In spite of the threatening shadows cast over Nonconformity by the restoration of the monarchy and episcopacy, there was no little hope in John Bunyan’s heart. For one thing had not Charles II solemnly declared that he would grant “liberty to tender consciences”? And John, like thousands of others, believed him. But he was soon to be disillusioned on this point. Another source of hope was that his young wife Elizabeth was pregnant, expecting her first child before Christmas.
When he had written Grace Abounding Bunyan added a long and surprisingly detailed account of his imprisonment entitled, “A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr John Bunyan.” It is clear that he had an exceptionally good memory, for he recalls conversations and happenings six years earlier with ease. This beginning of sore trials to Bunyan, and of twelve years in prison, held there without proper legal warrant for no other reason than that he refused to conform to episcopacy and its Prayer Book, made him a renowned author and one of the best known and best loved in the world.
On 12th November 1660 John Bunyan had a preaching engagement at a farmhouse at Lower Samsell, near Harlington, thirteen miles from Bedford on the road to Luton. It is unlikely that he walked this long distance but went on horseback. He knew the district well for he had often preached there, out of doors in good weather. When he entered the room where the service was to be held he found his friends waiting for him ill-at-ease and apprehensive. They soon told him the reason. It had come to their knowledge that a warrant was out for his arrest, and some said that the house was being watched. The local magistrate, Mr Francis Wingate, had issued the warrant. There is little doubt that John Bunyan, who was the most prominent Nonconformist preacher in Bedfordshire, was the main target of the returned Anglican royalists who had determined to silence him as an example to the rest.
John was undeterred. His host urged him to give up preaching that day and to make good his escape. John would have none of it. Bible in hand and subject ready in his mind he answered, “No, by no means; I will not stir, neither will I have the meeting dismissed. Come, be of good cheer, let us not be daunted; our cause is good, we need not be ashamed of it, to preach God’s Word is so good a work, that we shall be well rewarded if we suffer for that.”
Then he calmly walked out into a field to consider his situation more carefully. He realised that the crisis which William Dell and he had foreseen a year ago was now upon them. He was not so much concerned for himself, but for the effect on his brethren if he were to make his escape and hide. They would think that he was not so strong in deed as in word and would be injured in their faith. His flight would also cause the enemies of the Gospel to blaspheme. “I could have been gone about an hour before the officer approached me; but I would not; for I was resolved to see the utmost of what they could say or do unto me.” So he went back into the house and commenced the meeting with prayer. Before long a constable appeared, together with a servant of the magistrate, with the warrant. They looked somewhat abashed to see such a peaceful assembly, with no weapons such as they expected, save the sword of the Spirit, the Bible. John was duly arrested. “But before I went away I spoke some few words of counsel and encouragement to the people, declaring to them that they saw we were prevented of our opportunity to speak and hear the Word of God, and were like to suffer for the same: desiring them that they should not be discouraged, for it was a mercy to suffer upon so good an account.” John was marched off in custody of the two men, but as the magistrate Francis Wingate was away from his home at Harlington House that day, John was lodged in a friend’s house for the night.
Next morning he was brought by the village constable before Francis Wingate, who was a typical country gentleman of the day, a Justice of the Peace, and by virtue of this fact practically a judge and a police magistrate. But his jurisdiction in the area was limited and it was fairly easy for offenders to escape into some other district where they would be safe. Nonconformists soon came to make good use of this loop-hole in the law holding their meetings where possible near county boundaries where escape over the border was easy. John Bunyan remembered this possibility when he described the escape of Christian and Hopeful from Giant Despair on the King’s Highway, where they “were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction”. Today, however, John had no intention of escaping, but intended to witness for his Lord before any who questioned his proceedings.
Harlington House was an ancient gabled Manor, in part going back to 1396. It had wide, well-kept lawns and flower beds. Charles II himself had quite recently spent a night in the house. John and the constable were taken to the “great parlour”, a fine panelled room with full-length windows opening on to the garden. Here, behind his desk, sat Francis Wingate. He questioned the constable closely on what the people at the meeting were doing, where they met, and what they had with them. This was obviously an enquiry as to whether any weapons were to be seen. The constable replied that only a few persons had met together to preach and hear the Word, and there was no sign of anything else. The magistrate was now clearly embarrassed by his precipitous action and hardly knew what to do. So he began to question John Bunyan. What was he doing at the meeting? Why was he not content to follow his trade? Then he concluded with, “It is against the law for such as you to do as you do!”
Calmly John Bunyan replied that the reason for his coming there was to instruct and counsel people to forsake their sins and “close in with Christ, lest they did perish miserably”. And he added that he could both follow his calling and preach the Word also. This reply seemed to incense Wingate, who said roughly that he would “break the neck of our meetings”. Wingate next demanded sureties, or he would send Bunyan to prison. Two or three of John’s friends were on hand to be his sureties that he would duly appear at the next Quarter Sessions, and when the bond was drawn up Wingate warned John and his supporters that if he preached again before the Sessions their bond would be forfeited. John at once released his sponsors from their bond on his behalf, frankly telling Wingate that he would not give up speaking the Word of God.
