About James Loxley

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

The Bottesford Tombs

If you look north from Belvoir Castle, down into the valley towards Newark, one of the most prominent landmarks in front of you is the spire of St Mary’s church, Bottesford. This was the next destination for Jonson and his companion, and another good welcome awaited them:

From thence we were brought by Captain Stratford, Mr Marks and another gentleman of My Lord’s to Bottesford, three miles off Belvoir, where lie all the Earls of Rutland entombed. But by the way, the Earl, my Lord Willoughby, and Sir Robert Willoughby being a hunting and spying us on our journey, galloped over to us, and the Earl bid God send us well on our pilgrimage. At Bottesford, a grave and reverent man called Doctor Fleming gave us great entertainment. And an honest parson Surcot, beneficed hard by, would not part from us till he had made us taste of all the ale thereabouts, and not contented so waylaid us at the town’s end with a pail full of ale, which when he had emptied, we made low curtsey to his red nose, and parted, etc.

Of course, it’s the detail of the red-nosed parson Surcot (rector, it turns out of nearby Muston – hence, ‘hard by’) and his bucket of ale that leaps out at us here – but he, alas, has left little trace behind him. The rector of Bottesford made rather more of an impression on the collective memory – this reverend doctor was Samuel Fleming, formerly of King’s College Cambridge, and one time tutor to the writer Sir John Harington, who later recalled Fleming’s defence of ‘humane learning’, specifically the study and use of rhetoric, against the criticisms of ‘the precise sort [i.e., the self-styled godly, or Puritans], that would have the word and church and all goe naked’. He’d long been chaplain to the earls of Rutland, and also served as a Justice of the Peace. His brother Alexander had been heavily involved in the editing of the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and had died in 1607 while visiting Bottesford; he is commemorated, still, by a small brass plaque in the church. Samuel Fleming was something of a patron to the village, responsible for the construction of a still-functioning bridge and the establishment, according to provisions made in his will, of a hospital for widows.

Monument to John Manners, 4th earl of Rutland

Monument to fourth earl and countess of Rutland

Jonson wasn’t here, though, just to see Dr Fleming, as the reference to the Rutland tombs makes clear. Since the 1540s, the Manners family of Belvoir had turned the chancel of St Mary the Virgin into their own mausoleum, crowding it with some wonderful funerary monuments. When Jonson visited, he’d have been able to admire the completed monuments to the first, second, third and fourth earls. More poignantly, he’d perhaps have been able to inspect the nearly completed work for the monument to Roger, fifth earl of Rutland, and his countess, Elizabeth Sidney, who had died within weeks of each other in 1612. She was the daughter of Sir Philip Sidney, patron of Jonson and the addressee of several of his poems. Speaking to Drummond, Jonson described her as ‘nothing inferior to her father … in poesy’.

The party assembled by Samuel Fleming that July day might have discussed one highly topical issue – the case of the ‘Belvoir witches‘. In 1618, three local women who had formerly served the sixth earl of Rutland were accused of using witchcraft against his sons, both of whom had died young. The women were examined and tried at Lincoln in early 1619, with the earl, Lord Willoughby and Samuel Fleming playing an unhappy part in the proceedings. The eldest, Joan Flower, herself died during the case; her daughters Margaret and Phillip or Philippa were convicted and hanged. When the sixth earl’s monument was added to the choir at Bottesford in the 1630s, it included both visual and verbal reference to the case in lamenting the loss of his ‘two sonnes, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye‘.

Monument to Francis Manners, Bottesford - detail

Detail of inscription on the tomb of sixth earl of Rutland, Bottesford

Daylight Robbery

One of the more intriguing references in the ‘Foot Voyage’ is the brief mention of Stangate Hill:

Frecked by rain, we were fain to take an alehouse at a place called Stukeley, where the minister came to us whose name was Seaborne; where we were warned of Stangate in the Hole…

Why would they be ‘warned’ about this place, a stretch of Ermine Street between Little Stukeley and Stilton? Daniel Defoe, writing nearly a hundred years later, provides an answer:

Hence we came through Sautrey Lane, a deep descent between two hills, in which is Stangate Hole, famous for being the most noted robbing-place in all this part of the country.

