The name of the town of Bedford is thought to derive from the name of a Saxon chief called Beda and the ford crossing the river the Great Ouse where the original settlement was founded in about the eighth century AD.
The river valley of the Great Ouse has a long history of considerable human activity.
The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The HER has references to a number of Bronze Age and Iron Age sites near Elstow in Bedford . The earliest datable thing found in the area is a Neolithic axe made of greenstone found in 1971. A Bronze Age urn was also found at an unknown date.
Three sites associated with the Bronze Age (or the very late Neolithic) are known. Cropmarks east of Village Farm, Elstow include two ring ditches which may be the remains of barrows or of round houses. The area was examined in 1994 before the Bedford Southern Bypass was built and in 2002 before the building of a new lower school and flint scrapers, a core, some flakes, pottery, animal remains and grain were all found. The site also produced Iron Age, Dark Age and Medieval features and artifacts.
Reconstruction of a Bronze Age Round House Flag Fen
A group of cropmarks in the north-east of the parish of Elstow are possibly more ring ditches. A flint flake was found during examination ahead of the Bedford Southern Bypass and some Iron Age and Dark Age activity was also identified. Another site investigated ahead of the bypass, at Village Farm, produced a similar range of features and artifacts. Again, ring ditches were identified and flint flakes found as well as scrapers and an arrowhead which is probably late Neolithic. Flint tools continued to be used through the Bronze Age and even into the Iron Age as the raw material was plentiful and tools easier to make than bronze or iron tools.
Reconstruction of an Iron Age Round House Flag Fen
The Iron Age constituents of the site east of Village Farm included a pit and post holes suggesting occupation, along with a bead, some animal bones, grain, a pot sherd and a quern for grinding grain. The site in the north-east of the parish produced a rectangular enclosure typical of those found with Iron Age farmsteads and Village Farm produced a hearth, three cremation burials, a building identifiable by post holes, a ditch, a pit, a loom weight and a pot.
A complex and extensive area of cropmarks west of Peartree Farm seems to show trackways and other linear features. It was excavated in 1976 and a possible palisade and storage pits were found along with a loom weight, animal remains, a quern and a bodkin; unusually, remains of a musical instrument were also found. The site seems to have continued to be occupied into the Romano-British period.
North of Peartree Farm cropmarks suggest an Iron Age enclosure, replaced by a 2nd century AD Romano-British farm. Iron Age pottery was found. Soil marks east of Elstow Lodge suggest small pits, gullies and a wall made of clunch stone. Some Iron Age pottery was found. Late Iron Age pottery was also found at a site extending into the Romano-British period east of Wilstead Road as a result of field walking in 1999 during construction of a housing development.
An Iron Age boundary ditch has been identified west of the A6 and north of the brook in excavations prior to construction of the industrial estate at Progress Park. Iron Age pottery was discovered.
Three sets of cropmarks in the area have been identified tentatively as prehistoric. A linear cropmark between the A421 and B530 suggests a trackway or road. It lies close to Iron Age and Romano-British sites west and north of Peartree Far. Cropmarks east of Elstow Lodge suggest a north-south trackway and a possible rectangular enclosure. Finally, cropmarks north of Medbury Farm extend along a brook and may indicate prehistoric trackways.
The Celtic tribe of the Catuvellauni emerged in the late first century BC to become one of the most powerful tribes in southern Britain. They were bordered to the north by the Corieltavi, to the east by the Iceni and Trinovantes, to the south by the Atrebates, and to the west by the Dobunni and Cornovii. Like many of their neighbours in the south-east, they were probably a Belgic tribe from the North Sea or Baltics, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain. They may have been related to the Catalauni, a Belgic tribe of Gaul.
