In which Ben Jonson and his companion visit Belvoir Castle, the seat of the Earl of Rutland, are bibulously entertained at Bottesford, and find something extraordinary in the village church…
On 26 September 1618, one of Edinburgh’s officials hastened to where Jonson was staying in Leith. Earlier that Friday, the city’s council had decided to make Jonson an honorary burgess and guild brother. With abject apologies for the delayed nature of his official entertainment, Jonson was asked if you would accept this honour, and to grace the city’s burgesses with his attendance at a banquet the following day.
From the burgh’s treasurer accounts a month later, we see that this dinner cost the astonishing sum of £221 6s 4d. The city councillors had clearly wanted to make a good impression of their civility and prosperity, and for Jonson to report back favourably to his royal master. Jonson was to keep a memento of this occasion in the form of a ‘burgess ticket’, a certificate showing his enrollment in the burgh community – the equivalent of a guild member of an English town. In January 1619, the treasurer’s accounts record the thirteen pounds paid to Alexander Paterson ‘for writing and gilding of Benjamin Jonson’s burgess ticket being thrice written’.
Honorary burgess-ship had been given to both Jonson and his fellow traveller in Dunfermline, but in the grander civic community of Edinburgh, the companion did not make the grade. Edinburgh’s council was showing a restraint here that had been lacking in the liberal granting of such honours the previous year, to the assorted bunch accompanying the king on his return to Edinburgh. At two consecutive dinners, over scores of honorary burgesses were created from the highest noble to the more lowly court attendants.
Determinedly grabbing this fleeting opportunity to curry favour with James VI and I, the richness of the council’s entertainment reflected the sad sense of loss that many Scotsmen had felt on his departure south in 1603. As John Hay, the clerk deputy’s speech to James on his entry to Edinburgh had extolled: the
‘happy day of our new birth, wherein our eyes behold the greatest human felicity our hearts could wish which is to feed upon the Royal countenance of our true Phoenix, the bright Star of our Northern Firmament, the ornament of our age, wherein we are revived with the best and bright beams of our sun… by whose removing from us we were darkened, deep sorrow and fear possessing our hearts.’
The extravagance of the royal dinners caused much comment. Erected on the Royal Mile, close to the parliament hall and St Giles’s cathedral
‘There was a house built of timber and glass, made of purpose for it, hung with tapestry. There were above four score young men of Edinburgh, all in gold chains, that served. They had such varieties of meats, fish, and provision, that an Englishman who was a master of household himself said: I have been all over Europe and now come to Scotland, and whereas I thought there should have been nothing here, I have seen the best both for variety of meats, and also for service. The second day of the banquet, the courtiers, with many others, were invited, and after dinner were made burgesses. I speak nothing of those pleasant sorts of melodies, music, wines.’
The Presbyterian historian and minister David Calderwood was later to write deeply disapprovingly of the wines running in the fountains.
Jonson’s entry into Edinburgh, seventy-one days after leaving London, was a theatrical performance, the Royal Mile running from Holyrood upto the castle, his stage. The city’s gentlemen and officials dramatically sank to their knees at the Mercat Cross to testify that Jonson had truly completed his journey. His mobile audience mobbed him in the street, offered aquavitae and sugar, and popped their heads out of round holes in the wooden shutters of tall stone tenement buildings. The staging of Jonson’s welcome recalled another grander one on the entry of the king the year before.
The water poet, John Taylor’s arrival had been rather different: into the
‘Ancient famous City of Edinburgh, which I entered like pierce penniless, altogether moneyless, but I thank God not friendless… Walking thus down the street [melancholically], presently fixing mine eyes upon a Gentleman-like object, I looked on him [until] at last he crossed the way and made toward me.’
Taylor had struck lucky, and this gentleman found him lodgings.
Like Jonson however, no sooner had Taylor arrived but he was whisked up the Royal Mile to view the fortifications of Edinburgh castle.
‘The Castle on a lofty Rock is so strong, grounded, bounded, and founded, that by force of man it can never be confounded; The Foundation and Walls are impenetrable, the Ramparts Impregnable, the Bulwarks Invincible. In a word I have seen many Fortresses but they must all give place to this unconquered Castle.’
