John Bradford (1510-1555)
In all the extant biographies of England’s worthies, we rarely hear of one who was ‘more devout and godly’ than the writer ever knew, who not only led ‘a heavenly life himself’, but also ‘very earnestly and heartily’ laboured ‘to persuade others’ to do the same. Yet such a man was John Bradford1 – scholar, royal chaplain, itinerant preacher, contender for the true faith and martyr. Not without cause did an Anglican bishop and fellow martyr, Nicholas Ridley, write to him: ‘O good brother, blessed be God in thee, and blessed be the time that ever I knew thee!’
John Bradford was born at Blackley in the parish of Manchester about 1510. A local tradition, surviving to Bishop Ryle’s day, points to a spot where he is said to have knelt on his last visit there and begged God to cause the everlasting Gospel to be preached there by heaven-sent ministers. A plaque to his memory may be seen in Manchester cathedral. The martyrologist Foxe tells us that he was ‘of gentle parents brought up in virtue and good learning even from his very childhood.’ He may have studied at Manchester Grammar School, where he is said to have been proficient in Mathematics and Latin, but we cannot be certain. He later prayed, however: ‘I have most cause to thank Thee for my parents, school masters and others, under whose tuition Thou hast put me.’
Following his schooling, Bradford was employed by Sir John Harrington of Exton in Rutland as a clerk or secretary responsible for handling King Henry VIII’s money under his employer’s control at Bologne. In 1544 he was Deputy Paymaster of the English forces at the siege of Montreuil. Bradford remained in Sir John’s employ till 1547, when he retired with some kind of pension.
In April of that year he entered the Inner Temple in order to study Common Law. Thomas Sampson, a God-fearing friend and fellow student there, informs us that he knew ‘when and partly how it pleased God by effectual calling to turn his heart unto the true knowledge and obedience of the most holy Gospel of Christ our Saviour.’ From that great turning point on, Bradford knew ‘that many sins were forgiven him’, proving by his good deeds that ‘he loved much.’ For his own part, Bradford confessed that God might have caused him long before this to be imprisoned ‘as a thief, a blasphemer, an unclean liver and an heinous offender of the laws of the realm.’ Soon after his conversion to Christ, Bradford sold ‘his chains, rings, brooches and jewels of gold which before he used to wear’, giving the ‘price of this his former vanity’ to relieve ‘Christ’s poor members which he could hear of or find lying sick or pining in poverty’ (Sampson).
In 1548 Bradford heard a sermon on the restitution of stolen goods preached by Hugh Latimer in the presence of King Edward VI. Through it God smote his conscience and led him over a period of several months to restore the amount in question to the king’s treasury. Apparently he had carried out or covered up a fraudulent transaction with the stroke of his pen, either with or without Harrington’s order, and could never rest till the whole sum was repaid. For this conscientious act he became a widely trusted man.
Bradford remained at the Inner Temple till June 1548, when he disclosed to his friend Traves a new intention. ‘If God’s will be’, he wrote, ‘. . . I am minded afore midsummer to leave London to go to my books at Cambridge, and if God shall give me grace, to be a minister of His Word.’ By August he was in Catherine’s Hall; but before another year had passed Nicholas Ridley invited him to become a Fellow of Pembroke Hall. In order to accept the offer legally, he took his Master of Arts degree, and transferred in October 1549. The University Grace Book describes him as ‘a man of mature age and approved life’, who for eight years had studied literature, arts and Holy Scripture. In Pembroke Hall Bradford came to know Edmund Grindal and John Whitgift, subsequently influential archbishops under Queen Elizabeth I, while among his wider contacts in Cambridge were Edwin Sandys, Master of St Catherine’s, Matthew Parker, another future archbishop, and Martin Bucer, Regius Professor of Divinity.
Sampson’s account of his friend at Cambridge describes him as a man of ‘high moral ideals and intense personal self-discipline’, and one who ‘did not count himself to have prayed’ to his satisfaction till he had felt ‘some smiting of heart for sin, and some healing of that wound by faith.’ It was during his stay at the university too that Bradford began to record God’s dealings with his soul in a journal. At table he seemed oblivious of the presence of others, and would ‘sit in deep and prolonged silence. Sometimes his eyes would fill with tears; sometimes his face was lit with smiles.’ He wept ‘as well for joy as for sorrow.’ At the same time, he would ‘freely reprove any sin and misbehaviour . . . in any person’, but with such ‘divine grace and Christian majesty’ that he always ‘stopped the mouths of the gain-sayers.’ Furthermore, he always studied on his knees, praying as he studied, and anxious to bring his ‘dull heart to love Christ more.’ It appears that his father had died by the time Bradford went to Cambridge University, for he wrote only of and to his mother while he was there. His correspondence reveals the most tender-hearted care for her, as she bore what Augustine sensitively terms ‘the incomparable cross of widowhood.’