The main territory of the Catuvellauni lay on the northern bank of the Thamesis (River Thames), and northwards from there (in modern Hertfordshire). This is the area of their origin powerbase, and also where Julius Caesar places a tribe he named as the Cassi in 54 BC. The tribe’s early capital was at Wheathampstead, and under Cassivellaunus they expanded outwards to dominate Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire east of the Cherwell, Middlesex and north-east Surrey. The Segontiaci may have been a neighbouring tribe that was swallowed up by the expansion of the Catuvellauni.
They were one of the most prominent Celtic tribes of their time, and also one of the richest. They were good agriculturalists and had some of the best soil in the country on which to farm. Nevertheless, as with all the pre-Roman Celts, they left no written records. Their rulers are only noted after they began issuing coinage or came into contact with the Romans.
The king of the Catuvellauni, Cassivellaunus, was the leader of the resistance to the first expedition of Julius Caesar to Britain, showing that he already held a position of seniority amongst other tribal kings.
Archaeologists unearthed the remains of a Roman villa complex at a site in Manton Lane, Bedford, in 2011. The discovery was made during the construction of a care home on land next to Bedford Modern School. Evidence suggests that the wall dates back to the Roman period AD43-410. Roman roofing tiles, floor tiles and pottery were also recovered from the site and a geophysical survey undertaken immediately adjacent to the site suggests that the building could have formed part of a possible Roman villa complex.
Anglo Saxon Bedford
Bedford was on the border of the Kingdom of Mercia and, given the presence of the Danes to the north, it was fortified from an early date – perhaps by King Offa.
The Danes overran Mercia in AD 874 and occupied Bedford due to its proximity to the navigable waters of the Great Ouse which allowed access towards King’s Lynn and the Wash.
The Danes were eventually expelled from the area by King Edward the Elder in AD 915 and he subsequently built a fortified town (burh) on the southern banks of the river.
The Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia was buried in Bedford in 796.
Offa, an outstanding figure in Anglo-Saxon history, was the ruler of the tribal kingdom of Mercia from 757 to July 796.
Offa was the son of Thingfrith, son of Eanwulf, Eanwulf was the son of of Osmod, Osmod of Eowa (the brother of King Penda of Mercia). He married Cynethryth, who was to become the first Anglo-Saxon queen to be depicted on coinage, little is known about Cynefryth’s parentage or origins. The couple produced one son, Ecgfrith, later King of Mercia, and four daughters, Æthelburh, in later life an abbess, Eadburh, who was married to Beorhtric of Wessex, Ælfflæd, wife of Æthelred I of Northumbria and Æthelswith.
Offa obtained the throne of Mercia in 757, during a period of civil war which followed the murder of his cousin, King Aethelbald, by the rival claimant Beornraed. In the early fourteen years of his reign he consolidated his control of the midland tribes, the Hwicce and the Magonsæte.
Taking advantage of instability in the kingdom of Kent Offa established himself as overlord there. By 771, he had also gained control of Sussex. In the 780s Offa extended Mercian supremacy over most of the south of England, allying with Beorhtric of Wessex, who married Offa’s daughter Eadburh. He also became the overlord of East Anglia, and had King Æthelberht II of East Anglia beheaded in 794, possibly for leading a rebellion against him. Offa proved to be a formidable ruler and is often regarded as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. He was a contemporary of the great Frankish king Charlemagne and sought to stand up to him as an equal.
Offa led campaigns against the Britons of Wales and as a result of these hostilities constructed Offa’s Dyke, for which he is possibly best remembered. The huge dyke marked the border between Wales and Mercia and is mentioned by the monk Asser in his biography of King Alfred the Great: “a certain vigorous king called Offa…had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea”
Forming the traditional boundary between England and Wales, the dyke was built during the 780’s, the impressive earthwork runs, although not continuously, from the Dee estuary in the north to the river Wye in the south. In places, Offa’s Dyke is up to 65 feet (19.8 metres) wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet (2.4 m) high. Thousands of men were required to complete the earthwork and each section appears to have been built by people from a different district. The fact that this mammoth undertaking was achieved illustrates the cohesion of the Mercian kingdom under Offa. The dyke was never garrisoned but would have been manned by relatively small local forces
Offa built a palace at Tamworth so magnificent in style and furnishings, that it was declared to be ‘the wonder of the age’. He had links with Charlemagne, exchanging letters and gifts with the famous Frankish king and is believed to have established trading connections as far as Arabia.