Francis Wingate retired to another room to draw up the writ called a “mittimus” committing Bunyan to Bedford Gaol. While John waited for this document, still closely guarded by the constable, a relative of Wingate, Dr William Lindall, Vicar of Hitchin, came into the room. John describes him as “an old enemy of the truth”. Lindall began to taunt John with many reviling terms and accused him of meddling with that for which he had no warrant, namely preaching. John quoted Peter to him—”As every man hath received the gift, even so let him minister the same.” Lindall then made a sneering remark about Bunyan with reference to Alexander the coppersmith, one of Paul’s opponents. But John was equal to him and said, “I also have read of very many priests and Pharisees that had their hands in the blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Linda!l proceeded to accuse John of being one of those scribes and Pharisees “With pretence you make long prayers to divide widow’s houses.” “If you,” replied John quietly, “had got no more by preaching and praying than I have done, you would not be so rich as you are now!” This shot went home. But immediately a text flashed through his mind, “Answer not a fool according to his folly”, and so he made only brief replies to Lindall’s further efforts to goad him.
The writ having been drawn up, Bunyan was starting on the journey to Bedford with the constable, when two friends stopped them and offered to intercede with Wingate for his release. Though he was very weary John waited with the constable while the two men went to the house and entered on a lengthy discussion with Wingate. After some time they returned in triumph. If John would say certain words to Francis Wingate he would be released. “If the words are such that I may say them with a good conscience I will say them,” he declared, “otherwise I will not.” Back to the panelled hall he was taken where, to his surprise, he found not only Wingate, but his brother-in-law, Dr William Foster of Bedford, doctor of laws and a champion of Anglican orthodoxy, who had been foremost in harrying Nonconformists. He greeted Bunyan “with seeming affection”, but, since he knew the man, this simulated cordiality was lost on John. Foster repeated Wingate’s statement, that if he promised not to call people together, he could go home. In the argument about preaching which followed, Bunyan stoutly defended his call from God and said, “If I come into any place where there is a people met together, I should, according to the best of my skill and wisdom, exhort and counsel them to seek out after the Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of their souls.” The long controversy which is fully recorded in Grace Abounding, ended with the deliverance of the writ to the constable; and although some of Wingate’s own servants sought to persuade John not to preach and thus land himself in gaol, he was firm in his resolve. So with the constable, and perhaps with his two helpful friends, John stepped Out into the cold night air towards Bedford Gaol and twelve years imprisonment. Francis Wingate would have been astonished could he have looked into the future, to see three of his daughters, Frances, Anna and Rachel, members of the very church in Bedford of which Bunyan was a member and of which he was to become Minister.
“It is not generally remembered,” writes Dr Stoughton in his book, Church of the Restoration, “that long before the Uniformity, Conventicle and Five Mile Acts were passed, John Bunyan was cast into Bedford Gaol.” The fact is that there were still on the Statute Book, unrepealed, acts of relentless severity enforcing conformity with the Established Church. The old Statute Law, 1 Eliz.c.2 required all persons to resort to Church every Sunday and holy day, or be fined and publicly censured. Another law, 35 Eliz.c.l. made frequenting conventicles punishable by imprisonment: those who after conviction would not submit were to be banished the realm. It was under these Acts, within six months of the king’s arrival, and long before the legislation known as the Clarendon Code was enacted, that the warrant was issued for John Bunyan’s arrest and the writ for his committal to prison.
The prison which, with a brief interval in 1666, was to be his enforced home for the next twelve years, carrying “God’s comfort in his poor soul”, was the County Gaol at the corner of Silver Street and High Street in Bedford. A widespread error long maintained that he was confined in the town lockup, an old building picturesquely built on the many-arched bridge over the river Ouse. But this was too small to hold the large numbers of prisoners known to be in gaol with Bunyan; besides which, the bridge with its town lock-up collapsed into the river during a storm in 1671. The fact that Bunyan was held in the County Gaol is confirmed by the discovery in 1934 of many assize records of the Norfolk Circuit. These revealed John Bunyan’s name on the list of prisoners in Bedford County Gaol for various years between 1661 and 1672. He was there, and not in the town lock-up, because he was arrested under the warrant of a county magistrate for a county offence, and tried at the Quarter Sessions for the county. There was, as we shall see, a second short imprisonment in the County Gaol in 1677, documents concerning which have also been discovered.
The County Gaol to which John Bunyan came on the 14th of November, 1660 had two floors; the ground floor had two day rooms and several sleeping cells for felons, and the first floor, reserved for debtors, had four lodging rooms and a common day-room used also as a chapel. Below the ground floor were two dungeons, one in total darkness. These rooms had no fireplaces and the prisoners slept on straw. It must have been intensely cold for them in winter. There was a small yard behind the building, used as an exercise place. Windows with iron gratings on Silver Street allowed prisoners to hang purses out of the windows on Sunday mornings, begging help from passers-by. Sanitation was primitive. Food was poor, and when more Nonconformists crowded the place, often insufficient. Yet the prison was no worse than hundreds of others throughout the land.