Both travellers too were shown one of the castle’s most notable sights, then and now, the massive iron cannon Mons Meg, Philip of Burgundy’s present to James II on his marriage to Mary of Gueldres: ‘a great piece of Ordinance, it will serve to defend a breach, or to toss balls of wild fire against any’. And like today’s tourists will soon be told (as a result of our project), Taylor relates that his guide said that
‘so great [was the cannon] that a Child was once gotten there, but I to make trial crept into it, lying on my back, and I am sure there was Room enough and spare for a greater than myself.’
Or in Jonson’s companion’s words, ‘the bore was so big that one got a woman with child in it’.
Taylor thought Edinburgh a fine place:
‘the fairest and goodliest street that ever mine eyes beheld… The buildings on each side being all of squared stone, five, six, and seven storeys high, and many by Lanes and Closes on each side of the way, wherein are Gentlemen’s houses … wherein I found entertainment beyond my expectation or merit.’
His was a view not shared by a subsequent snootier traveller, Sir William Brereton in 1635. Whilst he agreed that the Royal Mile was
‘the glory and beauty of this city, … if the houses were not lined to the outside and faced with boards; but this face of boards doth much blemish it, and derogate from glory and beauty; as also the want of fair glass windows.’
But worse… despite it being that
‘This city is placed in a dainty, healthful, pure air, and doubtless were a most healthful place to live, were not the inhabitants most sluttish, nasty, and slothful people. The sluttishness and nastiness of this people is such, that I cannot omit the particularizing thereof: their houses, and halls, and kitchens, have such a noisome taste, a savour and that so strong, as it doth offend you so soon as you come within their walls.’
This is not the impression that we get from Jonson who was subsequently to describe Edinburgh as ‘Britain’s other eye’.
Read more about the ceremony at the Mercat Cross, and other literary stories associated with Edinburgh at A Secret Golden Age: Walks through early literary Edinburgh.
When Sir William Bowyer of Berwick saw Jonson and his companion across the border, he didn’t quite relinquish his role as host. As the account makes clear, Jonson and his companion had ‘Sir William’s man’ with them all the way to Cockburnspath – twelve difficult miles of walking from Ayton Castle, itself seven miles north of Berwick. It’s clear, too, that the companion was flagging at this point. As he says, ‘
this was the tediousest day’s journey in the whole voyage, for I had not slept two nights before‘. He had only himself to blame – on the first of these two nights, he records, ‘
I drank hard‘; on the second, at Ayton, there’d clearly been further carousing, since one ‘
Val West played his prank in drink‘.
What perhaps made it worse for our man was Jonson’s own undimmed stamina – on the road to Cockburnspath, far from flagging, he was striking up new friendships, ‘growing cousins’ with his fellow walkers. You get a sense, from details like this, of the sheer and singular force of his personality – this hefty 46 year old, at the centre of a long whirl of sozzling entertainment and with more than 300 miles already under his belt, still striding cheerfully on.
He’d have had good reason for the spring in his step. If southern Scotland was new terrain, it nonetheless offered Jonson a warm welcome. At Cockburnspath, his host was the postmaster, William Arnot, son of a former provost of Edinburgh. Arnot was expressly charged with providing good hospitality for travellers, and Cockburnspath itself was a welcome stop on the mostly upland road between Berwick and the gentler landscape of coastal east Lothian.
Further on, Jonson found himself very much among friends. At ‘Addam’, as it’s spelled in the account – Auldhame, near Tantallon – he was looked after by two members of the Auchmuty family, James and Alexander. Together with their brother, John, they were fixtures at the Jacobean court – John was a regular dancer in Jonson’s masques. The Auchmutys also hosted John Taylor, himself a member of the royal household, when he was heading south later that autumn. He memorably records eating ‘solan goose‘, better known as gannet, there – these seabirds bred in profusion, as they still do today, on the nearby Bass Rock. Taylor reported that the meat from the birds ‘
must be well liquored with two or three good rouses [i.e. large or full cups] of sherry or Canary sack‘, and seems – perhaps surprisingly – to have enjoyed it.
The Auchmutys may not have been the only familiar faces Jonson met here. At North Berwick, they were greeted by one William Ramsay, who had come out from Edinburgh specially to see them. We can’t be completely sure, but it seems likely that this man was another courtier – kinsman, maybe even brother, to John Ramsay, a royal favourite who was created Viscount Haddington in 1606 and Earl of Holderness in 1621, and for whose wedding in 1609 Jonson wrote the Haddington masque.