Offa died on 29th July, 796 Roger of Wendover records:
“Offa, the magnificent king of the Mercians, having nearly completed his most noble monastery, died, according to the opinion of many, in the town of Offley (in Hertfordshire), and his body is said to have been conveyed to the town of Bedford, and to have been buried in a royal manner in a certain chapel outside the city, situated on the bank of the river Ouse. It is reported by nearly all the people of that neighbourhood, even to the present day, that the aforesaid chapel, from decay and the violence of that river, was precipitated, together with the king’s tomb, into the stream; and that the sepulchre is now seen by bathers in the summer time deep beneath the waters, but though it has been sought with the greatest diligence, yet, as if by a fatality, it cannot be found.”
In 886 Bedford became a boundary town separating Wessex and Danelaw. The Danelaw (also known as the Danelagh; Old English: Dena lagu; Danish: Danelagen), as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Danelaw contrasts West Saxon law and Mercian law. Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical designation. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England.
The Danelaw originated from the Viking expansion of the 9th century AD, although the term was not used to describe a geographic area until the 11th century AD. With the increase in population and productivity in Scandinavia, Viking warriors, having sought treasure and glory in the nearby British Isles, “proceeded to plough and support themselves”, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 876.
Danelaw can describe the set of legal terms and definitions created in the treaties between the West-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, and the Danish warlord, Guthrum, written following Guthrum’s defeat at the Battle of Edington in 878. In 886 the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalised, defining the boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. The language spoken in England was also affected by this clash of cultures with the emergence of Anglo-Norse dialects.
The Danelaw roughly comprised 14 shires: York, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham.
Edward the Elder
Edward the Elder and his sister, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, conquered Danish territories in the Midlands and East Anglia in a series of campaigns in the 910s. King Edward the Elder, son and successor of Alfred the Great, is known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have come to Bedford in 919 during the wars with the Danes when he ordered the digging of the King’s Ditch, the town’s first known fortress (the eastern half of which survives), to defend the town south of the river and there received the area’s submission. This fortress was later destroyed by the Danes in 1010.
The Danes did not give up their designs on England. From 1016 to 1035 Cnut the Great ruled over a unified English kingdom, itself the product of a resurgent Wessex, as part of his North Sea Empire, together with Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. Cnut was succeeded in England on his death by his son Harold Harefoot, until he died in 1040, after which another of Cnut’s sons, Harthacnut, took the throne. Since Harthacnut was already on the Danish throne, this reunited the North Sea Empire. Harthacnut lived only another two years, and from his death in 1042 until 1066 the monarchy reverted to the English line in the form of Edward the Confessor.
Edward died in January 1066 without an obvious successor, and an English nobleman, Harold Godwinson, took the throne. In the autumn of that same year, two rival claimants to the throne led invasions of England in short succession. First, Harald Hardrada of Norway took York in September, but was defeated by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire. Then, three weeks later, William of Normandy defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, in Sussex and in December he accepted the submission of Edgar the Ætheling, last in the line of Anglo-Saxon kings, at Berkhamsted.
