This is Ben Jonson Crossing the Border…

Bicycle Border_sign_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1747439After another fine dinner in Berwick-on-Tweed, Jonson was escorted two miles northwards by the gentlemen of the town. At this point, yet more wine was drunk and a volley of shots fired. Jonson took one step further, and crossed England’s frontier into Scotland.

In days past, that gunfire would not have been so friendly, for only fifteen years before the Anglo-Scottish border had been an international division between two previously hostile countries. When English and Scottish armies were not etching trails of devastation from Newcastle to Edinburgh, the borderers themselves were raiding each other’s livestock, and burning their enemies’ tower houses. As Jonson’s contemporary, and simultaneous traveller, John Taylor, was to describe,

Such shaking, shifting, cutting throats, and thieving,
Each taking pleasure, in the other’s grieving.
To many years this pell-mell fury lasted,
That all these borders were quite spoil’d and wasted,
Confusion, hurly-burly reign’d and revell’d,
The Churches with the lowly ground were levell’d…
That who so then did in the borders dwell,
Liv’d little happier than those in hell.

Taylor made much of his border-crossing though he was to be surprised at the similarities that he found either side:

Eight miles from Carlisle runs a little River,
Which England’s bounds, from Scotland’s grounds doth sever…
I being come to this long look’d for land,
Did marke, remarke, note, renote, view’d and scann’d:
And I saw nothing that could change my will
But that I thought my self in England still.
The Kingdoms are so nearly join’d and fix’d,
There scarcely went a pair of Shears betwixt;
There I saw sky above, and earth below,
And as in England, there the Sun did show…

The sheep in Annandale grazed in the same way as those in Cumberland, and good Scottish ale was available in many a cottage.

Jonson’s companion does not comment on what this ceremony of wine and gunshot signified; no mention is made of the border at all in our journal, or indeed of the names England or Scotland. For Jonson perhaps, the border was not of note; he was returning to the land of his fathers, allegedly from Annandale, in the same way that his royal master King James had progressed ‘salmon-like’ to Edinburgh the year before.

James VIKing James VI and I’s return had been of great significance. His travelling across the border was in itself a performance of the union that his own person embodied; this union of the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland on the head of one man, and an important precursor to the full political union of 1707. In these days of debate over the continuation of that union, the Anglo-Scottish border may reemerge as a site of contention.

James would have been saddened by this. On his first crossing of the border in 1603, he had stopped at Berwick to declare the name of the ‘Borders’ dead, rechristening the region the ‘Middle Shires’, where they would be ‘but the midst of the Isle’ of a Great Britain. He would however have much liked Taylor’s words in 1618:

But since the all-disposing God of heaven,
Hath these two Kingdoms to one Monarch given,
Blessed peace, and plenty on them both hath shower’d
Exile, and hanging hath the thieves devour’d…
For now those Crowns are both in one combin’d
Those former borders, that each one confin’d
Appears to me (as I do understand)
To be almost the Centre of the land.

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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