The news of John’s arrest caused consternation to the members of the Bedford Meeting. An attempt was made to enlist the help of an Elstow magistrate named Crompton, who probably knew John well, but although sympathetic he was deterred from doing anything because the writ stated only that John had attended conventicles “to the great disparagement of the government of the Church of England”, and Crompton suspected that some political offence had been committed.
Consternation was also caused to his wife Elizabeth, near to her first confinement, who went into premature labour and gave birth to a still-born child, a great sorrow to them both. When sufficiently recovered she often came to the prison bringing food and hot soup in an earthen jug, (which is still to be seen at Bunyan Meeting) and other comforts to John.
The Quarter Sessions were held in January 1661, and as Bedford did not possess an Assize Court, the Sessions were held in an ancient Gothic semi-ecclesiastical building known as the Chapel of Herne on the bank of the Ouse. A few days earlier there had been a violent uprising of Fifth Monarchy men in London led by a fanatical cooper, Thomas Venner, much influenced by the writings of John Lilburne. This uprising was suppressed with the utmost rigour, many were killed or taken prisoner, and Venner and ten others executed. Those involved in Bunyan’s trial, therefore, were likely to be prejudiced against him by these events, which to ignorant minds were no different from other Nonconformist activities. Further, on January 10th a proclamation was made prohibiting “all unlawful and seditious meetings and conventicles under pretence of religious worship”. As a result many Dissenters were thrown into prison until the Coronation.
The bench, before which Bunyan appeared, consisted of five County magistrates, three of whom had old scores to pay off against the Puritans. These were Sir Henry Chester of Liddington, Wingate’s uncle; George Blundell of Cardington; and the Chairman of Sessions, Sir John Kelynge. The two remaining magistrates were Justices Beecher and Snagg. Sir John Kelynge was a member of the Inner Temple, a practising barrister, a Sergeant-at-law, and one of the counsel for the crown at the trial of the Regicides. It was not likely that John would get much sympathy from him. His bearing on the bench is said to have been haughty and brutal, and he did not scruple to browbeat, fine and imprison any jury who did not follow his wishes. In addition, and most important, although John did not know it, Kelynge had himself been imprisoned by the Commonwealth Government. In 1642 at the Spring Quarter Sessions in Hertfordshire, he had tried to persuade the Grand Jury to indict certain persons found drilling in connection with the Militia Ordinance. This suggested royalist sympathies. He was summoned to the Bar of the House of Commons, arrested, and imprisoned for sixteen years until the Restoration. To such a man, with his hatred of Puritans and bitter memories of his long imprisonment, John Bunyan must make his pleas. It did not look a very hopeful prospect, nor did it turn out to be.
The Bill of Indictment declared that “John Bunyan, labourer … hath devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to Church to hear divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great hindrance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom.” As Vera Brittain points out, “this pompous pronouncement put the small gathering at Lower Samsell right into the picture of the national struggle for freedom of worship.” When the clerk asked, “What say you to this?”, John replied, “I am a common frequenter of the Church of God, and I am also, by grace, a member with those people over whom Christ is the Head.”
“But do you come to church?” asked Kelynge, testily, “You know what I mean, the parish church, to hear divine service?”
“No,” answered John, “I do not.”
“Because I do not find it commanded in the Word of God.”
“We are commanded to pray,” said Kelynge.
“But not by the Common Prayer Book.”
“With the Spirit. As the apostle said, ‘I will pray with the spirit and with the understanding.”
Kelynge retorted, “We may pray with the Spirit, with understanding, and with the Common Prayer Book also.”
A long discussion now ensued between John and the magistrates on the nature of prayer and the status of the Prayer Book, all of which is set down in great fulness in Bunyan’s Relation of His Imprisonment, first printed in 1765, and most probably withheld from the press in Bunyan’s lifetime because many of the persons concerned were still alive. Kelynge next drew from the prisoner the admission that he was not against the use of the Common Prayer Book so much as against its compulsory use. “They that have a mind to use it have their liberty; that is, I would not keep them from it; but for our part, we can pray to God without it”. From this subject Kelynge turned to Bunyan’s call to preach, and his authority for so doing. Bunyan, from his knowledge of the Scriptures quoted 1 Peter 4:10 and Acts 18. Kelynge, growing impatient, said that he was not so well versed in Scripture as to dispute, and anyway, they could not wait any longer. “You confess the indictment, do you not?” Up to this point John did not know that he was being indicted. The true nature of his interrogation had not been made clear to him. He replied stoutly, “This I confess, we have had many meetings together, both to pray to God, and to exhort one another, and that we had the sweet comforting presence of the Lord among us for our encouragement … I confessed myself guilty no otherwise.”
“Then,” thundered Kelynge, “hear your judgement. You must be had back again to prison, and there lie for three months following; and at three months’ end, if you do not submit to go to Church to hear divine service, and leave your preaching, you must be banished the realm. And, if after such a day as shall be appointed for you to be gone, you shall be found in this realm, or be found to come over again without special leave from the king, you must stretch by the neck for it, I tell you plainly.” And then to the jailor, “Take him away.”