Barony of Bedford
In 1087 Hugh de Beauchamp was granted Bedford by William II to complement his extensive landholdings in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
Bedford was granted borough status in 1165 by Henry II and has been represented in Parliament since 1265 electing two members to the unreformed House of Commons
Bedford Castle was built during the reign of Henry I but was razed in 1224 and today only a mound remains
The castle passed to Hugh’s, Simon, sometime before 1114 but when Simon died in 1137 without a male heir, a dispute arose over ownership. The castle was initially taken over by Miles de Beuchamp, Simon’s nephew, on trust for his daughter. However, when King Stephen arranged a marriage between Simon’s daughter and Hugh the Pauper (with the latter taking Bedford Castle), Miles refused to hand it over. The castle was besieged by Royal forces and, after an initial attempt to storm the defences failed, the focus shifted on blockading the site to starve the garrison out. Although King Stephen departed, the Royal army remained in situ and Miles was eventually dislodged. However, England descended into civil war in 1139 between the forces of King Stephen and Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, over the succession to the English Crown. Miles used the opportunity to support Matilda and re-captured Bedford Castle. Despite attacks on Bedford town in 1146 and 1153, the castle was not taken during the rest of the war and Miles held the fortification until his death sometime before 1155.
Civil war once again engulfed England in 1215 with the outbreak of the First Barons War between King John and his rebellious Barons. The first target of the rebels was Northampton Castle but this Royal fortress had been greatly strengthened in the months preceding the war and proved impregnable. It soon became clear an extended siege would be required but word soon reached the Barons that William de Beauchamp, then owner of Bedford Castle and initially a supporter of the King, was on the verge of switching sides. The rebels moved to Bedford where they were welcomed into the castle by William. The bulk of the rebel force then moved on towards London.
Bedford Castle was re-taken for King John in late 1215 by Falkes de Breauté, a soldier who had been in Royal service since at least 1206. In recognition of his achievement, the King subsequently granted him the castle which he significantly enlarged. In doing so he demolished the churches of St Paul’s and St Cuthbert’s both to make space for the enhanced castle and provide building materials. A barbican, outer bailey and stone curtain wall were all constructed at this time. It is also likely the motte was enlarged and a stone shell Keep built upon its summit.
King John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his nine year old son, Henry III. During the minority both William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent – both key magnates in the new regime – marginalised Falkes de Breauté culminating in a decision in 1224 that Bedford Castle should be returned to William de Beauchamp. Falkes refused to hand the castle over and imprisoned a Royal judge – Henry of Braybrooke – when he tried to intervene. On 22 June 1224 a Royal army besieged Bedford and Falkes, who was not present in the castle, was excommunicated by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. The siege saw the full might of the Royal arsenal brought against the fortification with surviving records detailing the apparatus and tactics used in significant detail:
– Northern Walls – one mangonel (a form of catapult)
– Eastern Walls – a petrary (stone throwing device) and two mangonels
– Western Walls – two mangonels
– Southern Walls – one mangonel
Furthermore two tall towers were built to provide archers with the ability to fire directly into the castle’s interior whilst workmen used a Cattus (a wooden shelter) to access the curtain wall’s foundations. Despite these endeavours, the siege lasted eight weeks with the defenders repelling several assaults which saw hundreds of attackers killed. Eventually however an assault broke down the walls and Royal troops stormed in. The King showed no mercy and William de Breauté, brother to Falkes, and dozens of Knights who had been defending the castle were summarily executed. Falkes himself submitted to Henry III and, in exchange for loss of all his possessions, was pardoned to exile. Bedford Castle was restored to William de Beauchamp but the King was adamant that the fortification should be slighted. Despite William’s best efforts, the castle was demolished and never rebuilt although the buildings within the Inner Bailey continued in use for some years thereafter.
During the English Civil War, Bedford was a Parliamentary stronghold although it was briefly captured by Royalist troops in 1643. The castle’s motte, by then the only substantial portion of the fortification still standing, was re-commissioned as a fortification for protection of the town presumably as a high point for artillery. After the war the motte was again abandoned and ultimately became a bowling lawn.
Bedford was a market town for the surrounding agricultural region from the early Middle Ages onward with wool being important to the town for much of the Middle Ages.
From the 16th century Bedford and much of Bedfordshire became one of the main centres of England’s lace industry, and lace continued to be an important industry in Bedford until the early 20th century.
The River Great Ouse became navigable as far as Bedford in 1689.
