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.

The Legend of St Cuthbert and a Wandering Brown Cow

One afternoon in Durham, Jonson and his companion managed to extract themselves from Bishop Neile’s assiduous entertainment to indulge in a spot of antiquarianism. durham cathedralThey toured the various monuments within Durham’s mighty Norman cathedral, stopping in particular to look at those of St Cuthbert, and his biographer, the historian the ‘Venerable’ Bede.

St Cuthbert (635-687) was the prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne, on a small island joined by a tidal causeway to the Northumbrian coast. He spent many years as a hermit on the more remote island of Inner Farne, in later life becoming a bishop in Northumbria, before returning to the Farne Islands where he died.

St Cuth tomb

Following Viking attacks in 875, his body was carried by devoted monks around northern England, settling for a century in Chester-le-Street; after further travels, he was eventually interred east of the High Altar in Durham cathedral in 1104.

The much-visited shrine became a focal point of a cult of St Cuthbert, that also was celebrated on Lindisfarne. The ornate tomb was dismantled after the Reformation and the body reburied in a plain grave behind the altar, reputedly still uncorrupted. Cuthbert’s tomb was again opened in 1827 to disprove the apparently miraculous preservations of his remains.

Jonson was also to hear of another of the myths associated with the saint, the way in which Cuthbert’s final resting place was chosen. In 995, monks fearful of further Viking raids, were searching for a suitable site when they followed two milkmaids looking for a brown or ‘dun’ cow to a rocky peninsula in the River Dee. Here, on Dun Holme, the cathedral was built to house Cuthbert’s shrine. Durham_Dun-Cow

This legend was portrayed in a stone carving, described in 1593 as ‘a monument of a milk maid milking her cow … on the outside of the north-west turret’ of the cathedral’, which though ‘defaced by the weather … to this day is there to be seen’. This will have been what Jonson will have been shown though what you see today is its replacement from 1775. And the myth is perpetuated in ‘The Dun Cow’ inns of Crook and Witton-le-Wear in County Durham.

Fenwick Lawson’s  sculpture ‘Journey’ (1999), carved from seven elm trees, also commemorates the monks’ long travels with Cuthbert’s remains, and is now on Lindisfarne.



Subsequently a bronze casting of it was made, and you can see this now amongst the shops and eateries of Millenium Square in Durham.



Jonson then paid his respects to the other notable resident of Durham Cathedral, the Venerable Bede (c.673-735). Bede was a monk and historian in the monastery at Jarrow, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c.731) was first printed in Strasbourg after 1474, and in numerous sixteenth and seventeenth century editions.

BedeBede was initially buried at Jarrow, but subsequently re-interred in the Galilee chapel of Durham cathedral in a blue marble tomb; this was dismantled following the Reformation, and the remains buried more simply under two of the original marble stones.

Jonson’s Lost Weekend in York

The last we hear of Jonson during the weekend of 14 to 16 August, is when he is carried away in Sir Arthur Ingram’s carriage to see his ‘Lords grace’. Jonson’s companion seems not to have been included in this hospitality by, we think, the archbishop of York, Tobie Matthew.

TobiasMatthewTobie Matthew (1544-1628), a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford in the 1560s, had been archbishop of York from 1606. An orthodox Calvinist, he had previously been the bishop of Durham from 1594, where he had gained a reputation for his indefatigable preaching and his suppression of Catholicism. On his promotion to York, he cooperated closely with the gentry and magnates on the Council of the North. Sir John Harington described Matthew’s time as dean of Christ Church in the 1570s where

‘it was hard to say whether he was more respected for his great learning, eloquence, authority, countenance given him by Queen Elizabeth and the great ones; or beloved for his sweet conversation, friendly disposition, bounty, and above all, a cheerful sharpness of wit, that so sauced all his words and behaviour.’

Bishopthorpe-PalaceIn the summer of 1618, the archbishop was resident at his palace at Bishopthorpe, about three miles south of central York, situated on the banks of the River Ouse. Bishopthorpe Palace has been the official residence of archbishops of York since its first building by Archbishop Walter de Grey in 1241. The palace you see today has been extended over the centuries, its frontal elevation added in the 1760s. Jonson would have seen the older north wing built in the late fifteenth century.

MatthewThat Jonson will have been bountifully entertained there is suggested by Matthew’s grand monument in the Lady Chapel of York Minster, which relates that ‘his house was a perpetual scene of entertainment for the rich, and of charity for the poor’. Matthew’s diary records that he was preaching that weekend at Bilbrough, four miles west of Bishopthorpe, so Jonson may well have enjoyed a sermon, for which Matthew was renowned. Matthew had had warm relations with Gilbert Talbot, the seventh earl of Shrewsbury, at whose funeral in 1616 he preached the sermon, so Jonson and he probably will have had several acquaintances in common in that social network.

