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Print Version Main Index : Biographies : Life of John Bunyan Index : Page 22
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The Life of John Bunyan
by Edmund Venables, M.A.

CHAPTER V. - continued

The Coronation which took place very soon after this interview, April 13, 1661, afforded a prospect of release without unworthy submission. The customary proclamation, which allowed prisoners under sentence for any offence short of felony to sue out a pardon for twelve months from that date, suspended the execution of the sentence of banishment and gave a hope that the prison doors might be opened for him. The local authorities taking no steps to enable him to profit by the royal clemency, by inserting his name in the list of pardonable offenders, his second wife, Elizabeth, travelled up to London, - no slight venture for a young woman not so long raised from the sick bed on which the first news of her husband's arrest had laid her, - and with dauntless courage made her way to the House of Lords, where she presented her petition to one of the peers, whom she calls Lord Barkwood, but whom unfortunately we cannot now identify. He treated her kindly, and showed her petition to other peers, who appear to have been acquainted with the circumstances of Bunyan's case. They replied that the matter was beyond their province, and that the question of her husband's release was committed to the judges at the next assizes. These assizes were held at Bedford in the following August. The judges of the circuit were Twisden and Sir Matthew Hale. From the latter - the friend of Richard Baxter, who, as Burnet records, took great care to "cover the Nonconformists, whom he thought too hardly used, all he could from the seventies some designed; and discouraged those who were inclined to stretch the laws too much against them" - Bunyan's case would be certain to meet with sympathetic consideration. But being set to administer the law, not according to his private wishes, but according to its letter and its spirit, he was powerless to relieve him. Three several times did Bunyan's noble-hearted wife present her husband's petition that he might be heard, and his case taken impartially into consideration. But the law forbad what Burnet calls Sir Matthew Hale's "tender and compassionate nature" to have free exercise. He "received the petition very mildly at her hand, telling her that he would do her and her husband the best good he could; but he feared he could do none." His brother judge's reception of her petition was very different. Having thrown it into the coach, Twisden "snapt her up," telling her, what after all was no more than the truth, that her husband was a convicted person, and could not be released unless he would promise to obey the law and abstain from preaching. On this the High Sheriff, Edmund Wylde, of Houghton Conquest, spoke kindly to the poor woman, and encouraged her to make a fresh application to the judges before they left the town. So she made her way, "with abashed face and trembling heart," to the large chamber at the Old Swan Inn at the Bridge Foot, where the two judges were receiving a large number of the justices of the peace and other gentry of the county. Addressing Sir Matthew Hale she said, "My lord, I make bold to come again to your lordship to know what may be done with my husband." Hale received her with the same gentleness as before, repeated what he had said previously, that as her husband had been legally convicted, and his conviction was recorded, unless there was something to undo that he could do her no good. Twisden, on the other hand, got violently angry, charged her brutally with making poverty her cloak, told her that her husband was a breaker of the peace, whose doctrine was the doctrine of the devil, and that he ran up and down and did harm, while he was better maintained by his preaching than by following his tinker's craft. At last he waxed so violent that "withal she thought he would have struck her." In the midst of all his coarse abuse, however, Twisden hit the mark when he asked: "What! you think we can do what we list?" And when we find Hale, confessedly the soundest lawyer of the time, whose sympathies were all with the prisoner, after calling for the Statute Book, thus summing up the matter: "I am sorry, woman, that I can do thee no good. Thou must do one of these three things, viz., either apply thyself to the king, or sue out his pardon, or get a writ of error," which last, he told her, would be the cheapest course - we may feel sure that Bunyan's Petition was not granted because it could not be granted legally. The blame of his continued imprisonment lay, if anywhere, with the law, not with its administrators. This is not always borne in mind as it ought to be. As Mr. Froude remarks, "Persons often choose to forget that judges are sworn to administer the law which they find, and rail at them as if the sentences which they are obliged by their oath to pass were their own personal acts." It is not surprising that Elizabeth Bunyan was unable to draw this distinction, and that she left the Swan chamber in tears, not, however, so much at what she thought the judges' "hardheartedness to her and her husband," as at the thought of "the sad account such poor creatures would have to give" hereafter, for what she deemed their "opposition to Christ and His gospel."

No steps seem to have been taken by Bunyan's wife, or any of his influential friends, to carry out either of the expedients named by Hale. It may have been that the money needed was not forthcoming, or, what Southey remarks is "quite probable," - "because it is certain that Bunyan, thinking himself in conscience bound to preach in defiance of the law, would soon have made his case worse than it then was."

At the next assizes, which were held in January, 1662, Bunyan again made strenuous efforts to get his name put on the calendar of felons, that he might have a regular trial before the king's judges and be able to plead his cause in person. This, however, was effectually thwarted by the unfriendly influence of the county magistrates by whom he had been committed, and the Clerk of the Peace, Mr. Cobb, who having failed in his kindly meant attempt to induce "Neighbour Bunyan" to conform, had turned bitterly against him and become one of his chief enemies. "Thus," writes Bunyan, "was I hindered and prevented at that time also from appearing before the judge, and left in prison." Of this prison, the county gaol of Bedford, he remained an inmate, with one, short interval in 1666, for the next twelve years, till his release by order of the Privy Council, May 17, 1672.

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