About James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

Hey Ho, the Wind and the Rain

Walking out of York, the travellers seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of a change in the weather. Perhaps they could feel it coming on, or knew that fine conditions were unlikely to last: they decided not to take a detour to spend the night at Sir Henry Frankland’s house at Aldwark, three miles west of Tollerton, but press on a further nine miles to Topcliffe, ‘desiring to take advantage of the fairness of the weather‘, as the account puts it.

Copyright Beinecke Library

Charles Stanhope’s annotations to his copy of Jonson’s Works, now in the Beinecke Library, Yale

In so doing, they abandoned a plan to meet up with Sir Edward Stanhope, who was – interestingly enough – the cousin both of Sir John Stanhope, who’d assaulted Sir Charles Cavendish of Welbeck in 1599, and of Charles, later Baron Stanhope, who left some enigmatic annotations in his copy of an edition of Jonson’s Works, including the claim to have met Jonson at Lyon when the poet was travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh’s son, the imaginatively named Wat, in 1612-13. I hope the two knights weren’t too put out  – you can imagine them sat silent in the acutely empty hall at Aldwark, more than a bit deflated by the news of their intended guest’s sudden change of plan.

Needs must, however, and for a long distance walker the weather isn’t a factor easily ignored. Jonson and his companion seem to have had a reasonably easy time of it up till now, at least if the account is faithfully taking note of conditions. Only two spells of rain are mentioned: at Hoddesdon it had thundered and rained, and delayed their progress for most of the day, while north of Huntingdon they’d been ‘frecked by rain‘ – ‘freck’ here being either a shortened form of ‘freckle’ or a variant of ‘freak’, meaning dappled or flecked. It’s a great but rare word – used, so the OED tells me, by George Sandys in his translation of Ovid and then, much later, by John Clare. It catches the experience of being touched by raindrops falling thinly enough to be felt individually, rather than merging – as they often go on to do – into a more general, more thoroughly wettening, rain. These are the gradations that you become aware of, and that matter, when you spend a lot of time outdoors.

Raindrops_on_water resized

Here, though, north of York, the conditions appear to have become notably worse. Having made it through dry to Topcliffe, they spent the next day ‘shut up with rain‘. When they set out again on the following morning they were forced to divert to Sandhutton (not to be confused, confusingly enough, with Sand Hutton), ‘where we shifted by reason of a huge shower [which] overtook us‘. They were to arrive wet at Darlington the next day, but the worst was still to come. As the companion somewhat miserably records, north of Ferryhill they were assailed by a storm: ‘by the way I lost my gossip, and came muck wet‘ to Durham. Another fine phrase, that – very wet, soaked through – noted now by the OED as an English dialect term, but its origins not all that well described. ‘Muck’ here is an intensifier, but does it come from the same root as ‘mickle’, sometimes given as ‘muckle’, meaning ‘much’ or ‘a lot’? Or does it instead stem from the word ‘muck’ meaning ‘dirt’? In fact, it could be both: there is a now relatively unusual phrase, ‘wet as muck’, which works on the same principle as ‘common as muck’, but uses ‘muck’ to mean ‘very’ or ‘completely’, seemingly losing any association with dirt – hence the otherwise not very intelligible phrases ‘drunk as muck’ and ‘sick as muck’.

Though I imagine that nothing could have been further from our bedraggled author’s thoughts as he trudged into Durham that day. After all, being soaked by rain and blown about by wind tends to concentrate the mind on matters more immediate and less abstruse then etymology. And there was also, now, the small matter of finding his walking companion: unsurprisingly, as the account notes, he went looking in the nearest inn.

The King in the North

York is a significant presence in the ‘Foot Voyage’, and clearly more than an incidental destination. When Jonson and his companion pitched up at Thomas Key’s fine inn, The George in Coney Street (long since demolished, more’s the pity) they were ‘no sooner housed but diverse came to see us‘. There were plenty of people keen to greet the walkers, and to offer them a lavish welcome to what was then England’s second city.