Less elevated is a description from the later 1600s of one incident in Matthew’s time as bishop of Durham:

‘Tis said this Bishop loved a Girl well & was supposed to have been kind with the wife of one parson, upon whom he bestowed a very good living. The parson desiring to show his thankfulness to the Bishop’s wife Mrs Matthew, went to render his thanks but she angrily replied to him, “That he might thank the hot arsed Queen his wife & not her” for his appointment’.

Further reading: Eric A Gee, Bishopthorpe Palace: An Architectural History (1983)

‘Whatsoever Tasted of Antiquity’ at Pontefract

In Pontefract Jonson swapped the boots of a traveller for the eyes of an antiquarian, or what might be termed a tourist, for the journal records that they

‘visited the castle and whatsoever tasted of antiquity’.

Here they were shown around the ancient fortress, their guide telling them tales of past events, an oral version of our present-day interpretation boards. Two were apparently noteworthy enough to merit recording by Jonson’s companion.

Richard_II_King_of_England The first was of the alleged murder of the unfortunate Richard II in 1400 in Pontefract castle, having been held there in captivity since Henry of Bolingbroke’s invasion the previous year, and his replacement of Richard as king. Following Bolingbroke’s coronation as Henry IV, Richard was apparently starved to death, though the exact manner of his demise is not known. The account of his ‘murder’ by Exton is common to familiar sources, including Holinshed and Shakespeare.

Richard_II_(Play) This sad event was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, The Life and Death of King Richard II, first performed in 1595; at its first printing in 1597, its title was The Tragedie of King Richard II.

The castle was the site for several political executions over the centuries, including one described by Camden:

‘here King Richard the Third caused Antony Earl Rivers, King Edward the Fifth, his Uncle by the mother’s side, and Sir Richard Grey Knight, half brother to the same King by the mother’s side, both innocent persons, to lose their heads’ (Camden, 1610, 696)


HowardCatherine02 The other more lascivious tale, was of Henry VIII’s stay at Pontefract in 1541 with his lively young queen, Catherine Howard, and his alleged cuckolding by Thomas Culpeper, when the queen admitted him into her chamber. Both were subsequently executed for the affair, Archbishop Cranmer using an affectionate letter from Catherine to Culpeper as proof.

The Giants of Pontefract

After feasting on venison with Pontefract’s aldermen, Jonson was walking wearily to his bed when he was mobbed by dancing giants. Our account suggests that this, with accompanying music, had been arranged to welcome Jonson, though it may have been that his arrival in Pontefract simply coincided with one of the town’s festivals.

Processional giants, built on wicker frames, and covered with cloth, were carried in towns and cities across England in midsummer and other festivities. Until the mid sixteenth century they often represented religious figures, perhaps the patron saint of the guild that owned them, or David’s combatant, Goliath. The Pontefract giants may have been housed in the castle in the early seventeenth century: as the trusty three military men touring England in the 1630s were to report, ‘we view’d the spacious Hall, which the Gyants kept’.

Although the practise was widely suppressed after the Reformation, the ceremonial use of these effigies continued for several decades in cities including Newcastle and Chester. Such was the gigantic figure of Gogmagog who appears in several places. A poem on a German giant residing at Charing Cross in 1660, describes

German giant


His whole proportion is upright, and streight,
‘Tis nine foot fully, and a half in height:
Not much in debt to Age, his Body clean,
Up to his Stature, and not fat, nor lean;
His Hand exceeds in bigness, and his Span
‘Bove twice th’extensions of another man.

and of others in England…

In his Dimentions set forth at Guild-Hall,
Know ’tis a Poet onely can define
A Gyants posture in a Gyants line,
The Art falls short of Nature, and must err,
When Rules are given her by the Carpenter…
And thus attended with his direful Dog,
The Gyant was (God bless us) Gogmagog.
And He who (fear’d by his prodigious Frame)
Not long since kept the gates of Nottingham;
And many others who have left to all
Succeeding times their proud Memorial[Anon.]

Giants still exist today, though their original religious associations have usually changed to a representation of national or regional heroic figures, or to reflect local folk traditions. Christopher the Salisbury Giant is the oldest one surviving in England, dated from before 1570. Formerly owned by the Tailor’s Guild, he is now incarcerated in Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Giants like this are still symbols of civic pride, carried in town festivals, intended to bring a joyous air and a larger-than-life structure to such events.

