JOHN BUNYAN, Bedfordshire’s most distinguished son, and one of our most characteristic English writers, was born at Elstow, a quiet, picturesque village lying a mile away to the south of Bedford town. His birthplace was not in the village itself, but in a lonely place in the fields, a mile to the east, where stood, till the early part of this century, the house which had been the ancestral home of his family for generations. The Court Roll of the manor preserved in the Augmentation Office, and bearing date as early as 1542, describes that part of the parish as ” Bonyon’s End,” the end or extremity of the parish where the Bunyans lived. A family name becoming thus descriptive and embodied in a legal document seems to indicate that its owners had long been dwellers in the place. This inference, natural in itself, is borne out by the fact that as far back as 1327 we find a William Bonyon and Matilda his wife making covenant with Simon, son of Robert atte Felde of Elnestowe, concerning a messuage and certain acres of land, on the very spot where, three centuries later, John Bunyan was born. Even earlier still, as early as 1199, there was a William Buniun, a probable ancestor of the William Bonyon of 1327, who was engaged in a lawsuit in the Court of King’s Bench with the Abbess of Elstow to determine the title to half a virgate of land which he held of William of Wilsamstede, and which the Abbess claimed.
This long association of the family with the same parish and the same part of the parish effectually disposes of the theory first started by Sir Walter Scott, that because John Bunyan was a tinker he was probably also of gipsy origin. For to say nothing of the fact that all tinkers are not gipsies, nor all gipsies tinkers, we happen to know that Bunyan’s father, who in his will, which is still in existence, describes himself as a “braseyer,” was the first of the family to follow the craft; and that his grandfather, in his will, describes himself as a ” Pettie Chapman,” or small village trader. If we go still farther back, we find that the Thomas Bonyon of 1542, of whom we read in the Court Roll of the manor, is there spoken of as ” a common brewer of beer,” and ” a common baker of human bread ” – human bread it may be presumed as distinguished from horse bread. In another part of the Roll he is described as a labourer, and in the Privy Council Register of 1554 as ” Bunyon, Victualler;” so that we shall be tolerably safe in thinking of him in both capacities – as cultivating his small patrimony of nine acres, and as taking a hand with his wife in attending to the shop and roadside inn, close by the bridle-path leading through the fields from Bedford to Wilstead. This Thomas Bonyon was for some cause, not mentioned, summoned before the Privy Council of Queen Mary, in the second year of her reign, while the Thomas Bonyon of a later date, John Bunyan’s own grandfather, was, at the Visitation of 1617, presented before the Archdeacon’s Court at Ampthill charged with resisting the churchwardens of Elstow, and telling them to their faces that they were ” forsworne men.” There was resolute blood in the family, therefore, long before their more distinguished descendant declared that he had determined, the Almighty God being his help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss should grow on his eyebrows, rather than violate his faith and his principles.