About 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.

‘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.

‘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.

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.

Of Merrybubs, Syllabubs and Possets

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.


Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook or The art and mystery of Cookery, 1660

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.’

A Hangover in Newcastle

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.


Richard Brathwaite, A Solemne Joviall Disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke; briefly shadowing the Law of Drinking (1617)

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’

looking glassAnd 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…

A Jacobean Morning Alarm Call

On the morning of their leaving Durham, Jonson and his companion were woken by the sound of waits and cornets.  Whether it was the sweetest reveille or a cacophony of ill-played pipes, the account does not reveal, but the typical instruments of waits were shawms, also known as wait pipes, hautbois, and howboys, the ancestor of the oboe, as well as viols, curtals, and the cornetts [Many thanks for this information to Tom Hughes]

The morning alarm call was a ceremony that featured regularly in a town’s honouring of an important visitor, or indeed, a wealthy traveller might himself pay for the waits to waken him, and to advertise his presence.

Will Kemp had enjoyed the welcome that the Norwich waits gave him, he having danced his way to Norfolk in nine days in 1600:

‘Passing the gate, Wifflers [helped] make my way through the throng of the people, which pressed so mightily upon me: with great labour I got through that narrow press into the open market place. Where on the cross, ready prepared, stood the City Waits, which not a little refreshed my weariness with towling through so narrow a lane: such Waytes, few Cities in our Realm have the like, none better. Who besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the Viol, and Violin: their voices be admirable, every one of them able to serve in any Cathedral Church in Christendom for Choristers.” (William Kemp, Nine Daies Wonder, 1600)

Samuel Pepys wrote of his awakening at the Bear Inn at Cambridge on 15 October 1662: I ‘waked very early, and when it was time rose; and Music (with a Bandore for the Base) did give me a Levett, [a Reveille, or a Hunts-up] and so we got ready’

Jonson himself was to allude to these players in A Tale of a Tub in 1633:

Preamble to Hugh: You are my learned, and canonick neighbour: I would not have you stray; but the incorrigible Knot-headed beast, the Clowns, or Constables, Still let them graze; eat Salads; chew the Cud: All the town-musick will not move a log.

And an anonymous poem of 1680 described

The public waits who liveries do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn public meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’ Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
And weather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings, play them some fine Air
Or brisk new tune such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.

Town waits had originally been employed as watchmen in medieval times, but their function had evolved over the centuries to the town’s minstrels, paid and liveried by the borough council for official ceremonies. For instance in York in 1623, the council noted that

‘Edward Easton is commended to be A very skillful musician It is agreed by these present that he shall be one of the waits in this City And that Christopher Thompson and John Girdler waits their bonds shall be taken as sureties for him for the Chain & Scutcheon’

that is the badge of his office. In Durham’s case, in former times, the waits had been provided by the Bishop.

There is much more information on town waits on the International Guild of Town Pipers website; in particular on early music and historically informed performances in the music of Medieval and Renaissance Town Waits.

Information about and illustrations of York’s town waits can be found on Dr James Merryweather’s website, and on www.townwaits.org.uk

You can hear waits in action at the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, which is being held this year in Gloucester from September 6-8th.