John Bradford

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John Bradford
Born 1510
Blackley, Manchester
Died July 1, 1555 (age 44-45)
Smithfield, London
Education Catharine Hall, University of Cambridge and Pembroke College, Cambridge
Church Church of England
Ordained 1550
Offices held

John Bradford (1510–1555) was an English Reformer, prebendary of St. Paul's, and martyr. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for alleged crimes against Mary Tudor. He was burned at the stake on 1 July 1555.


Bradford in prison with bishops from Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Bradford was born in Blackley, Manchester in 1510. Owing to his financially stable family, he was educated at a good grammar school. Talented with numbers and money, he later served under John Harrington of Exton in Rutland as a servant. Through his good influence and abilities in auditing and writing, he gained favour and trust with his employer and at the Siege of Montreuil in 1544, occupied the office of paymaster of the English army during the wars of Henry VIII. Later, he became a law student at the Inner Temple in London. Through the contact and preachings of a fellow student, he became acquainted with and converted to the Protestant faith. This caused him to abandon his legal studies and in 1548, he took up theology at the Catharine Hall (now St Catharine's College), University of Cambridge. In 1549 he was awarded his M.A. and in that same year was appointed to a fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge.[1][2]

At this institution he was often referred to with the nickname "Holy Bradford" not from malice but out of respect for his dedication to God and his unselfish attitude.[5] In August 1550 he was ordained deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley and appointed as his personal chaplain. He began preaching in churches in London under the mentorship of Ridley and Hugh Latimer.[6] His gifts in preaching the Biblical faith lead to his appointment in 1551 as Chaplain to King Edward VI and Prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral. He continued as a Fellow of Pembroke and as a roving preacher, mainly in London, Lancashire and Cheshire.

Following the death of Edward in 1553, Mary Tudor ascended to the throne bringing the threat of reprisals against opponents of Papal Catholicism. In the first month of the new monarch's reign, Bradford was arrested and imprisoned on the seemingly trivial charge of "trying to stir up a mob" and committed to the Tower of London. During his time in prison, he continued to write religious works and preach to all who would listen. For a time whilst in the Tower Bradford was put in a cell with three other reformers, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer. Their time was spent in careful study of the New Testament.


On 31 January 1555, Bradford was tried and condemned to death. Bradford was taken to Newgate Prison to be burned at the stake on 1 July. A large crowd delayed the execution, which had been scheduled for 4 o'clock in the morning, as many who admired Bradford came to witness his death. He was chained to the stake at Smithfield with a young man, John Leaf. Before the fire was lit, he begged forgiveness of any he had wronged, and offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him. He then turned to Leaf and said, "Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!"[5] A century later, in his Worthies of England, Thomas Fuller wrote that he endured the flame "as a fresh gale of wind in a hot summer's day, confirming by his death the truth of that doctrine he had so diligently and powerfully preached during his life."[7] Bradford is commemorated at the Marian Martyrs' Monument in Smithfield, London.[8]

Phrase attribution

There is a 19th-century tradition tracing to Bradford the idiomatic "There but for the grace of God go I" as an expression of humility and reliance on God's grace rather than his own morality. The editor of The Writings of John Bradford, Aubrey Townsend, notes this in his preface:[9]

The familiar story, that, on seeing evil-doers taken to the place of execution, he was wont to exclaim, "But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford," is a universal tradition which has overcome the lapse of time.

The tradition of attribution of the phrase to Bradford dates to at least the early 19th century, as it is found in A treatise on prayer by Edward Bickersteth (1822):

The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, "there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end.

— p. 60

While the phrase, or its attribution to Bradford, cannot be traced to before 1800, Townsend notes that there is a 17th-century attribution of a similar sentiment to Bradford, demonstrating how "by the sight of others' sins, men may learn to bewail their own sinfulness". According to this tradition, Bradford, "when he saw any drunk or heard any swear, &c., would railingly complain, 'Lord I have a drunken head; Lord, I have a swearing heart.'"[10]

But there are other attributions for the phrase "there but for the grace of God"; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (in the voice of Sherlock Holmes) attributes the phrase to Richard Baxter (1615-1691) in The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1891):

Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter's words, and say, 'There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'"

The phrase has also been attributed to John Newton (1725-1807)[11] and in Catholic tradition to Philip Neri (1515-1595).[12]

See also


  1. "Bradford, John (BRDT548J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates ... By John Venn
  3. From an 1887 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs illustrated by Kronheim. According to Foxe, a Catholic speaker, Mr. Bourne, had nearly driven his Protestant listeners to riot, but Bradford came to his rescue and calmed the mob.
  4. John Foxe (1887 republication), Book of Martyrs, Frederick Warne and Co, London and New York, pp. 160–61
  5. 5.0 5.1 "John Bradford". Britannia Biographies. Retrieved 2014-10-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. see C.H. Stuart, Latimer: Apostle to the English. Zondervan, 1986.
  7. Stoeffler, F. Ernest. 1971. The rise of evangelical pietism.]p.43.
  8. John Bradford's memorial page on Find A Grave. Retrieved on 29 January 2008.
  9. also mentioned by The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 6 (1885), p. 159), "There is a tradition that on seeing some criminals going to execution he exlaimed: 'But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.' "
  10. Ralph Venning, The heathen improved, an appendix to Canaan's Flowings, sect. 110, p. 222, London. 1653.
  11. the suggestion was put forward, apparently from memory, by George Borrow in his influential Lavengro: The Scholar—the Gypsy—the Priest, Part 2, 1851, p. 37 : "it was old John Newton, I think, who, when he saw a man going to be hanged, said: 'There goes John Newton, but for the grace of God!"
  12. "There thou goest, Philip, but for the grace of God!" Patrick Augustine Sheehan, Under the Cedars and Stars (1903), Part H, chapter 20.

External links