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History and Characters

Characters and Events from Bedford's Past

Bedford is an ancient county town, grown from a settlement dating back to before Saxon times. It is said that Offa, King of Mercia, founded St. Cuthbert's Church in Bedford, and was buried in the town. King Henry II granted a charter to the burgesses of Bedford in 1166, thus awarding the town Borough status.

The first reference to a Mayor of Bedford is in the Close Roll of 1264, and the Borough's two coats of arms (one of which can be seen at the top of this page) have been in use since 1566.


Bedford has been greatly influenced by the legacy of Sir William and Dame Alice Harpur. William was a local man who made good in London as a merchant tailor, and eventually became Mayor of London. In 1566, he made a gift to Bedford of two plots of land together valued at £42. One was the site of a school he had built in Bedford 14 years earlier. The other was in the Middlesex countryside - now Holborn - and brings more than two and a half million pounds into the Harpur Trust each year. The Harpur Trust promotes education, the provision of recreational facilities and provides relief to the aged, sick and needy.


Bedford is particularly famous for its connection with John Bunyan, the 17th century non-conformist writer and preacher, who was born just outside the town in Elstow. Bunyan's famous work, The Pilgrim's Progress was written while imprisoned in the county gaol, and is reputedly the most widely read book of all time, after the Bible.

Bunyan wrote more than 60 books and pamphlets on the Christian faith and gained a national reputation as a powerful preacher.


The Bunyan Meeting House and Museum hold many of Bunyan's personal possessions and other relics.


The Meeting House has a number of stained glass windows depicting scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress, which proved an inspiration to Terry Waite when he himself was incarcerated in a Beirut prison.

The eminent philanthropist and penal reformer, John Howard, was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in the mid-1700's. He was appalled at the conditions in the county gaol, and was horrified to find similar malpractice in gaols up and down the country. He travelled widely throughout Europe reporting on prison conditions in every country he visited; John Wesley described him as "one of the greatest men in Europe".


Cardington is famous for its connections with the airship industry. The huge hangars, which were built to house the R100 and R101 airships, are visible from miles around. A memorial to the victims of the disaster which befell the R101 on its maiden voyage can be seen at the local cemetery.

Another popular, although "adopted", Bedfordian was US band leader Glenn Miller who was stationed here during the Second World War. Although it is more than 50 years since his plane mysteriously disappeared, there are regular concerts performed in his memory.


Archbishop Trevor Huddleston was born in Bedford in 1913 and christened in St Paul's Church. He was recognised for his work against apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, ex-premier of South Africa visited Bedford to pay tribute to the Archbishop and unveiled a bust of him on Silver Street.

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Kite Festival

Bedford Borough is a vibrant area to live in with an abundance of leisure opportunities for residents and visitors. We pride ourselves on offering a fantastic programme of cultural events throughout the year, and providing a wide range of affordable health opportunities, through our quality parks, award winning leisure centres and sports development work.

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