So John Bunyan was committed to prison after his court utterances had been regarded as a confession of the indictment. But he was to have the last word. Looking steadily at the five magistrates, he answered Kelynge, “I am at a point with you. If I was out of prison today, I would preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God!” So he was returned to gaol. But he adds, “I can truly say, I bless the Lord Jesus Christ for it, that my heart was sweetly refreshed in the time of my examination, and also afterwards at my returning to the prison. So that I found Christ’s words more than bare trifles, where He saith, He will give a mouth and wisdom, even such as all the adversaries shall not resist or gainsay. And that His peace no man can take from us.”
John Bunyan never forgot his trial at the Quarter Sessions, and sixteen years later he was able to describe the courthouse, the proceedings, and give Sir John Kelynge an inglorious immortality as Lord Hategood in Vanity Fair.
It is very likely that John Bunyan as a soldier, impulsive, hot-headed, daring, a born leader of men, had done some deeds of valiant military prowess, for which in our day he might have received a medal. These would he known and he would have been regarded as a hero. Hence, when he came before the judges they would know about his military exploits, which, from their point of view, had been performed on the wrong side. Had he been a soldier in the Royalist army it cannot be doubted that he would have gone free.
For the next three months John remained in prison, chiefly in the company of debtors, vagabonds and criminals. No doubt he spoke to them of the things of God. But soon afterwards he was joined by John Rush, a leading Quaker, and as the days went by other Nonconformists were added to their number. Then on the 3rd of April he received an official visit from Paul Cobb, the Clerk of the Peace, who interviewed him in the gaoler’s room. He had come, he said, at the request of the magistrates to admonish him, and to demand his submission to the Church of England. The alternative was that he could be sent away out of England “or else worse than that”. He must submit to the laws of the land and leave off the meetings he had been having. John protested that the law under which he was detained did not apply to him, but to those who designed to do evil in their meetings, using religion for a cloak for wickedness. His meetings were solely to worship God and do good to others. Cobb replied that everyone would say the same, and referred to Venner’s insurrection in London. John said that he abhorred their practices. “I look upon it as my duty,” he affirmed, “to behave myself under the king’s government, both as becomes a man and a Christian, and if an occasion was offered me, I should willingly manifest my loyalty to my Prince, both by word and deed.” Cobb said that he did not profess to be a man able to dispute, nevertheless he proceeded to argue with Bunyan for a considerable time that the prisoner might exhort small companies of people in private and also attend public worship of the Established Church. He also dropped the hint that John could be sent to Spain or Constantinople or some other remote place. John persisted that he knew no evil that he had done. Cobb reminded him that Scripture said, “The powers that be are ordained of God.” John answered that both Jesus and Paul suffered under the ruling powers. “Sir,” he concluded, “the law hath provided two ways of obeying: The one to do that which I, in my conscience, do believe that I am bound to do, actively; and where I cannot obey actively, there I am willing to lie down, and to suffer what they shall do unto me.” Paul Cobb sat still and gazed at Bunyan as at some fanatic. John thanked him for his “civil and meek discoursing with me”. And he added a characteristic touch—”Oh that we might meet in heaven!”
Before we leave Paul Cobb it must be noted that he had a clearer grasp of Bunyan’s legal position than Bunyan himself, or indeed some of his biographers. On 10th December 1670, nearly ten years after Bunyan’s conviction at the Quarter Sessions, Cobb sent an account of it to Roger Kenyon, Clerk of the Peace for Lancashire, as a guide to procedure in similar cases. This document lay unnoticed among the Kenyon family papers until 1894, but it is important to this history. Paul Cobb wrote as follows: “One Bonyon was indicted upon the Statute of 35 Elizabeth for being at a Conventicle. He was in prison and was brought into Court and the indictment read to him; and because he refused to plead to it, the Court ordered me to record his confession, and he hath lain in prison upon that conviction, ever since Christmas Sessons, 12 Chas.II. And my Lord Chief Justice Kelynge was then upon the Bench, and gave the rule, and had the like, a year ago, against others. Bonyon hath petitioned all the Judges of Assize, as they came the Circuit, but could never be released. And truly, I think it but reasonable that if any one do appear, and afterwards will not plead, but that you should take judgement by nihil dicit, or confession.”