York Minster

York Minster

It’s clear that the travellers went off to do a bit of sightseeing, since appended to the ‘Foot Voyage’ account in the Aldersey manuscript are some antiquarian notes in the same hand on a couple of notable events in York’s history, combined with observations on heraldic detail in the Minster. The historical episodes recalled in these notes are moments of national and international political significance: the elaborate celebrations for the marriage of Henry III’s daughter, Margaret, to Alexander III of Scotland, at York Minster on 26 December 1251, which were attended by many of the nobility and knights of both kingdoms, and the public ceremony and feast for the installation of George Neville as archbishop in 1465, a byword at the time for conspicuous consumption. The notes include an abbreviated version of the extensive list of provisions, fuller instances of which survive in other sources.

We also have the companion’s record of a visit he made – without his gossip – to a very grand building to the north west of the city centre:

This day Mr Walter, my Lord President’s steward, showed me the new manor which the king hath new built where St Mary’s monastery stood, and carried me down into the cellar, which is the fairest, largest, and fullest of light that I have seen. Two springs of excellent sweet water rising in the middest thereof.

This is the King’s Manor, which had its origins in a palace hastily constructed on seized monastic lands for a visit by Henry VIII. The new complex was constructed on the orders of James VI and I as the seat for the Council of the North, the instrument of royal government for the whole of the north of England – the ‘Lord President’ mentioned here was Edmund Sheffield, President of the Council until 1619. Construction of the imposing building began in 1611, and by 1616 had already cost £1000; the new manor incorporated the only remaining part of Henry’s palace, the extensive cellar which so impressed Jonson’s companion.

King's Manor

The King’s Manor, York

So what the travellers find in York is a city which is its own centre of political and historical gravity. Interestingly, King James had once spoken of a plan – or threat – to set up his court at York, the union of the Scottish and English crowns raising the possibility of the city’s reinvention as a new nation’s capital.

Sir Arthur Ingram

Sir Arthur Ingram

And it’s notable that Jonson’s other host here, who ‘sent to my Gossip telling him he hoped he would take none other house but his whilst he was in town’, should be the magnate and monopolist Sir Arthur Ingram. Formerly one of the company of wits who met at the Mitre in London, and rebuffed in his attempts to secure court office, he concentrated instead on his growing estates in Yorkshire: he acquired the position of secretary to the Council of the North in 1613, and subsequently bought a lease of the crown’s rights in the alum industry. He built himself an impressive house in York while continuing to accumulate property, office and influence in the county; by 1625, his estates yielded between £4,000 and £5,000 per year. He was living proof – to set alongside the architectural evidence – of York’s capacity to sustain, among other qualities, grand ambition.

Read more stories about York at www.yorkstories.co.uk.

The Ben Jonson Show

When Jonson and his companion left Welbeck on the morning of 6 August, walking on towards Gervase Clifton’s house at Hodsock Priory and the great north road beyond that, they were bringing the curtain down on one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole adventure. Yet while what happened here, as recorded in the ‘Foot Voyage’, is remarkable in itself, it is also significant for what it says about who Ben Jonson was – or, at least, could be.

Velazquez, Bacchus

Velazquez, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629

The predominant note is one of unbridled and well lubricated festivity. During his visit to nearby Worksop, we find Jonson going in search of a Welsh goldsmith whose drinking ‘cans’ he has seen at Belvoir, a pair of which he now wishes to acquire for himself. At the workshop they find some exceptionally capacious vessels, and filling these according to the proverbially generous ‘London measure’ they hand them round to anyone passing by. On their last day in the Cavendish household, the account seems to suggest that dinner was punctuated by some kind of pissing contest – you can almost picture the diners staggering off, one after the other, to attempt the toilet challenge that has somehow struck them as a good idea. If this interpretation is even half right, then there would seem to be little sign here of any conformity to ideals of refined and noble hospitality. Earthy humour, rather, would seem to be the order of the day.

This is just as evident in the extraordinary licence allowed to Jonson by his hosts: twice, the account says, he is explicitly granted the freedom of Welbeck when his hosts leave to visit Jane Talbot, Countess of Shrewbury, at Rufford:

Sir William with my old Lady Candish and his own lady went to Rufford, and resigned the whole house to my gossip etc., commanding his steward and all the rest of the officers to obey my gossip in all things, which authority he did as freely put in execution.

The account goes on to say how he used his new authority, making preparations for another feast of venison, and throwing open the wine cellar. Yet equally significant is that he began to play the part of the lord of this particular manor – appointing a local gentleman as his ‘woodman’, a kind of forest officer, and perhaps even – on one reading of a somewhat enigmatic sentence – making ‘fat Harry Ogle’ – one of Sir William Cavendish’s kinsmen and most trusted of retainers – ‘mistress’ of the household over which he was now presiding.

