Lowly Beginnings

John Bunyan was born at Elstow, near Bedford, sometime in the Autumn of 1628. The exact date is unknown, for compulsory registration of births did not begin until 1837, and at the time of Bunyan’s birth parish registers were often very carelessly kept. His baptism in the Parish Church of Elstow is recorded, however. In the parish register the Rev. Thomas Kellie, Vicar of Elstow, recorded the christening thus:- “John, the sonne of Thomas Bonnionn Jun., the 30th of November, 1628.” So John may have been born in October or November of that year. His parents were very proud of him, for he was a big strong child with lusty lungs, and a reddish tinge to the fair hair on his downy head.

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In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, published in 1666, John Bunyan speaks of his ancestry thus: “My descent then, it was, as is well known by many, of a low and inconsiderable generation; my Father’s house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land.” In this, it is clear, Bunyan spoke too disparagingly of his family. For, in fact, he came from an original Norman family that had possessed considerable land, but was by now in decline. He belonged to a family of Bedfordshire peasants whose genealogy has been traced back for many generations in local records. Although he did not know it his name was of aristocratic origin, from the Norman-French “Buignon”, a bun or fruit pattie. An ancestor very probably came from Normandy soon after the Conquest, for there were Bunyans in north Bedfordshire as early as 1199. These early Bunyans possessed land, for in 1199 a certain William Buniun was involved in a lawsuit at the Court of King’s Bench with the Abbess of Elstow concerning land that William held from William of Wilsamstede, but which was claimed by the Abbess. The precise amount of land possessed by this distant ancestor of John Bunyan is not known, but it is evident that during the intervening centuries most of it passed into the hands of neighbouring landowners and farmers. When John was born his father, Thomas Bunyan, owned a field still called “Bunyan’s field”, and also a large cornfield of several acres to the west of it. Indeed, as early as 1542 the Court Roll of the Manor described the eastern extremity of Elstow parish as “Bonyon’s End”. The family, therefore, for many generations were freehold landowners, but declined in status until they merged into peasant stock.

The surname Bunyan was variously spelt, and there are thirty-four variants of it found in ancient records, such as Buingnan, Binyan, Bonion Bonnion, Boynon, Bonyon, Bunyon. Bunyan, which has become universally accepted, is certainly the least frequent.

Little is known of John’s grandparents. His grandfather, Thomas, describes himself in his will as a “pettie chapman” or small trader, most probably travelling through the neighbouring towns and villages selling domestic wares, and perhaps the ill-printed little books of romances and fairytales of those days.

Thomas Bunyan Junior, John’s father, whose name written by the Elstow Vicar is given as Bonnionn, was born in February 1603. He was in fact a man of some considerable hereditary substance. He described himself as a “braseyer” or brazier, and was the first member of his family to follow this occupation. Early biographers of Bunyan, influenced by Sir Walter Scott, mistakenly thought that John was of gipsy descent because his father was a “tinker”, a mender of pots and pans. But there was no gipsy blood in John Bunyan. His father was more of a village blacksmith, although no doubt he travelled the nearby villages ready to mend kettles and grind scissors and knives. He had inherited not only nine acres of land in the hamlet of Harrowden, which marked the eastern end of Elstow parish, but also property in nearby Kempston. At the corner of one of his fields at Harrowden stood a small thatched cottage with an outbuilding which contained Thomas’s forge and the implements of his trade. An old drawing shows it to have been a superior type of cottage with a window on each side of the front door, and no less than five windows on the first floor. It disappeared about 1840, but the site is known, marked by a weed-covered mound. From the meadow the Bunyans could see the distant tower and steeple of Elstow Church, and no doubt hear the bells, in which John was to find so much delight, ringing for worship. Thomas Bunyan, according to Charles Doe the Southwark comb-maker, who wrote a brief account of his hero John in 1692, was “of the national religion”, i.e. Church of England, and a Royalist. Four years before the execution of Charles I Thomas named his third son Charles.