By contemporary standards he had received a fair trial, being sentenced to what the existing regulations prescribed, imprisonment until he conformed. He remained in prison because he deliberately broke repressive laws which violated his conscience. Robert Bridges, a former Poet Laureate, a fine poet but a poor judge of character, wrote of John Bunyan in his collected Essays as follows: “Having the choice between silence with imprisonment and silence with freedom, his conscience forced him to prefer the material fetters, and leave his family to the charity of his friends.” This is most unjust and proves that Bridges knew nothing of soul experience or remotely understood the problem of conscience. “It is quite untrue to say that his imprisonment was self-inflicted because he would not accept the proffered terms of freedom”, writes Vera Brittain, one who really did understand the problem of conscience. “With liberty of worship at the core of his belief, he could not have accepted them. His duty as a Christian was to save not merely his own soul, but the souls of his brethren. Silence with freedom would have violated his conscience, since it would have involved the deliberate choice of silence. For silence imposed on him by the law he was not responsible. No honest man, deeply moved by conviction could, in his circumstance, have chosen personal liberty, whatever the cost of refusing it might be for himself or for others.” She goes on to point Out that John Bunyan and his fellow Independents were fighting for the right of a Christian to decide, without interference from the State or its Established Church, the character of his relationship to God. He could not renounce a Conviction that was essential to his faith in order to preserve his freedom. Many in Germany, Russia and elsewhere have gone to concentration camps rather than stifle the voice of conscience and its expression in word and deed. We need to remember this in days when personal conviction and freedom of speech and assembly are being attacked in many places! And of course Bunyan did not, as Bridges sneered, leave his family to the charity of his friends, as we shall see.
The Coronation of Charles II was on 23rd April 1661 and there was a general expectation of a release of many prisoners as an indication of the king’s grace. John Bunyan hoped for release also but although thousands were released, he was not. Apparently John was regarded as a convicted person, as Paul Cobb plainly shows, and in his case he must apply for a pardon and had twelve months in which to do it.
The petition presented by John Bunyan, carefully written no doubt with the assistance of leading members of his church better educated than himself, had no effect. There seemed to be an official conspiracy to keep him in prison, and very likely there was. It was thought that a peer, Lord Barkwood, about whom nothing is known, might be sympathetic in the matter and Elizabeth undertook the intimidating journey of two or three days to London to enlist his help. Leaving the children with neighbours she went to London, interviewed Lord Barkwood and presented John’s petition for release. He consulted other Lords and then told her that John could be released only by the judges at the next Bedfordshire Assize.
In August 1661 the Midsummer Assize was held at the Chapel of Herne. One of the judges was Sir Matthew Hale, a remarkable man who in 1655 had sat in Cromwell’s Parliament, but at the Restoration was made Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and in 1671 became Lord Chief Justice. He was the author of the History of the Common Law of England and other notable legal works. He was also known as one who had sympathy for dissenters, amongst whom he had been educated, and who did his best to mitigate the severity of the law. The other judge was Sir Thomas Twisden, a hard man of conventional outlook, not likely to be helpful.
Elizabeth Bunyan, still very young, but steadfast in her devotion to the faith and to John, presented the petition to Sir Matthew Hale. Says John, “He very mildly received it at her hand, telling her that he would do her and me the best good he could; but he feared, he said, he could do none.” Next day, summoning up her courage, she intercepted the coach of Sir Thomas Twisden as he drove through the town and threw a copy of the petition on to his lap. It was a bold but perhaps not very wise thing to do and it made him angry. Stopping the coach he snapped at her that John was a convicted person who could not be released unless he promised to stop preaching.
Undeterred by this rough treatment Elizabeth went to the Chapel of Herne where the Assize was in session and, in an interval of the proceedings, presented the third copy of the petition to Hale. He seemed inclined to consider the matter again, but Sir Henry Chester, one of John’s examiners at the previous Sessions, dissuaded him. Then the High Sheriff, Edward Wylde of Houghton Conquest, took her part and drawing her aside urged her to try again after the Assize was over, when, with the local gentry, the Judges met to consider the business of the County in the Swan Chamber.
So to the Swan Chamber, the upper room of the Swan Inn, she went, to make her last endeavour. She was only a young peasant woman without education, means, or influence, yet she stands forth in history as not least among the world’s worthies. She addressed Sir Matthew Hale once more. “My Lord, I make bold to come once again to your Lordship to know what may be done with my husband.” Sir Matthew was somewhat exasperated. “Woman, I told thee before I could do thee no good.” Elizabeth made a spirited reply: “My Lord, he is kept unlawfully in prison; they clapped him up before there was any proclamation against the meetings; the indictment also is false. Besides, they never asked him whether he was guilty or no; neither did he confess the indictment.” It was all too true, but from Kelynge’s and Cobb’s point of view the action was quite legal, notwithstanding.
One of the justices contradicted her, but she persisted. “It is false; for he only said that he had been at several meetings, both where was preaching the Word, and prayer, and that they had God’s presence among them.” Twisden replied angrily, “What, you think we can do what we list? Your husband is a breaker of the peace, and is convicted by the law.” Hale called for the Statute Book. Elizabeth repeated, “My Lord, he was not lawfully convicted”, but Chester contradicted her, crying, “It is recorded, woman, it is recorded.” Elizabeth told of her interview with Lord Barkwood, and of his advice. “And now,” she concluded, “I come to see if anything may be done in this business and you give me neither releasement nor relief.” Twisden asked, “Will your husband leave preaching? If he will do so, then send for him.” But Elizabeth knew the answer to that one. “My Lord, he dares not leave preaching, as long as he can speak.” Twisden again said that John was a breaker of the peace, but Elizabeth replied that he desired to live peaceably, and to follow his calling and maintain his family; and, she added, “My Lord, I have four small children that cannot help themselves, of which one is blind, and have nothing to live upon but the charity of good people.” Hale was touched. “Hast thou four children? Thou art but a young woman to have four children.” “My Lord, I am but step-mother to them, having not been married to him yet full two years. Indeed, I was with child when my husband was first apprehended; but being young, and unaccustomed to such things, I being smayed at the news, fell into labour, and so continued for eight days, and then was delivered, but my child died.” Hale was deeply touched, saying, “Alas, poor woman!”