The ‘Foot Voyage’ also highlights how this role-playing continued once the real mistress of the house returned, with Jonson acting the part of an irascible host, barking at his staff like an overbearing and ill-tempered alpha-boss:

Presently upon our return the ladies came, whom Mr Jonson welcomed to his house, and at supper bid them want nothing, for if they did it was not his fault. Chafed at the table for lights, and checked the waiters because there was no more new bread, which freedom of his mingled with a great deal of mirth much delighted the ladies.

The important point here, of course, is that Jonson was acting up for his patron’s amusement – this was a comic performance, for which he adopted a persona calculated to entertain his chosen audience. This is something, I would suggest, that we see quite a lot in Jonson’s writing, though we’re not perhaps as good at spotting it as we should be. Jonson is one of the most self-conscious of early modern writers, in the sense of attempting to cultivate a particular kind of authorial persona. That persona can seem unsympathetic, to say the least, to many readers. When posturing in this way, Jonson comes across as pompous, self-aggrandising and pretentious. We have become used to seeing him, in this mode, as unintentionally comic, with his aspiration towards authorial glory given the lie by his scholarly pedantry, his rejection by theatre audiences, or the embarrassingly proximate and far more substantial achievement of Shakespeare.

Yet this particular joke may be on us, after all. At Welbeck we see Jonson self-consciously playing the role of overweening Ben, in the context of a festive interlude in which he is set up – to his apparent delight – as a kind of lord of misrule. Perhaps, when we recoil from or laugh at his impersonation of the pompous poet, we are mistaking the kind of self-consciousness there on show; perhaps, some of the time at least, ‘Ben Jonson’ is actually one of Ben Jonson’s finest comedic creations.

de Vos, Bacchus

Cornelis de Vos, The Triumph of Bacchus

Worksop Manor: Falling Floors and Ghostly Paces

One of the fun things about the ‘Foot Voyage’ account is its capacity to illuminate rather more than the life and progress of its central character. In recording Jonson’s pilgrimage through Jacobean Britain, the companion has accidentally – or perhaps incidentally – captured details about the people and places encountered on the way that aren’t known to us from other sources. And despite his anonymity, he’s also revealed some information about himself that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to get from a 400 year old written record.

Worksop Manor

Worksop Manor

We can see this clearly in what the account has to say about Jonson’s visit to Worksop Manor on August 2 1618. The house they were going to see stood a mile to the west of the town of Worksop itself, and was a well known architectural landmark. In the late 1570s or early 1580s George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury and husband to ‘Bess of Hardwick’, instigated an extensive remodelling and enlargement of an existing hunting lodge on the site, under the direction and to the designs of the famous Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson. The resulting building was strikingly tall and extensively glazed, a ‘lantern and skyscraper of a house’, as Mark Girouard has put it; its gallery was particularly famous throughout England for its size and its position on the second floor of the building. But this incarnation of the Manor doesn’t survive: it burned down in 1761, after having undergone extensive rebuilding and renovation.

Our knowledge of Smythson’s Worksop Manor therefore derives from some surviving architectural drawings, engravings of questionable accuracy, and what can be gleaned from records of royal visits and relevant estate accounts. To these we can now add the ‘Foot Voyage’, since the house made a strong impression on the writer and his notes include some details which, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t been found elsewhere.

Here’s what he says:

We were first brought up to the great chamber, the floor whereof fell down when the king was there, a wonderful fair room; then to the king’s chamber, far beyond that, and after to the gallery, who for the bigness and beauty thereof exceedeth most that I have seen. It is fourscore and fifteen of my paces long. There are some eight large windows, in which are set the coats and arms of all the dukes, earls and barons of England. The house is as goodly as I have seen both for the height, situation and form of building. It stands in a park which is eight miles about, furnished with the tallest, straightest and largest oaks that ere I saw, and hath had in it at one time 1500 deer; eleven hundred died in the great snow.