Groups of giants from English and European towns, such as the Dorchester giants, today travel around festivals in the UK and Europe, such as these at Steenvorde

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

Before the Barcelona Olympics, 625 giants gathered from all over Europe in the nearby village of Matedepera, and in 2000 nearly 70 giants were listed in the British Isles.
British Isles Giant Guild: www.giants.org.uk/

Further reading: Daniele Di Bartolomeo, ‘Giants in European Festivals and Processions: a Short Note’, on the ENBaCH website, the European Network for Baroque Cultural Heritage: routeofbaroque.enbach.eu/

Robin Hood’s Well

Robin Hood well


The modern A1 thunders along much of the route of the old Great North Road, and if you look to your right as you drive north, leaving Doncaster around ten miles behind, you can still see the John Vanbrugh-designed stone well-house moved to its present spot on the east side of the road from the original spring, which now lies under the tarmac. Its previous position was at the entrance to Skelbrooke Hall on the west side of the road, the place taking its name from the River Skell that runs close by.

In the seventeenth century the ‘Robin Hood well’ was a noted meeting place and, in fact, a destination in itself, with a couple of local hostelries profiting from the busy traffic of the old roman road. Roger Dodsworth, the famed local antiquary, first recorded this well, ‘Robbinhood-well’, in 1622, and in the 1630s, Richard Brathwaite, the author of Barnaby’s Journal, described the relief that it brought to parched travellers…
Barn Journ

Thirst knowes neither meane nor measure,
Robin Hoods Well was my treasure,
In a common dish enchained,
My furious thirst restrained:
And because I drunk the deeper,
I paid two farthings to the keeper.

But apart from its restorative powers, the well had acquired a number of customs. As three military travellers explained in 1634, they had

in the midway [from Doncaster to Pontefract] being thirsty, tasted a Cup at Robin Hood’s Well, and there according to the usual, and ancient custom of Travellers, were in his rocky Chair of Ceremony, dignified with the Order of knighthood, and sworn to observe his Laws: After our Oath we had not time to stay to hear our Charge, but discharged our due Fealty Fee, 4d., a piece to the Lady of the Fountain, and on we spurred with our new dignity to Pomfret [Pontefract].

So the well was more than a watering place – it had a keeper, and travellers participated in a form of ceremonious drinking that was also an induction into a kind of knightly order, or at least a parody of such a thing. As they crossed Barnsdale, one of the major traditional settings for Robin Hood stories, they did so as a sworn member of the hero’s fraternity – so local customs encouraged travellers not only to be aware of, but to identify with, the spirit of the place.

This well – and perhaps some of the other similarly named springs scattered around the north midlands and south Yorkshire – must have made an impression on Jonson, for the legend resurfaces in his play of 1637, The Sad Shepherd: or a Tale of Robin-Hood, unfinished at his death but published posthumously in 1641. The scene is set in Sherwood Forest, ‘consisting of a landscape of Forest, Hills, Valleys, Cottages, A River, Pastures, all full of Country simplicity. Robin Hood’s Bower, his Well’. Robin Hood bids his men, ‘Bathe all your bruises in my healing well,/ So shall your wounds not fester, nor limbs swell’. Maudlin having been stung by adders, tells Lorel that ‘For cure I led her to the healing-well/ Of Robin Hood’ but, as Maudlin bewails, ‘Yet hath their venom rankled sae my veins, That e’en this wond’rous well can nought avail/ To gi’ me ease, and heal the serpents’ wounds’.


Bolsover Castle: a ‘Delicate Little House’

Sir William Cavendish was very keen to show his celebrated guest his other pride and joy, the little castle that he was finishing on the heights of Bolsover.  As you drive today up the M1 (and as you will flash by it on the new high speed rail, if that ever gets built), you can see it commanding the landscape from its rocky plateau.  From this vantage point Jonson and his companion will have had an eagle’s eye view of Welbeck and Worksop, and been able to track their onward route north to Hodsock Priory and then to Bawtry. Our account notes that Bolsover was known as ‘Bozer’ – a local pronunciation that is still current today.

Bolsover aerial view

Bolsover Castle, thanks to English Heritage @EnglishHeritage

Bolsover had previously been owned by the earl and countess of Shrewsbury, and was one of their several properties that Sir William’s father, the canny Sir Charles Cavendish, under the guise of friendship had been able to divert his way.  Sir Charles had begun the new castle, ‘a delicate little house’, a gothic fantasy that Sir William saw to completion, with its extravagant and somewhat risqué wall and ceiling paintings, in which you can still lose yourself today.