But nothing came of it. The Statute Book was brought, but most probably the Judges took Paul Cobb’s view of the matter. Sir Matthew Hale summed up the position. “1 am sorry, woman, that I can do thee no good; thou must do one of three things, namely either to apply thyself to the king, or sue out his pardon, or get a writ of error. But a writ of error will be cheapest.” So that was that. The last of three expedients meant applying to another Court to set aside Sir John Kelynge’s ruling that John’s statements were a confession of guilt, so that it might be condemned as bad law and the decision reversed and John freed. If John and his friends made any effort in this direction nothing came of it. John records Elizabeth’s reaction to this last scene. “1 remember that though I was somewhat timorous at my first entrance into the chamber, yet before I went out, I could not but break forth into tears, not so much because they were so hard-hearted against me and my husband, but to think what a sad account such poor creatures will have to give at the Coming of the Lord, when they shall there answer for all things whatsoever they have done in the body, whether it be good or whether it be bad.”
By this it may be observed that she had the root of the matter in her. This attitude was a mark of the Puritan conscience also, which was so strong in her husband and those who thought as he did. The supreme concern in the hearts and minds of Puritans was a concern about God—to know him truly, serve him rightly, and thus glorify him. Conscience to them was that organ of the soul through which God brought his Word to bear on them. Nothing was more important to them than that a man’s conscience should be enlightened, cleansed, and made sensitive to the will and ways of God. One recalls Martin Luther’s momentous words at Worms, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Conscience to the Reformers and Puritans meant a man’s knowledge of himself as standing in God’s presence, subject to God’s Word, and exposed to the judgements of God’s law. So within their own society the Puritans were distinguished by their endeavour to please God at all times, at work, at home, in society, at recreation, in politics, in church matters —to examine their consciences daily and to discipline themselves by the standard of the Word of God. As a result they became sensitive to moral and political issues, and had great compassion for those in need. Years later John Bunyan was to give an account of conscience, as the Puritans understood it, in Mr Recorder of the town of Mansoul, in his The Holy War. “Mr Recorder was a man well read in the laws of his King, and also a man of courage and faithfulness, to speak truth at every occasion; and he had a tongue so bravely hung as he had a head filled with judgement.” Conscience, to the Puritans, was a preacher to tell men of their duty towards God and towards man, and their concern to have a tender, enlightened conscience lent great ethical strength to their preaching.
John Bunyan next persuaded the gaoler to put his name down on the list of criminals awaiting trial at the March Assizes, and his friends approached the High Sheriff and the Judge, who promised that he would be called. But when the Assizes came on the Justices and Paul Cobb, Clerk of the Peace, removed his name. The latter was particularly angry, pointing Out that John was not a prisoner awaiting trial, but one already tried and convicted.
It is not to be wondered at that, being kept in prison unjustly as he regarded it, and seeing effort after effort for his release come to nothing, he was sometimes very downcast, even at times beset by oppressive fears. Kelynge and Cobb, he reflected, had spoken of his being transported to Spain or Constantinople, “or even something worse”, that is to say execution. Supposing this happened? Would he face it like a man or be fearful and trembling and bring dishonour on his faith? Such thoughts beset him quite often. And then, too, there was the plight of his family. “The parting with my wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place, as the pulling the flesh from my bones … I often brought to mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had beside: 0 the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.”
In order to support Elizabeth and the children, he set diligently to work in prison to make long-tagged thread-laces for riding boots and other footwear, and sold many hundreds gross of them to shop-keepers and other dealers. Elizabeth was busily engaged in pillow-lace making and in basket-making, which brought in some money. And John’s friend, John Holden a Bedford brazier, also helped by using John’s tools and equipment and taking on some of his regular work. This John Holden may well have been Elizabeth’s brother, or some other relative of hers. Then there were the gifts of the wealthier members of the Bedford Meeting, and sometimes collections made on his behalf. It was a struggle, but their trust was in God and he supplied their need.
For the first months of John Bunyan’s imprisonment he seems to have been given special favours from the gaoler, who on several occasions allowed him liberty to go beyond the prison walls. John even managed to preach in various places, in woods, isolated farmhouses, and fields. “I followed my wonted course of preaching, taking all occasions that were put into my hands to visit the people of God.” He even got as far as London to see Christian friends there. In the earlier part of his imprisonment, he was also present at some of the meetings of the Church and took part in its affairs. On 28th August 1661, a Minute in the Church Book records “our brother Bunyan” was instructed to visit and remonstrate with two backsliders, brother Robert Nelson and Sister Manly. There were similar entries later on, and it is evident that brother Bunyan was highly regarded for his pastoral care and warnings. The Church was being harried, and had to meet in secret from place to place, sometimes as far afield as Haines or Gamlingay. The Church Book was locked away from 1664 to 1668 for safety’s sake and no minutes were recorded. But prayer was made unceasingly by the elders and members for one another and the spiritual life of the Church was maintained bright and strong.