So when he made his way into Scotland, Jonson found himself to some extent closer to home than he’d been for a fair while. As members of the royal household, these men would have been well known to him, and he to them; their paths would have crossed often in London. While some English travellers found Scotland strange and foreign, and wrote slightingly of it, Jonson’s long immersion in the binational court of King James seems to have generated in him a very different response. We know from William Drummond that Jonson claimed Scots ancestry; perhaps the affinity embodied in that claim also found expression in friendships with some of James’s Scottish courtiers, and in his desire to journey to Scotland in the first place.
Jonson had dined, supped and ‘banketted’ his way up the Great North Road but perhaps the strangest food (to the modern palate) he was offered was in a Northumbrian field. Having spent a couple of days at Howick, one Mrs Grey led him with her maid to a pasture in which a cow was grazing, whereupon Jonson was given a ‘merrybub’ to bid him farewell (this lady was possibly the widow of Philip Grey to whom Jonson was to pen an epitaph).
It appears that ‘merrybub’, also recorded as ‘merrybauk’, was a northern term for a type of syllabub or posset, in this case a hasty mixture of freshly foaming milk with an alcoholic liquid whisked with herbs and spices. Such a confection found its way into Jonson’s Sad Shepherd:
Fall to your cheese-cakes, curds, and clotted cream,
Your fools, your flans; and of ale a stream
To wash it from your livers: strain ewes milk
Into your Cider syllabubs, and be drunk …
Recently, to celebrate a visit to Edinburgh by Ian Donaldson and in the interests of academic research (honest), we attempted to whip up a similar concoction taken from a seventeenth century manuscript recipe for a ‘Snow Syllabub’:
‘Take a Quart of Cream & half a pint of White wine, Squeeze in the Juice of a Lemon, & put in a Musk-Plumb or two, beaten Small; sweeten it with fine sugar; then take a whisk & whisk it up till it be a full Froth.’
Surprisingly large quantities of it were spooned from small cups, though it was certainly not to everyone’s taste.
A similar recipe is to be found in Charles I’s chief cook, Joseph Cooper’s recipe book, The art of Cookery refin’d and augmented of 1654. Here nutmeg and rosemary were added to the cream and sack, and fermented in a pot overnight. And there are countless recipes for a variety of syllabubs, an eating syllabub, a whipped one, a ‘Whip Jellybub’. Add some eggs, and ‘beat well to thicken on a soft fire’, and you have a posset.
Entranced by seventeenth century cooking, we proceeded to serve up scotch collops (a spiced and herbed meatball), fried artichokes, anchovy pastries, and a spiced posset at a reading by the poet Thomas A Clark of his work on walking and landscape, making a connection to Jonson’s own travels, and the food he encountered. Sadly time was too short for the ‘Hedgehog Pudding’, a sweet suet pudding with ‘raisins of the sun’, studded once baked with blanched almonds. But another pudding we made, an almond cake with rose water, was much like the currently fashionable almond and orange ones.
One particular food recurs several times in our account of Jonson’s ‘Foot-Voyage’ – venison. It’s clear from the way in which the journal notes the giving of venison that it was intended to honour Jonson: at Pontefract, the countess of Shrewsbury sends him a buck, one side of which he gives to his previous hostess at Skelbrooke. The rest he feasts on with the town’s aldermen. At Welbeck he had ordered a deer killed for supper that night. And this may have been the way it was served:
‘To roast a Haunch of Venison
If your Venison be seasoned, you must Water it & stick it with sprigs of Rosemary. Let your Sauce be Claret Wine, a Handful of grated Bread, Cinnamon, Ginger, Sugar & a little Vinegar, boil these up so thick as it may only run like Butter: it ought to be sharp & sweet. Dish up your meat on your sauce.’
Seventeenth century cookbooks would not suit a vegetarian, stuffed with recipes for game, mutton, beef, sturgeon, and salmon, heavily spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and mace. But the odd vegetable creeps in, a carrot pudding baked in pastry, and a ‘grand sallad’ of raisins, blanched almonds, samphire, green beans, and olives, surrounded by sturgeon and roasted chicken.