Wool gradually declined in importance with brewing becoming a major industry in the town.
John Bunyan (baptised 30 November 1628 – 31 August 1688) was an English writer and Baptist preacher best remembered as the author of the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. In addition to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan wrote nearly sixty titles, many of them expanded sermons.
In 1660 John Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years in Bedford Gaol. It was here that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bunyan came from the village of Elstow, near Bedford. He had some schooling and at the age of sixteen joined the Parliamentary army during the first stage of the English Civil War. After three years in the army he returned to Elstow and took up the trade of tinker, which he had learned from his father. He became interested in religion after his marriage, attending first the parish church and then joining the Bedford Meeting, a nonconformist group in Bedford, and becoming a preacher. After the restoration of the monarch, when the freedom of nonconformists was curtailed, Bunyan was arrested and spent the next twelve years in jail as he refused to undertake to give up preaching. During this time he wrote a spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and began work on his most famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was not published until some years after his release.
Bunyan’s later years, in spite of another shorter term of imprisonment, were spent in relative comfort as a popular author and preacher, and pastor of the Bedford Meeting. He died aged 59 after falling ill on a journey to London and is buried in Bunhill Fields. The Pilgrim’s Progress became one of the most published books in the English language; 1,300 editions having been printed by 1938, 250 years after the author’s death.
He is remembered in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on 30 August, and on the liturgical calendar of the United States Episcopal Church on 29 August. Some other churches of the Anglican Communion, such as the Anglican Church of Australia, honour him on the day of his death (31 August).
John Bunyan was born in 1628 to Thomas and Margaret Bunyan at Bunyan’s End in the parish of Elstow, Bedfordshire. Bunyan’s End is located about halfway between the hamlet of Harrowden (one mile south-east of Bedford) and Elstow High Street. Bunyan’s date of birth is not known, but he was baptised on 30 November 1628, the baptismal entry in the parish register reading “John the sonne of Thomas Bunnion Jun., the 30 November”. The name Bunyan was spelt in many different ways (there are 34 variants in Bedfordshire Record Office) and had its origins in the Norman-French name Buignon. There had been Bunyans in north Bedfordshire since at least 1199.
Bunyan’s father was a brazier or tinker who travelled around the area mending pots and pans, and his grandfather had been a chapman or small trader. The Bunyans also owned land in Elstow, so Bunyan’s origins were not quite as humble as he suggested in his autobiographical work Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners when he wrote that his father’s house was “of that rank that is meanest and most despised in the country”.
As a child Bunyan learned his father’s trade of tinker and was given some rudimentary schooling. In Grace Abounding Bunyan recorded few details of his upbringing, but he did note how he picked up the habit of swearing (from his father), suffered from nightmares, and read the popular stories of the day in cheap chap-books. In the summer of 1644 Bunyan lost both his mother and his sister Margaret. That autumn, shortly before or after his sixteenth birthday, Bunyan enlisted in the Parliamentary army when an edict demanded 225 recruits from the town of Bedford. There are few details available about his military service, which took place during the first stage of the English Civil War. A muster roll for the garrison of Newport Pagnell shows him as private “John Bunnian”. In Grace Abounding, he recounted an incident from this time, as evidence of the grace of God:
“When I was a Souldier I, with others were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; But when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room, to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood Sentinel, he was shot into the head with a Musket bullet and died.”
Bunyan’s army service provided him with a knowledge of military language which he then used in his book The Holy War, and also exposed him to the ideas of the various religious sects and radical groups he came across in Newport Pagnell. The garrison town also gave him opportunities to indulge in the sort of behaviour he would later confess to in Grace Abounding: “So that until I came to the state of Marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the Youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness”. Bunyan spent nearly three years in the army, leaving in 1647 to return to Elstow and his trade as a tinker. His father had remarried and had more children and Bunyan moved from Bunyan’s End to a cottage in Elstow High Street.
