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.
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?
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
As they walked up from the south to meet the river Tweed the travellers must have had some sense that they were approaching a landscape feature of real importance. Rivers were key geographical markers in early modern times, much more so than they usually are today. John Speed’s county maps, or those in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, show rivers rather than roads; indeed, rivers are the personified speakers of Drayton’s lengthy chorographical poem. The Tweed, like the Trent and the Severn, was invested with the special significance of a boundary marker – as the Trent divided the English south from its north, and the Severn divided England from Wales, so the Tweed divided England from Scotland.
Only it didn’t, of course – or at least, not here. At the mouth of the Tweed the neatly fortified town of Berwick, a thriving port and important settlement, occupied the northern bank. It was something of an anomaly: an English town on Scotland’s side of the river, a Scottish royal burgh and county town with no county to call its own. It had long been a site of contention, fought over, besieged, sacked and rebuilt, and had been in Scottish hands as recently as the 1480s. By the time it was recaptured by English forces under Richard Duke of York – later Richard III – in 1482, it had passed between English and Scottish control more than a dozen times.
Thereafter, Berwick became a vitally important border outpost for the English crown, and vast sums were spent on its fortifications. Overseeing the garrison there was a crucial role, entrusted only to important men with good court connections. But with the demise of the Tudors in 1603, and the emergence of a new, British monarchy in the person of James VI and I, the town’s role changed again. Although the kingdoms of Scotland and England remained distinct, the prospect of conflict receded, and the need for an expensive garrison at Berwick seemed much less obvious than it had been. The town was transferred from military to civic command in 1604; by 1616, the garrison consisted only of ‘
two companies and some old pensioners,’ as a survey of crown lands put it.
And Berwick was now no longer an outpost, but an important stopping place on the main arterial route conjoining the king’s two British capitals. At the outset of James’s reign it relied on a somewhat rickety timber bridge – visible on the John Speed map above, and the route into the town taken by Jonson and his companion – which was clearly not a satisfactory state of affairs. So plans for a new, stone bridge, 50 or so yards downstream from the wooden crossing, were set in train. Construction began in 1611, and despite the best efforts of Sir William Bowyer, Jonson’s host in 1618, the project was hit by the usual twin curses of slow progress and ballooning costs. When he visited in 1620, Richard Neile, Bishop of Durham, recorded that ‘
the expenses of his Majesty’s monies rise apace, but the bridge riseth slowly‘. Nevertheless, it was substantially complete by 1624, and still stands today – 1164 feet long, 17 feet wide, and consisting of fifteen elegant arches.
Berwick is one of those places where different stages in the history of human commerce are simultaneously visible, like layers in rock. The timber bridge is long gone, of course, but the Jacobean road bridge has been joined by the grandeur of a Victorian railway viaduct, a fine mid-twentieth century road bridge, and – upstream – the functional crossing which now sweeps the plentiful traffic on the modern A1 past the town.
Berwick is still a border town. A sociolinguistic study at the turn of the century found that people from southern Scotland identified the Berwick accent as English, Northumbrian or Geordie, while people from Northumberland identified it as Scottish. In the summer of 1998, the last time that England and Scotland both reached the World Cup finals, I spent a great afternoon in a lively Berwick pub – the front room was singing Scotland songs, and the back room chanting for England. The local football team, meanwhile, play in the Scottish league, and the era of devolution has on occasion led to speculation about where Berwick’s political future lies. Rivers and bridges are such fecund sites in the topographical imaginary because they can be seen both as dividing and connecting, marking boundaries and enacting their crossing. To this extent, its history has made Berwick itself both a river and a bridge.
On Wednesday 2 September, Ben Jonson and his companion set off from Widdrington Castle, the grand – and long since vanished – home of his main Northumberland host. Sir Harry Widdrington was a Cavendish-Ogle kinsman, a figure of some fame – and notoriety – in the factious world of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics; his brother, Roger Widdrington, and his kinsman Randall Fenwick (here called ‘Randy’, winningly enough – I’d always thought that was a much more recent diminutive) had even been accused of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.
Sir Harry clearly enjoyed his role as host. He’d gone to collect the travellers from Bothal castle and escort them to Widdrington, and had chosen to walk alongside them on the way. On 1 September he’d taken them out hunting, ‘
where we killed a buck‘. Now he was going to show them some of the local sights as they made their way north.
Jonson’s interest in ‘antiquities’ has already been seen in his exploration of Pontefract and Durham. On the road between Widdrington and Alnmouth, however, stood a monument as fine as anything he’d met with before. The approach to the bridge over the River Coquet at Warkworth was – and is – dominated by an imposing and evocative ‘
ancient castle‘, as our writer put it, part of the patrimony of the earls of Northumberland.
The ninth earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, had been incarcerated in the Tower of London since 1605, implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. Warkworth was leased out, and not in the finest state of repair. Indeed, when King James and his entourage visited it in 1617 – also accompanied by Sir Henry Widdrington, ‘
they seemed to grieve at the waste of it, every one of them commending it for the best sight that every they had seen’ despite the ‘goats and sheep in every chamber’. Of the lion carved in a crest on the tower, the king joked ‘
this lion holds up this castle’. Although Northumberland reclaimed Warkworth later in 1618, angry at the neglect visited upon it by the lessee, it was as an evocative ruin – an antiquity, a heritage site – that it was later to become the object of the artistic attentions of Turner, among others.
The castle, though, was not the only heritage site that Warkworth had to offer. A mile upstream could be found what our man calls ‘
the strange Hermitage‘ – The Hermitage of the Holy Trinity, ‘wonderfully built out of a rock-hewn hollow, wrought without beams, rafters, or any pieces of timber’, as William Camden put it, in the cliff above the river Coquet. It consists of a fourteenth century outer chapel and an older inner chapel with an adjacent dormitory lying above a kitchen, and is ornamented with a number of figures chiselled out of the stone in niches. Until the Reformation the earls of Northumberland had employed a chaplain to hold weekly services there. It clearly made an impression on Jonson and his friend, just as it has continued to do for visitors down to this day.
I don’t know about you, but when I visit sights such as this I’m always trying to imagine them in the heyday of their occupation, bustling with daily business or just ordinarily in use in some kind of unfussy way. A lot of the interpretative information you get in guidebooks and on panels points you in that direction, too. I tend, consequently, to forget that some of them have been tourist sites for centuries, their original functions and capacities long since overlaid by their appeal to the curious mind and eye of the visitor. As the ‘Foot Voyage’ reminds us, places such as Warkworth castle have been ‘antiquities’ for much longer than they were ever the settings for quotidian life. What makes them special, to some extent, is just the fact that they have been sites for a kind of secular pilgrimage – sites of memory – for centuries.