Jonson’s only recorded indisposition on the journey was at Newcastle, following an over-indulgence in ancient red wine. But perhaps he was carrying with him one of the sweet or licorice waters, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ for indigestion:
‘Take of Galingal, cloves, long pepper grains, mellilot flowers, mace, nutmegs, of each half an ounce, juice of salendine four ounces, mingle all these made in powder with a pint of Aquavitae & with a pint of Sack, & a quart of good white wine put all these into ye still over night and in the morning still it with a gentle fire, [adding] a quarter of a pound of white sugar candy.’
On Friday 29 August 1618, Ben Jonson, famed tippler, was suffering from a hangover. The previous night he had indulged in forty year old hullock, a Spanish red wine, as he caroused with Newcastle’s prosperous aldermen. Newcastle then, as today, was living up to its reputation for dangerously extravagant hospitality.
As Sir Thomas Wentworth (later earl of Strafford) was to hear from a similarly indisposed correspondent, at Newcastle
‘before we had remained 24 hours, the worst enemy I saw was Mr Mayor’s great pieces of beef and the profuse entertainment we had from the gentlemen in those parts which endangered our health more than the Spaniards did our coasts.’
Hullock, according to the great traveller Richard Hakluyt, was to be used
‘For banqueting on shipboard [of] persons of credit’
along with sack, vials of good sweet waters, figs, walnuts, and almonds. The offering of it to Jonson suggests the esteem in which he was held. Newcastle’s civic elite had a tradition of feasting well, guild accounts showing regular entries for dinners held, for ‘charges concerning the feast for vittles, wine and beer, £2’.
Perhaps these good aldermen should have also given Jonson one of the many hangover cures that were available for ‘surfeit’, such as this one,
‘A powder excellent for the Liver: Take of Rhubarb three drams, of Licorice two drams, of white sugar candy four drams, one dram of Anise seeds, make all these into powder, and take every morning as much as you will upon a shilling and fast an hour after it.’
Jonson’s relationship with the vine was well known, his membership of London’s convivial societies a focal point for his admirers and detractors alike. William Drummond of Hawthornden thought wine for Jonson was one of the ‘elements in which he liveth’. But the abandonment to alcoholic excess that this jibe suggests, is not the Jonson that we see on his ‘Foot-Voyage’, or from his life in metropolitan taverns.
Alcoholic consumption came with rules. Wine was said to liberate the creative senses to produce elevated wit, conversation and poetry. Too much of it, however, or of the lowly ale, produced boorish or bestial behaviour.
The society of which Jonson was the leading light, that met in the Apollo Rooms over the Devil and St Dunstan in Fleet Street, welcomed its members with the words
‘Here he speaks out of his Pottle,
Or the Tripos, his Tower Bottle;
All his Answers are Divine:
Truth itself doth flow in Wine.
Wine it is the Milk of Venus,
Tis the true Phoebeian Liquor,
Clears the Brains, makes Wit the quicker.
Pays all Debts, cures all Diseases
And at once three Sense pleases.’
But inside were the rules of behaviour, the Leges Conviviales, that Jonson penned
‘And let our only emulation be,
Not drinking much, but talking wittily.
Let it be voted lawful to stir up
Each other with a moderate chirping cup;
Let none of us be mute, or talk too much…’
So prevalent was alcohol in Jacobean society, where light ale was thought healthier than perilous water, that these concerns sat oddly with more puritanical thought. Countless tracts appeared against the evils of excessive alcohol, its corrosive effects on the morals and functioning of society. Englands Bane: or, The Description of Drunkenness by Thomas Young, Milton’s tutor, published in 1617, enumerated nine types of drunkards:
‘The first is Lion drunk, which breaks glass windows, calls the Hostess Whore, strikes, fights or quarrels. The second is Ape-drunk, who dances, capers, and leaps about the house, sings and rejoices, and is wholly ravished into jests, mirth and melody. The third is sheep drunk, … Sow, Fox, Maudlin, Goat, Martin, Bat drunk’
And in 1627, another critic warned against ‘Drunkenness … a flattering Devil, a sweet poison, and a pleasing sin’ in A looking glass for drunkards: Wherein drunkards are unmasked to the view of the world. Very convenient and useful for all people to ruminate on in this drunken Age. I’ll say no more…