The information the account gives us on the gallery windows – not their number, which we know from other sources, but their inclusion of noble coats of arms – would appear to be new. But this probably seems far less arresting than the suggestion that the floor of the great chamber fell down during a royal visit – probably King James’s stay at Worksop on his journey south in 1603, when he was entertained by Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, and ceremonially welcomed to the house by a young William Cavendish. There doesn’t appear to be any other record of the king being caught up in an architectural calamity here, and one might expect something as serious as a falling floor to have been at least mentioned elsewhere. But here we too have to tread carefully: the account actually spells the word ‘flower’, which is an attested spelling for ‘floor’ in this period, but could of course mean something else – what, though, it is hard to say, as there doesn’t seem to be an architectural meaning for ‘flower’ that would make sense in the context. And if it does indeed mean ‘floor’, this may not have been quite the structural failure it would seem to be at first glance, because ‘floor’ could also mean ‘ceiling’ – so what we’re talking about here is most probably some dodgy plasterwork, rather than a major disaster. Embarrassing, perhaps, for Shrewsbury, and a bit of a nasty headache for both the household and anyone in the vicinity when it came down, but perhaps neither life- nor house-threatening.

Worksop Manor

Worksop Manor in the 18th century

And then there are the measurements. Given that the gallery at Worksop was famed for its size, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the writer chose to pace it out for himself. What I find rather winning about this – and I admit, this is a bit nerdy – is that we can actually compare this with the known length of the gallery, as recorded in a surviving plan. It was, in fact, 212 feet long. A quick calculation tells us, therefore, that the writer’s stride was about 27 inches, or 68.5 centimetres. So what? Well, it is possible to calculate someone’s height, at least roughly, from the length of their stride, and using a standard formula we can estimate that someone with a stride of that length was probably about 1.65m, or 5′ 5″, tall.

I like that. Among the traces that Jonson’s companion left us are his own paces, echoing down the gallery of a long-vanished country house. We may not be able to uncover his name, his age, his parentage or any of the usual details, but the ghostly figure we have to imagine at least has an approximate height.

A Week at Welbeck

Jonson’s visit to Welbeck Abbey, the home of Sir William Cavendish – later Earl, Marquis and Duke of Newcastle – was clearly one of the highlights of his journey north. It occupies more than 1,000 words in the ‘Foot Voyage’ account, a fair proportion of the total. What’s more, many of the account’s most colourful incidents and details are to be found here.

Elizabeth Bassett, Countess of Newcastle

Cavendish was on the rise – he’d come into his inheritance only the previous year, and he was keen to enhance his own, and his family’s, status. The account confirms that he’d recently married Elizabeth Bassett, an heiress of considerable means, though this alliance doesn’t seem to have been known about in London till later in the year. As we’ll see, he had a specific commission in mind when he invited Jonson into his home – one which was designed to endow this branch of the Cavendish family with some of the trappings of nobility.

Cavendish’s late father, Sir Charles, had done much to cultivate these ambitions, and to ensure that his son and heir was in a position to prosecute them effectively. So it’s no surprise to discover from the account that the first thing Sir William did was take bibliophile Ben and his companion up to his father’s library, ‘which besides the neatness and curiosity of the place, the books were many and of especial choice‘. From there, the account says, they were taken to ‘his room of evidences, in handsomeness equal to the other with boxes all about it‘. A ‘room of evidences’ is a kind of muniments room, a secure and special place for storing proofs of property ownership – documents of entitlement, genealogy and inheritance, all the evidence for the dynastic family’s sense of its own importance. Here, though, in addition to boxes full of parchment, we find something else – specifically, ‘all the spoils Sir Charles had brought away from Sir John Stanhope‘.

These ‘spoils’ were weapons:

two pistols, a staff with two pikes in it, a rapier that reached to my nose, and a basket hilt sword as long as that, another sword with a great basket hilt dagger. And there was the cudgel which Sir Charles had bastinadoed Sir John with before, and upon it written ‘the staff that Sir John Stanhope was beaten with.’