Within two years of leaving the army, Bunyan married. The name of his wife and the exact date of his marriage are not known, but Bunyan did recall that his wife, a pious young woman, brought with her into the marriage two books that she had inherited from her father: Arthur Dent’s ‘Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven’ and Lewis Bayly’s ‘Practice of Piety’. He also recalled that, apart from these two books, the newly-weds possessed little: “not having so much household-stuff as a Dish or a Spoon betwixt us both”. The couple’s first daughter, Mary, was born in 1650, and it soon became apparent that she was blind. They would have three more children, Elizabeth, Thomas and John.
By his own account, Bunyan had as a youth enjoyed bell-ringing, dancing and playing games including on Sunday, thought by many to be the Sabbath, which was forbidden by the Puritan regime. One Sunday the vicar of Elstow preached a sermon against Sabbath breaking, and Bunyan took this sermon to heart. That afternoon, as he was playing tip-cat (a game in which a small piece of wood is hit with a bat) on Elstow village green, he heard a voice from the heavens “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to Heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to Hell?” The next few years were a time of intense spiritual conflict for Bunyan as he struggled with his doubts and fears over religion and guilt over what he saw as his state of sin.
During this time Bunyan, whilst on his travels as a tinker, happened to be in Bedford and pass a group of women who were talking about spiritual matters on their doorstep. The women were in fact some of the founding members of the Bedford Free Church or Meeting and Bunyan, who had been attending the parish church of Elstow, was so impressed by their talk that he joined their church. At that time the nonconformist group was meeting in St John’s church in Bedford under the leadership of former Royalist army officer John Gifford. At the instigation of other members of the congregation Bunyan began to preach, both in the church and to groups of people in the surrounding countryside. In 1656, having by this time moved his family to St Cuthbert’s Street in Bedford, he published his first book, Gospel Truths Opened, which was inspired by a dispute with Quakers.
In 1658 Bunyan’s wife died, leaving him with four small children, one of them blind. A year later he married an eighteen-year-old woman called Elizabeth.
The religious tolerance which had allowed Bunyan the freedom to preach became curtailed with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The members of the Bedford Meeting were no longer able to meet in St John’s church, which they had been sharing with the Anglican congregation. That November, Bunyan was preaching at Lower Samsell, a farm near the village of Westoning, thirteen miles from Bedford, when he was warned that a warrant was out for his arrest. Deciding not to make an escape, he was arrested and brought before the local magistrate Sir Francis Wingate, at Harlington House. The Act of Uniformity, which made it compulsory for preachers to be ordained by an Anglican bishop and for the revised Book of Common Prayer to be used in church services, was still two years away, and the Act of Conventicles, which made it illegal to hold religious meetings of five or more people outside the Church of England was not passed until 1664. Bunyan was arrested under the Conventicle Act of 1593, which made it an offence to attend a religious gathering other than at the parish church with more than five people outside their family. The offence was punishable by 3 months imprisonment followed by banishment or execution if the person then failed to promise not to re-offend. The Act had been little used, and Bunyan’s arrest was probably due in part to concerns that non-conformist religious meetings were being held as a cover for people plotting against the king (although this was not the case with Bunyan’s meetings).
The trial of Bunyan took place in January 1661 at the quarter sessions in Bedford, before a group of magistrates under John Kelynge, who would later help to draw up the Act of Uniformity. Bunyan, who had been held in prison since his arrest, was indicted of having “devilishly and perniciousy abstained from coming to church to hear divine service” and having held “several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom”. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment with transportation to follow if at the end of this time he didn’t agree to attend the parish church and desist from preaching.
As Bunyan refused to agree to give up preaching, his period of imprisonment eventually extended to 12 years and brought great hardship to his family. Elizabeth, who made strenuous attempts to obtain his release, had been pregnant when her husband was arrested and she subsequently gave birth prematurely to a still-born child. Left to bring up four step-children, one of whom was blind, she had to rely on the charity of Bunyan’s fellow members of the Bedford Meeting and other supporters and on what little her husband could earn in gaol by making shoelaces. But Bunyan remained resolute: “O I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it”.