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On May 23, 1627 Thomas Bunyan married Margaret Bentley at Elstow Church. Her mother, Mary Bentley who was a widow seems to have been comfortably off, occupying a well-equipped brick and timber cottage in Elstow village street. Margaret was 23 and Thomas 24. He was her first husband, but she was his second wife. He had been married at the age of twenty to Anne Pinney, who died childless in 1627 after four years of marriage. Quite soon afterwards Thomas married again. Margaret Bentley must have known Thomas Bunyan all her life, but, alas, we have no description or information concerning her. John, her firstborn, was born in the cottage at Harrowden; his sister Margaret some fifteen months after; and his brother William in 1635.

When Bunyan was born Shakespeare had been dead twelve years, but his fame was firmly established and his plays constantly performed. John Milton, whose “Paradise Lost” Bunyan may have read, was in his third year at Christ’s College, Cambridge—the University that was to produce so many Puritan writers and leaders. At Oxford, Edward Hyde, later Lord Clarendon, had recently graduated from Magdalen College, and was preparing for a legal career at the Middle Temple, London. Under his legislation, the Clarendon Code, John was to be penalized and imprisoned. But his loving parents bringing him to the font in Elstow Church, had no thought of these great men of the future, or that their little John would, in many respects, be even more influential than they. 1628 was important in other ways, for it was the year of the Petition of Right, the death of Buckingham, and the entry into Parliament of Oliver Cromwell.

Elstow, by the time of John Bunyan’s birth, was an old village which had once occupied a considerable place in history. In Domesday Book it is recorded as “Elnestou” which is a debased form of “Helenstow”, meaning Helen’s Place. The name is derived from the dedication of a very early church to Saint Helena, mother of the British born Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, the first Christian ruler of that Empire. Helenstow, by the time of Bunyan’s day, had been abbreviated to Elstow. Countess Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, had founded a Benedictine Convent there in 1078, and many supposed that whatever her past, the building was an attempt to quiet a most troubled conscience. Three years previously she had inadvertently betrayed her husband Waitheof, the Saxon Earl of Northampton, who had plotted against the conquering Normans.

The church where Bunyan was christened was originally the Abbey Church of the Benedictine Convent, which, for nearly five hundred years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry the Eighth in 1539, had exercised almost despotic power over the local inhabitants. The convent was severely censured by John Langland, Bishop of Lincoln in 1530 for lax discipline and neglect of religious services. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539, and the Abbess was pensioned off at £50 per annum, and the nuns at £2 per annum. The Abbey was granted in 1553 to Sir Humphrey Ratcliffe, who used much of the stone of the convent’s domestic buildings to build himself a mansion nearby. Next came Sir Thomas Hillersdon who, in the reign of Charles I, replaced Ratcliffe’s house with a stately Renaissance style mansion named Elstow Place, said to have been designed by Inigo Jones. The ruins of this building stand on the south side of the Church.

The Parish Church of Elstow is only the nave of the Abbey Church, a building of unusual loftiness and dignity, of the Norman and Early English periods, with fine well-proportioned arches. In 1580 the old tower and chancel were demolished, and the flanking tower of the nunnery, a massive and strongly buttressed structure, separated from the body of the church by several yards, was enlarged to contain the bells. This is the “steeple house” which was the scene of Bunyan’s bell-ringing. The truncated church, never joined to the new steeple, became the parish church of Elstow, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The octagonal font, in which John Bunyan and his first two children were baptised, is still to be seen although not in use. The pentagonal pulpit, from which Christopher Hall preached the sermons that so impressed John, also survives.

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Elstow, although Bedford has spread out towards it, is still a very pleasant place, largely because of the widespreading village green situated quite near to the Church. Henry II had granted the right of holding annual fairs on the green in May and November. These provided an opportunity for cheap-jacks to sell their wares, but also for a variety of entertainers to perform, such as jugglers, morris-dancers, clowns, acrobats and strolling players. No doubt when Bunyan came to describe “Vanity Fair” in The Pilgrim’s Progress he recalled the days of his youth at Elstow fairs. Horse fairs and cattle fairs were also held on the green.

