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Print Version Main Index : Biographies : Life of John Bunyan Index : Page 3
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The Life of John Bunyan
by Edmund Venables, M.A.

CHAPTER I. - continued

John Bunyan's mother was his father's second wife. The Bunyans were given to marrying early, and speedily consoled themselves on the loss of one wife with the companionship of a successor. Bunyan's grandmother cannot have died before February 24, 1603, the date of his father's baptism. But before the year was out his grandfather had married again. His father, too, had not completed his twentieth year when he married his first wife, Anne Pinney, January 10, 1623. She died in 1627, apparently without any surviving children, and before the year was half-way through, on the 23rd of the following May, he was married a second time to Margaret Bentley. At the end of seventeen years Thomas Bunyan was again left a widower, and within two months, with grossly indecent haste, he filled the vacant place with a third wife. Bunyan himself cannot have been much more than twenty when he married. We have no particulars of the death of his first wife. But he had been married two years to his noble-minded second wife at the time of the assizes in 1661, and the ages of his children by his first wife would indicate that no long interval elapsed between his being left a widower and his second marriage.

Elstow, which, as the birthplace of the author of "The Pilgrim's Progress," has gained a world-wide celebrity, is a quiet little village, which, though not much more than a mile from the populous and busy town of Bedford, yet, lying aside from the main stream of modern life, preserves its old-world look to an unusual degree. Its name in its original form of "Helen-stow," or "Ellen-stow," the STOW or stockaded place of St. Helena, is derived from a Benedictine nunnery founded in 1078 by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, the traitorous wife of the judicially murdered Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon, in honour of the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The parish church, so intimately connected with Bunyan's personal history, is a fragment of the church of the nunnery, with a detached campanile, or "steeple-house," built to contain the bells after the destruction of the central tower and choir of the conventual church. Few villages are so little modernized as Elstow. The old half-timbered cottages with overhanging storeys, peaked dormers, and gabled porches, tapestried with roses and honeysuckles, must be much what they were in Bunyan's days. A village street, with detached cottages standing in gardens gay with the homely flowers John Bunyan knew and loved, leads to the village green, fringed with churchyard elms, in the middle of which is the pedestal or stump of the market-cross, and at the upper end of the old "Moot Hall," a quaint brick and timber building, with a projecting upper storey, a good example of the domestic architecture of the fifteenth century, originally, perhaps, the Guesten-Hall of the adjacent nunnery, and afterwards the Court House of the manor when lay-lords had succeeded the abbesses - "the scene," writes Dr. Brown "of village festivities, statute hirings, and all the public occasions of village life." The whole spot and its surroundings can be but little altered from the time when our hero was the ringleader of the youth of the place in the dances on the greensward, which he tells us he found it so hard to give up, and in "tip-cat," and the other innocent games which his diseased conscience afterwards regarded as "ungodly practices." One may almost see the hole from which he was going to strike his "cat" that memorable Sunday afternoon when he silenced the inward voice which rebuked him for his sins, and "returned desperately to his sport again." On the south side of the green, as we have said, stands the church, a fine though somewhat rude fragment of the chapel of the nunnery curtailed at both ends, of Norman and Early English date, which, with its detached bell tower, was the scene of some of the fierce spiritual conflicts so vividly depicted by Bunyan in his "Grace Abounding." On entering every object speaks of Bunyan. The pulpit - if it has survived the recent restoration - is the same from which Christopher Hall, the then "Parson" of Elstow, preached the sermon which first awoke his sleeping conscience. The font is that in which he was baptized, as were also his father and mother and remoter progenitors, as well as his children, Mary, his dearly-loved blind child, on July 20, 1650, and her younger sister, Elizabeth, on April 14, 1654. An old oaken bench, polished by the hands of thousands of visitors attracted to the village church by the fame of the tinker of Elstow, is traditionally shown as the seat he used to occupy when he "went to church twice a day, and that, too, with the foremost counting all things holy that were therein contained." The five bells which hang in the belfry are the same in which Bunyan so much delighted, the fourth bell, tradition says, being that he was used to ring. The rough flagged floor, "all worn and broken with the hobnailed boots of generations of ringers," remains undisturbed. One cannot see the door, set in its solid masonry, without recalling the figure of Bunyan standing in it, after conscience, "beginning to be tender," told him that "such practice was but vain," but yet unable to deny himself the pleasure of seeing others ring, hoping that, "if a bell should fall," he could "slip out" safely "behind the thick walls," and so "be preserved notwithstanding." Behind the church, on the south side, stand some picturesque ivy-clad remains of the once stately mansion of the Hillersdons, erected on the site of the nunnery buildings in the early part of the seventeenth century, with a porch attributed to Inigo Jones, which may have given Bunyan the first idea of "the very stately Palace, the name of which was Beautiful."

The cottage where Bunyan was born, between the two brooks in the fields at Harrowden, has been so long destroyed that even the knowledge of its site has passed away. That in which he lived for six years (1649-1655) after his first marriage, and where his children were born, is still standing in the village street, but modern reparations have robbed it of all interest.

From this description of the surroundings among which Bunyan passed the earliest and most impressionable years of his life, we pass to the subject of our biography himself. The notion that Bunyan was of gipsy descent, which was not entirely rejected by Sir Walter Scott, and which has more recently received elaborate support from writers on the other side of the Atlantic, may be pronounced absolutely baseless. Even if Bunyan's inquiry of his father "whether the family was of Israelitish descent or no," which has been so strangely pressed into the service of the theory, could be supposed to have anything to do with the matter, the decided negative with which his question was met - "he told me, 'No, we were not'" - would, one would have thought, have settled the point. But some fictions die hard. However low the family had sunk, so that in his own words, "his father's house was of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land," "of a low and inconsiderable generation," the name, as we have seen, was one of long standing in Bunyan's native county, and had once taken far higher rank in it.

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