The new Restoration Parliament which met on the 8th May 1661 was almost entirely Tory and Anglican, and it proceeded to impose an Anglican pattern on the nation by means of four great penal laws known as the Clarendon Code, instigated by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Charle’s chief minister of state. The first was the Corporation Act, December 1661, which limited membership of municipal bodies to those who received Communion according to the rites of the Church of England. The second was the Act of Uniformity, which Kelynge drew up, which made the use of the Revised Prayer Book, 1662 and ordination by a bishop, compulsory for all ministers of religion. It was passed by the Commons by only 186 voted to 180, but its effect was to eject 2000 of the best clergy out of their livings, and to sever the connection between the Church of England and other Protestant bodies on the Continent. The King did not care for it, because he had strong Catholic preferences, and hoped to bring in toleration for Romanists by granting toleration for Nonconformists.
In May 1664 a new Conventicle Act was passed, forbidding all religious meetings except those of the Established Church. The fourth of Clarendon’s acts was the Five Mile Act of October 1665, passed at Oxford where Parliament was sitting owing to the plague in London. This act forbade Nonconformists ministers to teach in schools or to live within five miles of a corporate town. This resulted in hundreds of faithful Puritan preachers and teachers being deprived of their work and banished to obscure places.
This repressive legislation caused great dismay and trial to thousands of people. They had grown to love the simplicity of Dissenting worship, extempore prayer, plain exposition of Scripture and the right to choose their own pastors outside the ranks of those ordained by bishops. But they determined to suffer for their convictions, and to make a stand for liberty of worship. Britain and the United States of America owe much to their faithfulness and fortitude.
To a man of vigorous spirit, like John Bunyan, used to an active outdoor occupation, it was a grievous thing to be confined to prison. But he had much to occupy him. Besides making the tag-laces, he spent much time in reading and writing. At first he had only two books, the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (a fitting companion for a man in his situation). His copy published in 1641 had his name in large capitals, John Bunyan, at the foot of the title page, and the date 1662. It is to be seen in the Bedford Library. As to his writing, in the first six years of his imprisonment he wrote no fewer than nine of the books which presented the Christian Faith to thousands of poor Christians throughout the country. He reached more by his pen than ever he could have done by his voice. As the months passed by and persecution of Nonconformists increased, the County Gaol became crowded with ministers and laymen, even including a few women. They held daily meetings for prayer and Bible study. A visitor wrote, “I have heard Mr Bunyan both preach and pray with that mighty spirit of faith, and plerophry of divine assistance, that has made me stand and wonder.”
There was a well-known story of Bunyan in his early prison days, that on one occasion, when the gaoler gave him liberty to go out, he was seized with a spirit of misgiving, and came back before he was expected. He had not returned long before one of the magistrates came to enquire if all the prisoners were in, and especially if John Bunyan was safe. The gaoler, immensely relieved at being able to produce John for inspection, told him he might go out when he liked, for he surely knew better than the gaoler when to return. News of John’s ventures abroad, however, were soon known to the authorities, and the gaoler was threatened with dire punishment if they continued. Other gaolers came and went through Bunyan’s twelve years in prison, some kind and others harsh. But there was no more preaching outside.
In his book The Life and Death of Mr Badman, published in 1680, he says, “When I was in prison there came a woman to me that was under a great deal of trouble.” It turned out that she was in service to a shopkeeper at Wellingborough, whose till she had robbed again and again. Smitten with remorse she came to ask Bunyan what she should do, being moved to do so by having read one or other of his books. He pointed her to the One who forgives repentant sinners, and counselled her to make restitution to her master. Though in prison he was the spiritual guide of some who were outside.
Some of the stalwarts of the Bedford Church soon joined him in prison, Samuel and John Fenn and many more. John Donne the ejected Rector of Pertenhall in the north of the county, sentenced to banishment before 1668 was still in Bedford Gaol in 1672. William Wheeler, ejected from Cranfield, and John Wright the pious saddler of Blunham, were also there and many more of John’s Puritan friends. On one occasion sixty of them meeting in a wood, were surprised by the officers of the law and the whole company marched off to prison. The whole gaol became a conventicle! The overcrowding must have been very uncomfortable, but though John Bunyan could not go out to a congregation, a congregation was brought to him! The day room on the first floor which John Howard the prison reformer tells us was used as a chapel surely witnessed stirring scenes. Some of the sermons John delivered there were afterwards turned into books, such as the Holy City, published in 1665.