A University Visitation of 1549 made changes ‘to establish God’s Word and good learning’ at Cambridge. Bucer became the central figure in inaugurating change in keeping with the Protestant Reformation, and Parker, Sandys, Grindal and Bradford were the four men with whom he discussed further reforms. They were opposed by Masters and Fellows of the university, described by one historian as entrenched in the ‘well-worn grooves of the centuries.’ Sometime in July 1550, on a trip to Oxford to consult his fellow continental Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, Bucer took Bradford with him. Just over six months later, Bradford cared for him and during his last illness made him responsible for his burial. The Strasburg Reformer died in February 1551, ‘his eyes . . . fixed upon Christ crucified’, with God dwelling in his heart, and ‘contemplating nothing but heaven.’
Ridley, now bishop of London, so valued Bradford’s services that he called him to the capital and gave him a licence to preach, describing him as ‘a man by whom . . . God . . . doth work wonders in setting forth of His Word.’ Some months later Bradford was made one of six royal chaplains, four of whom were to be ‘itineraries, to preach sound doctrine in all the remotest parts of the kingdom.’ Bradford’s roving commission was to cover Lancashire and Cheshire. His later farewell addresses to those counties reveal both how widespread were his travels and how solicitous was his concern for them. He also preached in and around London and at Saffron Walden, and was instrumental in calling many to ‘repentance and amendment of life.’ Foxe informs us that he proclaimed the truth in ‘many parts of England . . . by the space of three years.’
All who heard Bradford, including enemies, agreed on the quality of his preaching and the godliness of his life. His ‘passionate earnestness’ spared the sins of neither rich nor poor, while with bold single-mindedness he rebuked the worldliness of courtiers. Indeed, he was most forthright when attacking the greed and ambition of men in power under Edward VI. Along with Latimer, Lever and Knox, Bradford ‘ripped in so deep’ to the ‘insatiable covetousness’ of magistrates in taking bribes that they could not bear to hear him. Early in 1553 he preached before the young king himself, crying out: ‘I summon you all, even every mother’s child of you, to the judgment of God; for it is at hand.’ Even Knox, himself noted for lashing the sins of the Scottish nobility, remarked: ‘Master Bradford, whom God for Christ His Son’s sake comfort to the end, spared not the proudest, but boldly declared that God’s vengeance should shortly strike them that then were in authority . . . Judicium Domini, Judicium Domini [The Judgment of the Lord, The Judgment of the Lord] lamentably cried he, with weeping tears.’
Bradford continued his ministry till the early death of ‘the English Josiah’ Edward VI (July 1553). The Preface to his Sermon on Repentance contains a moving passage expressing both his love for the young king and his belief that his removal was a sure token of God’s wrath. Soon the fanatical papist Mary Tudor was proclaimed queen. ‘The consequences of Bradford’s zeal for the principles of the Reformation’, wrote Bishop Ryle, ‘. . . were precisely what might have been expected. Within a month of Queen Mary’s accession he was put into prison, like Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and Hooper, and never left it until he was burned.’
His civil freedom came to an end in August 1553, when a riot at Paul’s Cross was conveniently laid to his charge, and he was summoned before Queen Mary’s Council accused of preaching without authority. He was immediately imprisoned in the Tower of London. ‘I thank Him more of this prison than of any parlour’, he wrote, ‘yea, than of any pleasure that ever I had, for in it I find God my most sweet good God always.’ He jubilantly exhorted others to ‘die with Christ; suffer for serving Him truly and after [according to] His Word; for sure may we be that of all deaths, it is most to be desired to die for God’s sake.’ It was during these months in the Tower that he penned his Treatise on the Hurt of Hearing Mass, followed by his Sermon on the Lord’s Supper. From February 1554 Bradford shared a room with Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer. The four martyrs-to-be proved loving strengtheners of each other’s faith. Wrote Latimer: ‘We were imprisoned . . . for Christ’s Gospel preaching and . . . because we would not go a massing.’
