Ben Jonson’s Walk, Episode 1: Setting Out

In the course of his epic walk from London to Edinburgh, Ben Jonson took a memorable detour through the English midlands. This film introduces viewers to Jonson, to the walk, and to the landscape through which he journeyed in 1618.

Ben Jonson’s Walk : Module 2 from HSS Webteam on Vimeo.

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Our Friend from the South

So what happened next? The writer of the ‘Foot Voyage’ clearly thought his journey and his job were done once Jonson had been invested with the honour of burgess of Scotland’s capital city at the banquet on September 26. The account is brief about this, despite the suggestion that the companion was himself present. And he appears unmoved, too, by the fact that this was the end of his spectacular summer holiday. As he puts it:

I lay at Effy Wilson’s, her husband is called Thomas Robinson, from Saturday till the Monday sevenight after, which was the fifth of November, at what time I parted from Edinburgh, and at Leith took boat for Brunt Island, where I met with a ship bound for England, the master whereof was John Gadd, and his brother mate. I lay at Robert Clerke’s.

He means ‘October’, of course; and what he did during that week in Edinburgh at the house of Euphemia Wilson (we can note here the Scottish tradition by which wives retained their surnames rather than taking their husbands’) remains entirely unknown. That he should choose to return home by boat makes perfect sense – it was the quickest way of travelling between English and Scottish ports, and he’d covered enough ground already that year. When he steps aboard John Gedd’s ship at Burntisland he shimmers out of view – back into an historical obscurity from which we’ve not, alas, yet been able to retrieve any more of him. What did he do?  He was returning home just in time for the start of Michaelmas term – if he was a young man, as seems at least possible, might he have been heading to one of the Inns of Court or a university? And if he lived for many years after 1618, did he look back with warmth and fondness on his adventures that summer? What stories might he have told of them?

Lamb's House, Leith

Lamb’s House, a 16th century merchant’s dwelling in Leith – perhaps similar to the house in which Jonson stayed

For Jonson, the picture is unsurprisingly clearer. Anna Groundwater has found a previously neglected further reference to him in the city records, dated October 6, concerning expenses paid to civic officials for a visit to him at Leith. So it seems that he returned to his comfortable lodgings with John Stuart down by the Shore, and continued to entertain a range of visitors. Later evidence suggests that he made firm friends with the Edinburgh-based members of families linked to James’s court and with such eminent local dynasties as the Nisbets of Dean. He probably travelled within lowland Scotland, too, perhaps as far west as Loch Lomond – about which he planned to write – and possibly again into Fife, maybe even up to St Andrews. He pursued an interest in the artistic and educational life of the country, and seems to have been particularly taken with the cultural patronage of Alexander Seton, Earl of Dunfermline and Lord Chancellor of Scotland, whom he’d met in Fife on his initial trip there in September. Unlike a rancorous minority of English visitors, who felt compelled to sneer at Scotland in terms still drearily familiar today (I’m looking at you, Simon Heffer), Jonson was impressed: Edinburgh, he said, was ‘Britain’s other eye’ – a bright place, or intellectual centre – and he took an interest in the curricula of the university at St Andrews and of the new ‘King’s College’ or ‘Toun College’ in the capital – my own university, founded by the authority of King James in 1583.

Hawthornden castle

A view of Hawthornden Castle from the North Esk

Most famously, he spent some time at the end of the year at the wonderful Hawthornden castle in Midlothian, which still stands high over the North Esk river. It was substantially improved by its then owner and Jonson’s host, William Drummond, who also had the foresight to take notes of his guest’s often pungent conversation. The forthright opinions and voluble sociability of the understandably expansive Jonson seem to have irked Drummond on occasion during the visit – perhaps especially when the modishness of his own poetry was called into question – since his notes conclude with some pungency of their own: a brief pen portrait, in which Ben’s faults are sharply delineated in terms borrowed, to some extent, from Jonson. So this might, in fact, be a moment of Jonsonian self-criticism, too, or at least take its cue from stories Jonson told against himself.

Anyway, correspondence and other evidence shows that this was neither the first nor only encounter between Jonson and Drummond, and that for the most part their relationship was warm, respectful and friendly. It is to Drummond, too, that we owe our knowledge of the date of Jonson’s departure south – apparently walking again, at least some of the way, but now in the depths of winter:

He went from Leith homeward the 25 of January 1619, in a pair of shoes which, he told, lasted him since he came from Darnton, which he minded to take back that far again; they were appearing like Coryat’s: the first two days he was all excoriate. If he died by the way, he promised to send me his papers of this Country, hewn as they were.

Jonson here compares himself to the ‘Obcombian legstretcher’, Thomas Coryate, whose grand rambles through Western Europe and then much further afield were legendary. Drummond confirms, too, that Jonson’s enquiring mind had been busily accumulating material for further works on ‘this Country’ – i.e., Scotland – which were then in some kind of draft or note form.

But none of this survives. No doubt Jonson had all sorts of plans and ideas that never came to fruition – most writers do. He also lost some of his writings to a 1623 fire in his study – a conflagration perhaps confined to his desk, though no less damaging for that – in which a number of works were consumed irreparably. Among these was his own account of the 1618 walk, ‘my journey into Scotland sung, with all the adventures’. To me – a researcher of early modern literature and culture, a Jonson fan, a Londoner by upbringing who has made his home in Edinburgh – this has long seemed the most infuriating and tantalising loss. The ‘Foot Voyage’ isn’t really a substitute for this vanished hymn to a Jacobean summer, of course. For now, though, it’ll do.

