On this day in 1554, John Bradford, a Protestant preacher who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London after being involved in a ‘disturbance’ at Paul’s Cross, was moved into another room in the Tower, which he shared with Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, until these three were taken to Oxford in early March. During the month or so they were together, the four men spent their time reading the Bible, praying and discussing theology together, and were each bolstered by this mutual support and encouragement. The authorities under Mary I had not yet learnt the value to the ‘heretics’ of such fellowship, and seemed to have no clear strategy of how to deal with their prisoners; the arrangements appear haphazard, it being a matter of accident who ended up sharing a cell with whom.
On Easter Eve, 24 March, Bradford was transferred to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark. Here his companions included Robert Ferrar (the former Bishop of St David’s), Dr Rowland Taylor (Rector of Hadleigh in Suffolk) and John Philpot. In prison Bradford continued his ministry of preaching (twice a day) and administering communion (according to the second Book of Common Prayer, now outlawed), the keepers (who liked him) admitting many visitors so that they could listen to him and take part in the services he conducted. Like that favourite saint of the Protestant preachers, the Apostle Paul, he also wrote many letters from prison, both to individuals and to congregations throughout the country. He was abstemious in his habits, sleeping for no more than four hours a night, eating only one meal a day, and spending much time in reading and contemplation. Lean-faced, with a neatly trimmed beard, he seems to have been a natural ascetic, unconcerned with such mundane matters as food and drink. But he also showed signs of inner distress: ‘In the middle of dinner he used often to muse with himself, having his hat over his eyes, from whence came commonly plenty of tears dropping on his trencher.’ He was known for his generosity and his gentleness (even the Jesuit Robert Parsons, no sympathiser with Protestants, admitted that Bradford was ‘of a more soft and mild nature than many of his fellows’), and was often in demand for visiting the sick and dying, even being allowed out of the prison by its governor, the knight marshal Sir William Fitzwilliam, a Protestant sympathiser, to make such visits. He never attempted to escape, or even to delay his return. And once a week he would visit the common criminals being kept in the same prison as himself, distributing not only advice but also funds that had been received as donations. He did the same among the prisoners of religion, having been elected by the majority of them as their pastor. These distributions led to some argument, in particular with a splinter group of Protestants called the ‘free willers’, a large number of whom were imprisoned in the King’s Bench, and who accused Bradford of discriminating against them in his sharing-out of alms, a charge which Bradford strenuously denied. The ‘free willers’ were fiercely opposed to the idea of predestination, espoused by Calvin in Geneva, and a version of which was beginning to be adopted by mainstream Protestantism in England, of which Bradford was a leading exponent. Much of his prison correspondence had to do with this issue, as he was frequently called upon to reassure believers who were fearful that they were not among the ‘elect’. The prisons themselves became hothouses of debate over these differing interpretations of their faith, to the distress of many evangelicals and the satisfaction of their opponents. Certainly the fact that even in prison, and faced with the possibility of death, rival groups of Protestants vigorously kept up their doctrinal and other differences can have done little to recommend them to the authorities, despite the acknowledged holiness and sympathetic character of a man like Bradford.
More about the life and death of John Bradford can be found in my book The Burning Time.