The execution of Lady Jane Grey the same month ‘was a sombre warning of what was in store for others’ (Marcus Loane). In March, Bradford was transferred to the King’s Bench Prison, where he found Robert Ferrar, Rowland Taylor and John Philpot congenial companions. Taylor rejoiced that ‘such an angel of God’ had been sent to cheer him in prison. While there Bradford was surprisingly allowed to preach twice a day and administer the Lord’s Supper. Many townsfolk attended his ministrations. Meanwhile he devoted some time each week to calling criminals to repentance and supplying their material needs. He was even allowed to leave the prison on parole, so that ‘there was no day but that he might have escaped.’ His letters from this period, amongst other things, reveal him to have been ‘a man of great learning, elocution, sweetness of temper, and profound devotion towards God’ (Strype). Of other writings produced at this time were his Defence of Election, A Declaration Concerning Religion, a Supplication to those in authority, an Exhortation to the Brethren in England and several Meditations and Prayers. The way God sustained his faith and joy throughout his entire imprisonment is remarkable.
By January 1555 an old statute for punishing ‘Lollard heresy’ was revived. This was used as a legal pretext for Bradford’s condemnation. The details of his various trials are fully laid out in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and summarized in Ryle’s Light from Old Times. In sum, Bradford refused to betray his Lord and Saviour for the sake of conformity to Rome, repeatedly telling his accusers that he was not afraid to die. Most of the charges against him focussed on his denial of the Mass and Transubstantiation; but he replied: ‘My Lord, I believe Christ is present there [in the Supper] to the faith of the due receiver; as for transubstantiation, I plainly and flatly tell you, I believe it not.’ A fine little treatise Against the Fear of Death found him ‘climbing up the hill’, his ‘breath short’ and his ‘strength feeble.’ He therefore begged prayer for grace not to rest ’till I come to the top . . . where I should be.’
Sentence of condemnation was passed on 31 January. At first the authorities intended to deliver him to the Earl of Derby, to be conveyed to Manchester and burnt there. But Romish bishops detained him in London. ‘Immense efforts were made to . . . pervert him to the Romish church’ (Ryle), but all in vain.
His execution came suddenly. On the Lord’s Day, 30th June, the Compter Prison keeper’s wife informed him that he was to be burned the next day. Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Bradford replied: ‘I thank God for it; I have looked for the same a long time.’ About midnight he was transferred to Newgate Prison, but a great crowd had gathered along the route to bid him farewell and offer for him their prayers. He was to be burnt at four in Smithfield, but it was nine before he was led to the stake. A young man named John Leaf was burnt to death with him. Bradford and Leaf stood up, put off their clothes, and were chained to the stake. Bradford lifted up his hands and cried: ‘O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins! Beware of idolatry, beware of false antichrists: take heed they do not deceive you.’ The antiquarian Thomas Fuller says that Bradford endured the flame as if it were no more than a gale of wind in summer, and that his ‘shining integrity’ never shone more brightly than on that day in Smithfield.
We conclude this summary account of one of the godliest men England has ever seen with two references. One of Bradford’s biographers, Aubrey Townsend, remarks that between his ordination and martyrdom Bradford ministered for only five years, two of which were spent in prison. Thus ‘he lived a long life in a short space of time.’ He adds: ‘Until the great day, when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, it cannot be fully known to what extent England has been indebted to the labours and the prayers of this devoted man.’
‘Let us thank God that the foundations of the Reformed Church of England were laid by such men as John Bradford.’ urges J. C.Ryle. ‘Let us clearly understand what kind of men our martyred Reformers were, what kind of doctrines they held, and what kind of lives they lived.’ Let us also wrestle with God to raise up a new generation who will cordially embrace and fearlessly contend for the great Biblical truths for which they ‘loved not their lives to the death.’
- Bradford’s story is included in Five English Reformers by J. C. Ryle, reprinted from Light from Old Times referred to above. In 1979 the Trust published The Writings of John Bradford in two volumes, reprinted from The Parker Society editions of 1848 and 185, but now out of print. Volume 2 of this edition includes a ‘Biographical Notice’ on Bradford by the editor, Aubrey Townsend (see also above).
Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, 2008:4; edited by the author. Note added.