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‘Upoun ane bancquett made to Benjamin Jonson…’

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.

James Ainslie's bill for BJ dinnerFrom 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.

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On Tour in Scotland

It seems astonishing – immediately after ceremonially completing his 450-mile walk, Ben Jonson set off on the tourist trail, accompanied by hosts eager to show him some of the sights. Rather than take a breather in Edinburgh, he headed up to the castle for a quick look round, and was clearly told the same stories about some of the artefacts on display as other visitors at the time. The one that tickled his companion’s fancy – as it had John Taylor’s a few weeks before – concerned Mons Meg, the great cannon given to James II and then – as now – on display in the castle. Its bore, he noted, ‘was so big that one got a woman with child in it.’

Mons Meg

Mons Meg in the 1680s

From the castle they were whisked away to South Queensferry, crossing the Firth of Forth on their way to visit another wonder. Sir George Bruce’s undersea coalmine at Culross ran a mile under the firth of Forth, and was without any contemporary equivalents in England or Wales. It was frequently viewed by visitors: the king, Lord Howard, and John Taylor had all recently admired what the latter called ‘this unfellowed and unmatchable work’ The amazement arose from the fact that it had an entrance – the ‘mot’ or ‘moat’ – 400 metres out beyond the shoreline, and at high tide ships could anchor alongside and carry the coal away. Sir George Bruce was a formidable industrialist, and the pit was only the most spectacular of his developments around Culross – he also had 44 saltpans here and a little upstream at Kincardine, using some of the coal mined to evaporate seawater. He’d built himself a grand house at Culross, which you can still visit; after his death, a grandly austere funerary monument to him and his wife was erected in the abbey church.

Bruce clearly had a decent PR department too. Taylor noted that ‘many poor people are there set on work, which otherwise through the want of employment would perish’. Jonson’s companion, hearing the same information, recorded that Bruce ‘finds above 500 poor people at work, and pays every Saturday in the year 100 [pounds] sterling for wages’. Taylor also noted that ‘he doth make every week ninety or an hundred tons of salt’, a figure which has recently been described as ‘grossly overestimated’. Yet we find our writer also noting how Bruce ‘spends three hundred load of coles a week in making of his salt, and makes an hundred and ten ton a week’. So if Taylor’s figure was an overestimation, it was Bruce’s publicist who was most likely responsible for it.

Culross Palace

Sir George Bruce’s house at Culross

From Culross, the travellers were escorted to Dunfermline, an ancient royal burgh – its abbey was the former burial place of Scottish kings. The regality of Dunfermline was owned by Queen Anne – hence, in the account, it is called ‘the Queen’s town’ – and around 1594 she built a house beside the abbey, ‘a delicate and princely mansion’ according to Taylor, and one of her favourite residences. It had been the birthplace in 1596 of Princess Elizabeth, later to be known as the ‘Winter Queen’, and of her brother, Prince Charles, in 1600.

Jonson’s welcome at Dunfermline would seem to have been both warm, friendly and fairly informal. They went to meet the very grand Alexander Seton, earl of Dunfermline, lord chancellor of Scotland since 1604 and the most important Scottish statesman of the age. Seton was, as his biographer put it, ‘a great humanist in prose and poesie, Greek and Latin, well versed in the mathematics and had great skill in architecture and heraldry’. He was heritable bailie of the regality of Dunfermline for Queen Anne, occupying a house close to the abbey, in which capacity he was expected to provide entertainment for important visitors. Yet when Jonson and his companion arrived, as he recounts, ‘we found my lady shooting at butts’ – that is, practising archery, which some would no doubt think a not very countessy thing to be seen doing. And then, the account says pithily, ‘we drank hard, with some six more, and were made burgesses.’

Merida

A Scottish noblewoman practising archery

No record of the bestowal of this honour survives – if it did, we’d have a name for our writer – but the memory of Jonson’s visit did not entirely disappear with the records in one of the fires which ravaged the town later in the seventeenth century. Ebenezer Henderson, Dunfermline’s nineteenth-century annalist, noted that ‘according to tradition, Ben Jonson visited in August 1618.’ Tradition, we can now say, was only out by a month.

From Dunfermline the travellers rode on eastwards, to visit the newly discovered – or popularised, anyway – healing spring at Pettycur, admiring the castle at Aberdour on the way. The well was a place to which many people were then resorting, since it was noted for its capacity to cure a wide ranging of ailments including cataracts and bladder stones. It had celebrity endorsement, of a sort: the companion noted how William Douglas, earl of Morton and owner of Aberdour, had ‘avoided’ – i.e. passed – ‘six great confirmed stones.’

Pettycur is near Burntisland; from there, a ferry could take you to Leith. So Jonson and his companion made their way back across the firth of Forth and set themselves up at the house of one John Stewart, continuing with their busy social calendar. Lord Bothwell visited, and they went out hawking; Lady Sempill and further Jacobean courtiers also came to call. John Taylor, too, visited Jonson here, though our writer doesn’t mention this encounter. With his host’s encouragement – as if he needed it – Jonson was once more making himself thoroughly at home.

Sky over Leith

A wide sky over Leith

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‘They ran in throngs to see us…’

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.

Slezer castleLike 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.’

Mons_Meg_-_Edinburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1310151Both 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.

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Warm Welcomes and Familiar Faces

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‘.

The road into Cockburnspath

The road into Cockburnspath

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.

Bass Rock, C17

A somewhat fanciful seventeenth century view of the Bass Rock, complete with flocks of ‘solan geese’. Edinburgh visible in the distance.

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.

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