At the eastern end of the village green stood the ancient Moot Hall, a barn-like structure of brick and timber with large gable ends, the upper storey slightly projecting above the ground floor. It is said to be of Saxon origin, and it is decorated with curious carvings dating from the fifteenth century. The lower part had consisted of shops at a former period, but even in Bunyan’s day the upper part was used for village dances and other social occasions. Its chief use, however, was as a Court of Justice where magistrates settled disputes and tried petty offenders. To the west of the Moot Hall stood the grey stone market cross to be associated in years to come with John’s conversion.

On three sides of the village green stand brick and timber cottages in a variety of shapes and sizes, with overhanging storeys and gabled porches, very picturesque, but modernized in more recent years. They must be much the same as in the days of the Commonwealth. The main village street is linked to the village green by a narrow lane. In the main part of the village were cottages and small houses, sundry shops, and two inns, the Red Lion and the Swan. But the meadows and woods and streams were only a short distance from the village in John’s time, and as a country lad he would soon have become familiar with the birds, insects and farm animals of his day. No doubt, as was customary then, he would join the villagers working in the fields during haytime and harvest. Even today, when industrial development and town planning have crept up to and over Elstow, the citizens of Bedford can reach beautiful open countryside in ten minutes’ walking.

Village life at Elstow in Bunyan’s day was very different from the domestic and social life of the countryside today. Then the men toiled in the fields for low wages, or worked as cowmen, carpenters, shepherds, hostlers etc. The women did not go out to work as they do today; they had plenty to do even in the smallest house, with baking, making the family clothes, tending the chickens, and bringing up the children. Thomas Bunyan most likely grazed a cow or a couple of pigs on the field where his cottage stood and grew corn on his adjoining land. Of social life there was little, except that which the inns could afford, the occasional village dance at the Moot Hall, and the annual fairs. The Sunday services at the Church, attendance at which was compulsory by law, and the local weddings and funerals, also provided opportunities for village folk to get together.

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Although his parents were comparatively poor (though Thomas Bunyan must have made a sufficient income from his tinkering for his small family), they were determined to send their son John to school. In Grace Abounding he says, “It pleased God to put into their hearts to put me to school both to read and write.” He adds, “The which also I attained, according to the rate of other poor men’s children; though to my shame I confess I did soon lose that little I learnt, even almost utterly.” It is not known to which school he was sent, but there were two possibilities. There was the Grammar School at Bedford, founded by Sir William Harper who was born at Bedford in 1496. Moving to London he became a wealthy merchant and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. In 1561 he became Lord Mayor of London and was knighted. Five years later he bought property in Holborn with which to endow a Grammar School in his native Bedford. By Bunyan’s time, however, the school thus founded was in difficulties, and when he was between nine and twelve years of age, complaints were made against the schoolmaster, William Varney, that he not only charged fees which he had no right to do, but also grossly neglected the school by frequent absences from it, by spending a good deal of time in ale-houses, and was somewhat cruel in his discipline of the boys. It is probable that John sat at the battered, ink-stained, knife-carved desks of this school, where he learned not only to read and write, but also a smattering of Latin and Greek, for he uses several Latin and Greek words in his books.

Alternatively John Bunyan may have attended the Free School in the neighbouring parish of Houghton Conquest, established by Sir Francis Clarke. This school was under the control of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, but by 1645, later of course than Bunyan’s brief schooldays, it also had fallen on evil times, its master Christopher Hills being dismissed for the wilful neglect of his duties. Educational establishments in those days were often far from satisfactory.

At whichever school he attended John did learn reading and writing, and despite his own statement it is most probably that he retained these elementary skills, though other subjects were largely forgotten. “The education he received,” remarks Dr John Brown, “was mainly that given in the great school of human life where so many other sturdy natures have received such effective training.” In the cottage where he was born would have been a copy of the Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611, and no doubt this was read by his parents and sometimes by John himself.

“I never went to school to Plato or Aristotle,” he was to write, “but was brought up at my father’s house in a very mean condition, among a company of poor countrymen.” He was set to work early at his father’s smithy, apprenticed to his father’s craft of brazier, learning how to use the forge, and to handle the anvil and the other tools of the trade. As a strong lad and willing to learn he soon made headway in the craft of mending household implements and the making and mending of cart-wheels and iron gates. One unfortunate habit he seems to have learned from his father was that of cursing and swearing, which persisted until his conversion. There is little doubt that swearing is a habit of those of very limited vocabulary, which Thomas Bunyan the father, being little educated himself would naturally indulge in. Bunyan says that he had few equals, even when a child, for cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming the name of God. The grace of God was to cure him of all these in due time.