Bolsover’s ‘Heaven Room’, @EnglishHeritage

In this fabulous work, the Cavendishes employed the talented mason and architect John Smithson, son of Robert, the creator of Hardwick Hall, the masterpiece home of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (aka ‘Bess of Hardwick‘, and Sir Charles’s mother), just up the road from Bolsover. But Sir William’s ambitions far exceeded those of his father, and he went on to build the magnificent and more classical range that dominates the skyline at Bolsover. This was the work he was probably discussing with Smythson when Jonson visited.

The Cavendishes’ accumulation and embellishment of their various estates was subsequently celebrated by the family friend, poet and doctor Richard Andrews:

Hardwicke for hugeness, Worsope for Light,
Welbecke for use, and Bolser for sight,
Worsope for walks, Hardwick for Hall,
Welbecke for brew-house, Bolser for all …
Hardwicke is rich, Welbecke is fine,
Worsope is statelie, Bolser divine.

Most remarkable about Jonson’s sojourn with the Cavendishes is perhaps the body of work that resulted. Whilst at Bolsover, he spoke with Smithson about the creation of a splendid tomb for Sir Charles, that still ornaments the church down the hill at Bolsover, alongside that of his wife Catherine.

Charles Cavendish was a Man whome…
Nobilitie, Bountie, Justice, made Honourable,
Counsell, Ayde, Secrecie, made a Trusty Friend,
Love, Trust, Constancie, made a Kind Husband,
Affection, Advice, Care, made a Loving Father,
Friends, Wife, Sonnes, made Content,
Wisdom, Honour, Content, made Happy.

It’s entirely plausible that this commission was the main purpose, or perhaps excuse, for Jonson’s visit to Welbeck in 1618. It’s even possible that Cavendish’s desire to bring Smithson and Jonson together at Bolsover was the initial impetus for a journey that grew wildly in the planning until it became the walk as finally undertaken that summer. From this perspective, Jonson’s visit to Belvoir and his inspection of the Bottesford tombs looks less like tourism and more like research – the Manners family had built a fittingly grand mausoleum in their parish church, and now Jonson was going to help Sir William Cavendish establish something similar at Bolsover.

Whatever the truth of it, this was the documented beginning of a relationship between poet and patron that would endure until Jonson’s death. Cavendish’s situation and concerns shaped Jonson’s work, and the writer’s style and values shaped his patron’s own intellectual life.

Little Castle, Bolsover

The Little Castle, Bolsover

A couple of years later, Jonson created an entertainment to mark the christening of Sir William’s son. He subsequently penned an epitaph for his hostess, Lady Catherine, Sir William’s mother, a manuscript version of which – now in the British Library – is once again accompanied by Smithson’s designs for a monument, winged cherubs framing Jonson’s words.

Jonson’s most important works for the Cavendishes, however, came in the 1630s. During Charles I’s progress to Scotland in 1633 for his belated coronation, he stopped at Welbeck, where a costly feast was laid out, and accompanied with a masque by Jonson known as The King’s Entertainment at Welbeck.  So delighted by this was the king that in 1634, Bolsover and the Cavendishes were granted the honour (and had to incur the expense) of entertaining both Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria.  Naturally Cavendish, now the earl of Newcastle, turned again to his trusted literary friend to write an appropriately splendid entertainment, Love’s Welcome at Bolsover, using various parts of the whole complex at Bolsover as his moving stage. Newcastle was desperate to use this occasion to impress his royal master with his suitability for high office at court.  As his second wife, Margaret Cavendish, was to recall, he spared

nothing that might add splendor to that Feast, which both Their Majesties were pleased to honour with their Presence: Ben Johnson he employed in fitting such Scenes and Speeches as he could best devise; and sent for all the Gentry of the Country to come and wait on their Majesties; and in short, did all that ever he could imagine, to render it Great, and worthy Their Royal Acceptance.  This Entertainment he made at Bolsover-Castle in Derbyshire, and resigned Welbeck for Their Majesties Lodging; it cost him in all between Fourteen and Fifteen thousand pounds.

Newcastle’s objectives at court were not immediately fruitful, the eroticism of Bolsover’s painted panels, and their echoes in the masque in the figures of two Cupids, Eros and Anteros, apparently not to the taste of this more prudish king.  Ultimately, however, Newcastle was to become Governor to the young Prince Charles, remaining a royal favourite through the vicissitudes of the Civil Wars, and regaining his estates and a dukedom on Charles II’s restoration in 1660.

The day after his visit to Bolsover, Jonson was to admire his host’s horsemanship, perhaps Cavendish’s chief passion. English Heritage is celebrating this legacy by staging displays of expert dressage by riders in seventeenth century costume at Bolsover every weekend from now until September. You can also wallow in the world of Bolsover and Welbeck in Lucy Worsley’s extensively researched and eminently readable book, Cavalier.

And if you would like some local tourist information, try here.