Bunyan spent his 12 years’ imprisonment in Bedford County Gaol, which stood on the corner of the High Street and Silver Street. There were however occasions when he was allowed out of prison, depending on the gaolers and the mood of the authorities at the time, and he was able to attend the Bedford Meeting and even preach. His daughter Sarah was born during his imprisonment (the other child of his second marriage, Joseph, was born after his release in 1672).
In prison, Bunyan had a copy of the Bible and of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as well as writing materials. He also had at times the company of other preachers who had been imprisoned. It was in Bedford Gaol that he wrote Grace Abounding and started work on The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as penning several tracts that may have brought him a little money. In 1671, while still in prison, he was chosen as pastor of the Bedford Meeting. By that time there was a mood of increasing religious toleration in the country and in March 1672 the king issued a declaration of indulgence which suspended penal laws against nonconformists. Thousands of nonconformists were released from prison, amongst them Bunyan and five of his fellow inmates of Bedford Gaol. Bunyan was freed in May 1672 and immediately obtained a licence to preach under the declaration of indulgence.
Following his release from gaol in 1672 Bunyan probably did not return to his former occupation of tinker. Instead he devoted his time to writing and preaching. He continued as pastor of the Bedford Meeting and travelled over Bedfordshire and adjoining counties on horseback to preach, becoming known affectionately as “Bishop Bunyan”. His preaching also took him to London, where Lord Mayor Sir John Shorter became a friend and presented him with a silver-mounted walking stick. The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 by Nathaniel Ponder and immediately became popular, though probably making more money for its publisher than for its author.
Two events marred Bunyan’s life during the later 1670s. Firstly he became embroiled in a scandal concerning a young woman called Agnes Beaumont. When going to preach in Gamlingay in 1674 he allowed Beaumont, a member of the Bedford Meeting, to ride pillion on his horse, much to the anger of her father, who then died suddenly. His daughter was initially suspected of poisoning him, though the coroner found he had died of natural causes. And then in 1676-7 he underwent a second term of imprisonment, probably for refusing to attend the parish church.
In 1688, on his way to London, Bunyan made a detour to Reading, Berkshire, to try and resolve a quarrel between a father and son. Continuing to London to the house of his friend, grocer John Strudwick of Snow Hill in the City of London, he was caught in a storm and fell ill with a fever. He died in Strudwick’s house on the morning of 31 August 1688 and was buried in the tomb belonging to Strudwick in Bunhill Fields nonconformist burial ground in London.
Bunyan’s estate at his death was worth £42 19s 0d. His widow Elizabeth died in 1691.
It is the allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, written during Bunyan’s twelve-year imprisonment although not published until 1678 six years after his release, that made Bunyan’s name as an author with its immediate success. It remains the book for which Bunyan is best remembered.
The images Bunyan uses in The Pilgrim’s Progress are reflections of images from his own world.
The Strait Gate is a version of the wicket gate at Elstow Abbey church
The Slough of Despond is a reflection of Squitch Fen, a wet and mossy area near his cottage in Harrowden
The Delectable Mountains are an image of the Chiltern Hills surrounding Bedfordshire.
Even his characters, like the Evangelist as influenced by John Gifford, are reflections of real people.
Further allegorical works were to follow: The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), Pilgrim’s Progress Part II, and The Holy War (1682). Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a spiritual autobiography was published in 1666, when he was still in jail.
The 19th century saw Bedford transform into an important engineering hub. In 1832 gas lighting was introduced, and the railway reached Bedford in 1846. The first corn exchange was built 1849, and the first drains and sewers were dug in 1864.
Bedford is now well known for its large population of Italian descent, and also an increasingly large Punjabi population, and is home to the largest Sikh Gurdwara in the UK outside London.
Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh Temple Queens Park Bedford