One childhood characteristic which never left him was a vivid and active imagination, to be transformed and sanctified and “made meet for the Master’s use”. He tells us in Grace Abounding that as a child of ten years he was frightened by fearful dreams and terrified by dreadful visions. He imagined with vivid clearness the devil and wicked spirits. He was also troubled with thoughts of the Day of Judgement and the doom of the ungodly in hell fire. He wondered whether it would be his lot to join them! He tells us that until he married he was the ring-leader of all the village youth in “all manner of vice and un-godliness”. We shall examine in a later chapter the exact meaning of these words. Coleridge describes him at this stage as “a bitter black-guard”, and probably this is not far short of the truth.

Very few incidents of his early life have come down to us, but there are a few interesting glimpses which show us his enjoyment of an outdoor life. Once he came across an adder crossing the highroad, and with the utmost bravado stunned it with a stick, forced open its mouth with his fingers, and plucked out its sting. Another time he accompanied his father on a considerable river trip by barge from Bedford to King’s Lynn, where Thomas imported metals for his trade. John had long been fascinated by the river Ouse and its traffic, and would spend hours watching the horse-drawn barges bringing bales of wool and huge baskets of fruit and vegetables inland. On the King’s Lynn trip he fell into a creek of the sea and was half-drowned when rescued. This was one of several narrow escapes which in later years he saw as evidence of God’s mercy. Like most country boys he was fond of fishing, and good at it. One afternoon with his sister Margaret he was in a boat on the deepest part of the Ouse near Bedford when, foolishly standing up, he over-balanced, and fell into the river, and managed only with difficulty to clamber back from the grasp of the clinging reeds.

Years later John was to recall his boyhood fishing trips in his poetic introduction to The Pilgrim’s Progress:

You see the ways the fisherman doth take

To catch the fish; what engins doth he make?

Behold how he engageth all his wits,

Also his snares, lines, angels, hooks and nets.

Yet fish there be, that neither hook nor line,

Nor snare nor net nor engine can make thine;

They must be grop’t for, and be tickled too,

Or they will not be catcht, what e’re you do.

John also learned to ride a horse—probably his father grazed one of his own in the meadow. He and his father made journeys on horseback, John riding pillion, across the country when Thomas had to go farther afield for work. He soon came to know the surrounding villages and small towns, the roads with their waggons, coaches, flocks and herds, riders and foot-travellers. Thomas would point out to John the stately mansions of the rich to which he was sometimes summoned to work at his trade, and the extensive parks full of fine trees which surrounded them. He would also point out relics of earlier ages, the hut-circles of the ancient Britons, the hill-fortresses of the warring British tribes, and the Roman camps also in strategic positions on the hills.

In 1641 when John was twelve years old he was a witness of an event which made a small but significant contribution to the political and social disruption so soon to burst upon the country. On Tuesday, March 16th, Sir Roger Burgoyne, one of the four members of Parliament for the County of Bedfordshire, led a company of two thousand leading citizens of Bedford and other places to present a petition to the Long Parliament. This was only one of many carried to London from all parts of the country. It requested the displacement of evil councillors, the punishment of delinquents, and the removal of all burdensome and scandalous ceremonies in the Church, and of all corrupt and scandalous ministers. These requests referred particularly to the Earl of Strafford chief adviser to Charles I, and chiefly responsible for his arbitrary policy, and to Archbishop Laud, also a chief adviser to the king, and a vigorous persecutor of dissenters. Both men were prisoners in the Tower of London and both later executed.

Elstow being on the highroad to London, John and Margaret together with their six year old brother William, would have watched with excited interest the large company of petitioners riding on horseback, four abreast, with their “protestations” in their hats. It must have been a stirring sight. In the City of London the petitioners were greeted with enthusiasm by excited crowds who yelled for spiritual liberty against both clerics and courtiers. The petition was received with eager sympathy by the House of Commons, amongst them, John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, in whom the Puritan spirit burned as an inextinguishable flame.