The placing of these ‘spoils’ in Welbeck’s inner sanctum shows how a grisly 1599 fight between Sir William’s father and one of his rivals for place and power in the north midlands had already become part of Cavendish family mythology. It was a particularly vicious episode in a long-running feud between the Stanhopes and the family and allies of Gilbert Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury. Cavendish, having ridden out to inspect the work on a house he was then building at Kirkby-in-Ashfield, was ambushed by Sir John Stanhope and a posse of armed retainers; despite being outnumbered, and wounded, Sir Charles and his own servants overcame their attackers and administered a humiliating beating to Stanhope. Until now, our main source for the details of this nasty skirmish has been a letter of protest sent by Cavendish immediately afterwards to the authorities in London, and quoted by the gossipy letter writer John Chamberlain (an almost identical copy survives among the Portland papers at the University of Nottingham). The ‘Foot Voyage’ retells the story, and shows how it was becoming embellished as it passed into family legend:

[Sir John Stanhope] with thirteen well-appointed [men], armed with Pistols, swords, and staves, two of them being Fencers which had took the Sacrament to kill him [i.e. Sir Charles Cavendish], set upon him, having but Mr Harry Ogle, his Groom and Page in his company. Being first shot as he lighted of his horse through the groin and into the buttock, After which wound he slew those two that had sworn his death, and made himself master of their weapons, another left dead and all the rest hurt and put to flight.

It’s the new detail of these vengeful ‘fencers’ – professional swordsman – that does it: despite its difficult syntax, in this telling of the story the supporting characters are given colour and motivation, made over into more malign and determined opponents for Sir Charles to vanquish. In showing these spoils and telling their story, Sir William Cavendish was surely hoping to influence his guest’s impressions not only of Welbeck, but also of the aspirational family who lived there.

Welbeck Abbey in the seventeenth century

Welbeck Abbey in the seventeenth century

The Buzz of a Big Town

The travellers’ arrival at Newark is one of those points in the walk where we see plans giving way to events. ‘We had purposed to lie at Mr Atkinson’s, the postmaster’s‘, it says, ‘but Wombwell of the Hart subtly anticipated us‘. Newark was a busy place, wrote an observer in 1609, ‘a great thoroughfare town and a post town, and the Kinges Majesties subjects doe usually travell from the north parts into the south parts through the said town, and lykewyse back again‘.

Newark, Market square

Market square, Newark

It seems that two of its most prominent hosts were vying with each other for the privilege of accommodating this important visitor. William Wombwell’s trump card here may well have been the White Hart itself, one of the grandest and oldest inns in Newark, which was located in the south west corner of the market square and distinguished by its ornately decorated fifteenth century front range. Miraculously, much of this part of the building survives to this day, and it is now a branch of the Nottingham Building Society. Inside, you can still see seventeenth century wall decorations similar, if not identical, to those which would have greeted Jonson when he arrived here.

Newark, old White Hart inn 2

Front range, Old White Hart inn, Newark

Comfortably parked in this corner of Newark’s bustling market square, Jonson and his companion took the opportunity to relax and let the world come to them. Scots courtiers – regular users, now, of this north road – passed through. John Twentyman of the Saracen’s Head – a rival inn almost next door to the White Hart – gave them ‘good sport‘. Local gentry families entertained them. The vicar, Edmund Mason, was a member of such a family, and also a man with ample court and literary connections. He had counted the actor and playwright Nathan Field and the poet Francis Beaumont among his associates; in 1615, he played several parts in the performance of George Ruggle’s neo-Latin satire Ignoramus before the king and Prince Charles at Cambridge. Indeed, Mason was tutor to the prince, probably prior to his appointment at Ordsall in 1614, and from at least 1621 a chaplain-in-ordinary at court: his Sermon Preached at Oatlands was published in 1622 by royal command. His fellow royal chaplain, the poet and later bishop Richard Corbet, celebrates Mason as ‘a man whose Tongue and Life is eloquent’ in his lengthy travel poem Iter Boreale [‘A Northern Journey’], written in the early 1620s.

So the conversation at Newark was undoubtedly good – good enough, perhaps, to explain a stay of four days in this lively place. But there were other diversions: ‘here were fireworks and bull baiting‘, the account says. Newark had a castle and a garrison, so perhaps the pyrotechnics originated there. And the market square features, even now, a bear or bull baiting post, though it isn’t of seventeenth century vintage and probably also isn’t in the original location. Given that the travellers stayed from Friday till Tuesday, it’s possible that ‘the Lord’s holy sabbath‘ was ‘profaned‘ with these and like recreations – ‘Beare and Bull baiting, … dicing and carding, … May games and morrice dance‘, as the more godly complained. If it was, then it’s hard to imagine Jonson being too fussed about it.