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St Paul's Church, Bedford

This week we explore the latest collection on the Deceased Online website: the records of the unusual, historic St Paul’s Church in Bedford

Last week the database saw the addition of 14,500 burial records from the Norman St Paul's Church in St Paul’s Square at the heart of Bedford. This ancient county town of Bedfordshire, one of England’s smallest counties, has a fascinating history stretching back to ancient times. Today, St Paul’s continues to function as a parish church and also serves as the civic and county church of Bedfordshire.

The site of St Paul's Church dates back to 1066, but the current building was begun in the 1200s. Two porches, the Trinity Chapel, and niches of the saints were added in the 15th century.

The burial registers on Deceased Online date mainly from 1567 to 1855, but it is worth checking in case your ancestors are included amongst those who were buried there after this date. Some of the most notable burials date from this early modern period. These include the burial of Sir William Harpur (c. 1496-1574), a local merchant who became Lord Mayor of London in 1562. Brasses remembering Sir William Harpur (Harper) and his wife, Dame Alice can be found in the church’s Trinity Chapel.
Statue of Sir William Harpur from the alcove before Bedford's Tourist Information Centre (copyright
Thomas Allen Blyth writes of Harpur's election in A biographical sketch of Sir William Harpur, knight, founder of the Bedford schools, a lecture (1864): 
About five years after this time, Sir William was elected Lord Mayor of London. We are indebted to Machyn for the following singular description of the appointment: he writes, “In 1561 on the xxix day of September was nuw
mayre electyd master Harper, marchand-tayller, on Myghellmas day. The
xxx day of September my lord mayre and the althermen and the new
shryeffes toke their barges at the iij cranes in the Vintre, and so to
Westmynster, and so into the Cheker, and their toke ther hoythe; and ser
Rowland Hyll a chopping kneyff and one did hold a whyt rod, and he with the
kneyff cute the rod in sunder a-for all the pepul; and after to London to ther
plases to dener, my lord mayre and all the althermen and mony worshepfulle

Sir William and Dame Alice’s legacy continues in Bedford today through the Harpur Trust, which runs three local secondary schools and a pre-preparatory school.
Entry for "William Harpar Alderman & Lord Maior of London" in the burial registers on Deceased Online
On 23 May 1656, a local Christian, John Bunyan (1628-1688), preached to a large crowd at St Paul’s. After the Restoration of the monarchy, Bunyan’s nonconformist views became unpopular and he was arrested for illegal preaching in 1660. He later wrote the classicPilgrim's Progress whilst languishing in Bedford Jail. In 1672, Bunyan was released. Although he continued to live in Bedford, he regularly visited London, where he died in 1688. John Bunyan is buried in the nonconformist graveyard of Bunhill Fields in London, but in 1784 a statue was erected in the centre of Bedford, where he stands at the end of Bedford High Street with his back to the church of St Paul’s.

Statue of John Bunyan in Beford (copyright
Another celebrated visitor to the Church was one of the founder members of Methodism, John Wesley. He preached the Assize Sermon there on 10 March 1758.
Major changes were made to the building in the 19th century, with two transepts being added between 1865 and 1868. Also in this period, the tower and spire were rebuilt. In 1879 a chancel roof was built. One of Britain’s favourite comic actors, John Le Mesurier was baptised at the church in 1912. During the Second World War, the church’s services were heard across the nation when they were broadcast daily on the wireless via the BBC.

To read more about other Mayors featured in the Deceased Online database, take a look at this post on Astley Bridge Cemetery in Bolton.

Joyce Godber, The Harpur Trust 1552-1973 (White Crescent Press Ltd, 1973) 
Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Bedfordshire (1968) 
Chris Pickford (ed.), Bedfordshire Historical Records Society Volume 73, Bedfordshire Churches A-G, (Pub 1997)


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