In this atmosphere and situation John Bunyan made rapid strides to full maturity in spiritual things, culminating in his writing his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, published in 1666. “I have continued in this condition (i.e. in prison) with much content through grace.” He had indeed. And in his valuable book, Christian Behaviour (1663), he writes, “When Christians stand every one in their places and do the work of their relations (i.e. work that relates to them), then they are like the flowers in the garden, that stand and grow where the gardener hath planted them, and then they shall both honour the garden in which they are planted and the gardener that hath so disposed of them. From the hyssop on the wall to the cedar in Lebanon, their fruit is their glory.” There was calm amidst the stress and strain. There was no bitterness of spirit on account of his treatment, for in his heart grace reigned.
There were lighter moments also. Years before while still at Elstow, he had made a violin, after an Italian pattern, of thin iron plates on his brazier’s anvil, inscribing on it his name “John Bunyan, Helstow”, with a graving tool. Now, in prison, he spent many secret hours in shaping a flute from the rail of his prison stool. He carefully hollowed the wood and used his candle flame to burn the small note-holes in the barrel. When finished, the flute gave forth faint musical notes, and in the evenings, after the gaoler had made his rounds, he played on it with zest, hurriedly replacing it in the stool when the gaoler, surprised by the sound, returned to find its source. He never did. John little dreamed that centuries afterwards both violin and flute would be rediscovered and preserved as hallowed relics of his life. They are to be seen in the Bunyan Meeting, Bedford.
The months of his imprisonment lengthened into years and his children were growing up. Blind Mary, already in her teens, knew how to find her way to the County Gaol with food or mugs of soup, and always with devoted love. Elizabeth was growing tall, John and Thomas were becoming sturdy little boys and their father made alphabetical bricks for them. Wife Elizabeth came constantly to visit him, to tell him of the family, and comfort his heart.
Soon after the publication of Grace Abounding in 1666 he enjoyed a few brief weeks of release from prison. The unknown writer of the continuation of this book in 1692 says that after six years of confinement “by the intercession of some in trust and power, that took pity upon his suffering, he obtained his freedom.” We have no idea who these friends were. It is possible that Sir Matthew Hale had a hand in it, or some influential London Nonconformists. At all events he went home to the house in St Cuthbert’s parish, reunited with his wife and family.
In 1665 the Great Plague swept London and far beyond, one of many periodic visitations which had terrified England since the Black Death. The awful cry, “Bring out your dead,” sounded through London. The Court moved to Oxford. Many Nonconformist ministers banished from London by the Five Mile Act returned to the capital to minister to the sick and dying. In one week in September the Lord Mayor of London recorded that 7,165 persons had died of the plague. The pestilence reached Bedford in 1666, and no fewer than forty persons died of it north of the river. Things were far worse in Newport Pagnell where 697 people were buried, including John’s old friend the bookseller, Matthias Cowley. That same year saw the death, though not by plague, of Christopher Hall, Vicar of Elstow, whose sermon against Sunday sports had begun the process that led to John’s conversion.
Early in September 1666 the Great Fire of London occurred, which destroyed old St Paul’s and the heart of the city, including shops, warehouses, private dwellings and 88 city churches. Samuel Pepys gathered up his money and plate and moved them into the country, as did many more. “The saddest sight of desolation I ever saw,” he wrote in his diary. The fire affected John Bunyan, though he did not realise it at the time, because the sheets of the first printing of Grace Abounding were destroyed by it. A contemporary writer says that “the late dreadful Fire proved extremely prejudicial and destructive to most Companies in the City, yet none of them received so grand losses and damage by the devouring Conflagration as the Company of Stationers, most of whose habitations, store-houses, shops, together with all their stocks, books, bound and unbound (by reason of their combustableness and difficulty to remove them) were not only consumed in a moment, but their ashes and scorched leaves were scattered in sundry places above 16 miles from the City.” The first edition of Grace Abounding is thus exceedingly rare, and the British Museum Library did not obtain its sole copy until 1883. The book itself, however, made John Bunyan’s name widely known, and brought inspiration and comfort to countless hundreds in those dark days.
Free for a few weeks John Bunyan resumed preaching and visiting his friends. Charles Doe, a later friend and hero-worshipper of John, tells us that “a little after his release they took him again at a meeting, and put him in the same gaol, where he lay six years more.” Where this arrest was made we do not know, but it was most probably in some field or wood thought to be safe from observation. A strong tradition exists that the subject he was to preach upon was, “Dost thou believe in the Son of God?”, and that he had given out his text when the constable appeared—who turned pale and let go of Bunyan’s arm, whereupon John exclaimed, “See how this man trembles at the Word of God!” Trembling or not the constable speedily conveyed him to Bedford Gaol, there to spend six more long years.
Of this second period in prison we know very little. No doubt the routine was much the same, with constant prayer meetings and sermons for the prisoners. It is curious, however, that he produced only two books during this time, his Confession of Faith, and A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith. This comparative silence is surprising, but the explanation may well be that his London publisher friend, Francis Smith, was out of favour with the authorities, and could not get his books licensed. Or could it be that John’s mind and pen were now busy upon his greatest work?