We tend to think of highwaymen as an eighteenth century phenomenon, but they were an acknowledged danger to travellers as early as the mid-sixteenth century – earlier, in fact, if you take some of the tales of Robin Hood into account. The term ‘highwayman’, as Gillian Spraggs has shown, was in use by 1617. Places like Stangate Hole (sometimes confused with Stangate in Lambeth) and Shooter’s Hill in Kent were proverbially notorious for ‘robberies committed daily’, as one writer put it in 1606.

Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey 2As Dick Turpin would later become a legendary figure, so the highwaymen of this earlier age were similarly commemorated. One of the most notorious at the beginning of the seventeenth century was Gamaliel Ratsey, a former scholar and soldier from a respectable family who pursued his criminal career in the east midlands; in 1605, after his conviction and execution, he was the subject of a couple of pamphlets recounting his ‘mad pranks’ and celebrating his generosity to the poor. At least one of these exploits – the robbery of a lawyer – is said to have taken place at Stangate Hole.

Interestingly, there’s another Jonsonian connection. In the opening scene of The Alchemist, when Face and Subtle are having an explosive argument, the former threatens the latter’s defamation through, among other things, having an engraving made of him with a ‘face … worse than Gamaliel Ratsey’s’. The suggestion is that Ratsey wore a grotesque mask to help him terrify his intended victims, though this is only speculation.

Later in the ‘Foot Voyage’, it becomes clear that Jonson and his companion are carrying pistols. It was presumably the threat of latterday Ratseys, lurking in some of the dingier parts of the highway, that made this a sensible expedient.

Road Maps

Here’s a thing: how did Jonson and his companion know the way? We’re completely reliant on signposts, maps and, increasingly, GPS, so it’s hard to imagine navigating your way between places without them. In a world before the Ordnance Survey and the A-Z, though, how could they be sure to stay on track?

Nixon, Anthony Footpost image, 1616, p1

Maps from this period don’t tend to show the roads between towns, so carrying a copy of John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain wouldn’t have been much help, even if they could have fitted one in their luggage. Early on, though, the travellers were walking along a very well trodden way indeed – the route of Roman Ermine Street, which headed north out of London making for Lincoln and then York. More use to them, however, would have been the fact that they were sticking to the post route. King James’s double reign made the maintenance of good communication links between London and Edinburgh a high priority, and he ensured that those links were kept in good order. Crucial to this was a quick and efficient way of conveying official correspondence between his two capitals, so the proper organisation of a system of local postmasters was necessary. These postmasters would have the job of ensuring that correspondence was carried up and down the road to the next post town; private travellers could make use of their knowledge of routes and distances, and of the horses they kept ready.

As this reliance on postmasters shows, and as Andrew McRae and Catherine Delano-Smith have pointed out, finding the way required the traveller to be able to make use of local knowledge. Jonson and his companion, therefore, would have been dependent on their hosts in particular localities to guide or escort them, and that’s what we see happening in the account. Usually, they’re being met or taken on their way by local dignitaries and their servants; on one occasion, it says, they hired a guide to show them the way. On occasion, they’re accompanied by perhaps more regular travellers, who might be presumed to have a working knowledge of the way.

Norden, Intended Guide, 1626

Table of distances for Hertfordshire, John Norden, Intended Guide for English Travellers (1625)

By the early seventeenth century, some people were making attempts to gather up these kinds of scattered local information in ways that would be of general use. In 1625, John Norden published his Intended Guide for English Travellers, with its innovative tables for working out distances. Much later came John Ogilby‘s famous and elegant book Britannia, which contained pages of beautiful, scroll-like maps of particular well-travelled highways, and detailed descriptions of the routes to be taken and avoided. Ogilby also introduced accurately standardised distances, rather than relying on local measures or estimates. But none of this would have been available to Jonson.

