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 Catharine Hall (now St Catharine’s College), University of Cambridge. In 1549 he was awarded his MA and in that same year was appointed to a fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
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. 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. His gifts in preaching the Biblical faith led 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 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. Although seemingly trivial, at the time ‘stirring up a mob’ was a serious and dangerous act, leading to riot and possible death, and certainly major disturbance to society. 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. Bradford was given a special “Shirt of Flame” by a Mrs. Marlet, for whom he had written a devotional work. This was a clean shirt that was sewn specifically for the burning, made in the style of a wedding shirt. “This clothing with a new shirt to wear at the stake became a common feature at the burnings, a way of signaling support for and honouring the victim, as though he were being dressed as a bridegroom for a wedding.”
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!” 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.”
Bradford is commemorated at the Marian Martyrs’ Monument in Smithfield, London. He is also commemorated with one of the six statues on the exterior of Manchester Town Hall marking people important in the early history of the city.
- Born: 01 January 1510, Blackley, Manchester
- Died: 01 July 1555, Smithfield, London