A long-standing tradition has identified Bunyan's place of imprisonment with a little corporation lock-up-house, some fourteen feet square, picturesquely perched on one of the mid-piers of the many-arched mediaeval bridge which, previously to 1765, spanned the Ouse at Bedford, and as Mr. Froude has said, has "furnished a subject for pictures," both of pen and pencil, "which if correct would be extremely affecting." Unfortunately, however, for the lovers of the sensational, these pictures are not "correct," but are based on a false assumption which grew up out of a desire to heap contumely on Bunyan's enemies by exaggerating the severity of his protracted, but by no means harsh imprisonment. Being arrested by the warrant of a county magistrate for a county offence, Bunyan's place of incarceration was naturally the county gaol. There he undoubtedly passed the twelve years of his captivity, and there the royal warrant for his release found him "a prisoner in the common gaol for our county of Bedford." But though far different from the pictures which writers, desirous of exhibiting the sufferings of the Puritan confessor in the most telling form, have drawn - if not "a damp and dreary cell" into which "a narrow chink admits a few scanty rays of light to render visible the prisoner, pale and emaciated, seated on the humid earth, pursuing his daily task to earn the morsel which prolongs his existence and his confinement together," - "the common gaol" of Bedford must have been a sufficiently strait and unwholesome abode, especially for one, like the travelling tinker, accustomed to spend the greater part of his days in the open-air in unrestricted freedom. Prisons in those days, and indeed long afterwards, were, at their best, foul, dark, miserable places. A century later Howard found Bedford gaol, though better than some, in what would now be justly deemed a disgraceful condition. One who visited Bunyan during his confinement speaks of it as "an uncomfortable and close prison." Bunyan however himself, in the narrative of his imprisonment, makes no complaint of it, nor do we hear of his health having in any way suffered from the conditions of his confinement, as was the case with not a few of his fellow-sufferers for the sake of religion in other English gaols, some of them even unto death. Bad as it must have been to be a prisoner, as far as his own testimony goes, there is no evidence that his imprisonment, though varying in its strictness with his various gaolers, was aggravated by any special severity; and, as Mr. Froude has said, "it is unlikely that at any time he was made to suffer any greater hardships than were absolutely inevitable."
The arrest of one whose work as a preacher had been a blessing to so many, was not at once tamely acquiesced in by the religious body to which he belonged. A few days after Bunyan's committal to gaol, some of "the brethren" applied to Mr. Crompton, a young magistrate at Elstow, to bail him out, offering the required security for his appearance at the Quarter Sessions. The magistrate was at first disposed to accept the bail; but being a young man, new in his office, and thinking it possible that there might be more against Bunyan than the "mittimus" expressed, he was afraid of compromising himself by letting him go at large. His refusal, though it sent him back to prison, was received by Bunyan with his usual calm trust in God's overruling providence. "I was not at all daunted, but rather glad, and saw evidently that the Lord had heard me." Before he set out for the justice's house, he tells us he had committed the whole event to God's ordering, with the prayer that "if he might do more good by being at liberty than in prison," the bail might be accepted, "but if not, that His will might be done." In the failure of his friends' good offices he saw an answer to his prayer, encouraging the hope that the untoward event, which deprived them of his personal ministrations, "might be an awaking to the saints in the country," and while "the slender answer of the justice," which sent him back to his prison, stirred something akin to contempt, his soul was full of gladness. "Verily I did meet my God sweetly again, comforting of me, and satisfying of me, that it was His will and mind that I should be there." The sense that he was being conformed to the image of his great Master was a stay to his soul. "This word," he continues, "did drop in upon my heart with some life, for he knew that 'for envy they had delivered him.'"
Seven weeds after his committal, early in January, 1661, the Quarter Sessions came on, and "John Bunyan, of the town of Bedford, labourer," was indicted in the customary form for having "devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear Divine Service," and as "a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventions, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom." The chairman of the bench was the brutal and blustering Sir John Keeling, the prototype of Bunyan's Lord Hategood in Faithful's trial at Vanity Fair, who afterwards, by his base subserviency to an infamous government, climbed to the Lord Chief Justice's seat, over the head of Sir Matthew Hale. Keeling had suffered much from the Puritans during the great Rebellion, when, according to Clarendon, he was "always in gaol," and was by no means disposed to deal leniently with an offender of that persuasion. His brethren of the bench were country gentlemen hating Puritanism from their heart, and eager for retaliation for the wrongs it had wrought them. From such a bench, even if Bunyan had been less uncompromising, no leniency was to be anticipated. But Bunyan's attitude forbade any leniency. As the law stood he had indisputably broken it, and he expressed his determination, respectfully but firmly, to take the first opportunity of breaking it again. "I told them that if I was let out of prison today I would preach the gospel again to-morrow by the help of God."