In early July of 1618 Ben Jonson – famous poet and dramatist, favourite of King James and friend to William Shakespeare – set out on foot for his ancestral Scotland. He reached Edinburgh in September, and spent several months in James's northern kingdom. He was greeted as a celebrity, widely feted, and enjoyed the hospitality of prominent Scots including William Drummond of Hawthornden, who recorded as much as he could of Jonson's gossipy and provocative conversation.
Until recently Drummond's writings were the only source to give a detailed impression of the life and personality of this notable dramatist. But in 2009 James Loxley, of the University of Edinburgh's English Literature department, uncovered a 7,500-word account of the journey in a manuscript kept among the papers of the Aldersey family at Cheshire Archives.
Jonson is historically believed to have walked to Scotland alone, but the title of the account, 'My Gossip Jonson his foot voyage and mine into Scotland' says otherwise. The identity of the previously unsuspected travelling companion may remain a mystery, depending on what further detective work reveals, but the manuscript is hugely significant as an unprecedented eyewitness account of one of Britain's finest writers at the peak of his fame, and as a vivid portrait of the parks and forests, towns and villages, through which he passed.
Almost 400 years later, we have recreated Jonson's grand adventure. Our interactive map allows you to explore his journey and retrace his itinerary. The archive of blogposts, dated to keep time with Jonson's summer progress, provide a revealing new insight into the manuscript source, the culture and society of the time and the personality of the man himself.