bedford. Here his two sons were born; he now had four children, including another daughter, and shortly after the move to Bedford they were left motherless by the death of Mary Bunyan. At this time also John Gifford died. Opinions began to change, veering away from the Military Commonwealth towards a return of the Monarchy. The Church of England began to regain its lost ascendancy, and the position of the Puritans was clearly menaced. In 1660 came the restoration, and immediately the Episcopalian party seriously set about restoring their fallen bastions. Even before the Act of Uniformity, John Bunyan was arrested”.

“About 1658, when he was thirty years of age, he had begun to preach in the surrounding villages, but now the hunt was up and Bunyan was one of those whose movements were closely watched. Francis Wingate, of Harlington, was so keen to stop his activities that he issued a warrant for his arrest under an old statute of Queen Elizabeth. On November 12th, 1660, Bunyan went to preach at a farmhouse at Lower Samsell, near Pulloxhill. Although the rumour of the warrant was known to members of the congregation, attempts to dissuade Bunyan from preaching failed. He was arrested during the service and brought before Wingate at Harlington Manor the following morning”.

“Bunyan conducted himself with dignified resolution and was committed to prison to await the next assizes. He might have been freed if he would have promised not to preach further, but he would make no such promise, and was accordingly sent to the County Jail, which formerly stood at the junction of High Street and Silver Street, Bedford. A stone in the pavement, with an inscription, marks the site”.

“In January, 1661, he was brought for trial by the magistrates to the Hearne Chapel, by the side of the Old Grammar School, where he was charged with being an upholder of unlawful meetings and conventicles. Bunyan’s admission that ‘We have had some meetings together’ was entered as a plea of guilty. Having been convicted, Bunyan’s second wife, Elizabeth, and his friends could never obtain a retrial”.

“From 1660 to 1672 John Bunyan was in prison almost the whole of the time. During the first two years he seems to have had some liberty to go out, and even to preach secretly, an indulgence granted by his jailer at great risk. He was subsequently imprisoned in the Town Prison, which stood on Bedford Bridge [see below]. Its precise position is commemorated by a stone set in the present bridge and it is reputedly here that John Bunyan wrote the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The High Sheriffs Assizes [HSA] collection listed on our catalogue database includes Bunyan on lists of prisoners held in the County Gaol.

“All efforts to secure his release failed, and it was not until 1672, with the Declaration of Indulgence, that Bunyan was finally freed. He was immediately made Pastor of the Bedford Church, and owing to his fame as a preacher his services were called for from far and wide”.

“Early in 1688 Bunyan had an attack of the ‘sweating sickness’ (probably severe influenza). As he was recovering, news came to him of a friend who had quarrelled with his son, and in order to bring about a reconciliation, Bunyan undertook the journey to Reading on horseback. He accomplished his mission, but, as he was returning he was caught in a heavy storm, took a fresh chill, and died ten days later at the house of Mr. Strudwick, a grocer, at Snow Hill, London”.

The County Archivist of the time, Joyce Godber contradicted the view that Bunyan was held prisoner in the Town Gaol on the bridge. The Bedfordshire Magazine of Summer 1949 reviewed a paper of hers in the Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society (Volume XVI April 1949) and wrote: “The persistent tradition that John Bunyan was imprisoned in the picturesque town gaol on Bedford Bridge and there wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress has been suspect for some time. The County Archivist now publishes a document which seems to settle the matter. It is known that Bunyan’s first term of imprisonment, which began in 1660, was in the County Gaol. Soon after his release he was excommunicated for not attending his parish church of Saint Cuthbert. As he remained obdurate, Doctor Foster, the commissary, issued a writ to the Sheriff by which Bunyan was taken into custody. The Sheriff, then, executed the writ. There is no evidence that the town ever took any action against her famous preacher. So it would have been to the county gaol that Bunyan was committed, and there that The Pilgrim’s Progress was written”.

“Two friends later came forward as sureties and procured his release in June 1677. It is their bond which provides confirmation of the circumstances of the second imprisonment. By a fortunate chance it was copied into his formula-book by the Registrar of Buckingham when Doctor Foster became Commissary in that Archdeaconry, and this book has come to light after centuries”.

The Bunyan Museum in Bedford has many of his 60+ works and there is also a collection at Bedford Central Library.