So we have to imagine his walk as a social enterprise – conducted in company, reliant for guidance and direction on his hosts and fellow travellers. In later generations, poets might wander alone through an unpeopled landscape. But in 1618, walking was a – literally, etymologically – convivial activity.

Let your Digits do the Walking

It starts today! As of 8 o’clock this morning, Ben Jonson’s virtual walk to Edinburgh is underway. He spent last night, no doubt, at the Mermaid or Mitre in the city, or over at the Devil Tavern on Fleet Street, being given a proper send off by his friends. He and his walking companion have now set off along Bishopsgate, heading north. Tonight they’ll get as far as Tottenham, and spend the first of many nights on the road.


You can follow the travellers’ progress here and on Twitter and Facebook – we’ll be tweeting and posting short extracts from the ‘Foot Voyage’ account, with follow up explanations if necessary. The map on the site will show the progress of the walk too, while blog posts will provide some greater context for anyone interested. You can subscribe (over there, to the right) to receive weekly digests, too. We hope you enjoy the journey.

A Good Gossip

One of the most striking features of the ‘Foot Voyage’ is the narrator’s consistent use of the phrase ‘my gossip’ to refer to Jonson. This phrase, in fact, occurs 92 times in total – making ‘gossip’ one of the most commonly occurring words in the account. Yet the sense in which it’s used here is unfamiliar to modern readers, so it merits a degree of explanation.

What, or rather who, is a gossip? To us, of course, it means idle talk, tittle tattle, usually concerning other people’s – often supposedly private, at least personal – affairs. Hence, too, it’s a noun for those who engage in such chatter. And it’s not all that respectable: say the phrase ‘gossip columnist’ and the concomitant mental image isn’t usually anything like Woodward and Bernstein.

Eugene de Blaas, The Friendly Gossips

Now, this meaning was certainly current in the early seventeenth century – and it usually carried, as it still does now, a distinctly gendered (not to say misogynistic) charge. Gossips were female, and they chattered away incontinently and inconsequentially. They could be played on stage for laughs, as Jonson himself knew: in his play The Staple of News he included a parodic chorus consisting of ‘Gossip Mirth’, ‘Gossip Expectation’, ‘Gossip Censure’ and, unsurprisingly, ‘Gossip Tattle’, ‘gentlewomen lady-like attired‘. Given that this was written for an all-male stage, the resulting impersonations can be seen as the perhaps not too remote ancestors of characters like Monty Python’s head-scarved or pinny-wrapped women, or TV’s very own Cissie and Ada. Of course, we’re past all that now, aren’t we?

'Tis Merry When Gossips Meet...

‘Tis Merry When Gossips Meet…

Yet just as current was a meaning now entirely lost to us. In The Staple, the gossips take up seats at the edge of the stage, to which they are entitled – they say – as ‘persons of quality‘. (This was one of those strange customs of the early modern indoor stages: some of the most sought after seats in the house were stools on the margins of the playing area. Let’s bring it back at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse.) Yet when the Prologue asks them ‘what will the Noblemen think, or the grave Wits here, to see you seated on the bench thus?‘ Gossip Mirth replies ‘Why, what should they think? But that they had Mothers, as we had, and those Mothers had Gossips (if their children were christened) as we are, and such as had a longing to see Plays, and sit upon them, as we do, and arraign both them, and their Poets.‘ The obvious comedy here is no doubt to be drawn from the gossips’ presumption of both social and critical standing; but what gives it something of an edge is their grounding of their own claims to status in genuinely weighty social roles: motherhood, of course, but also other kinds of kinship, created not by blood but by baptism.

A gossip, etymologically (but also, for Jonson’s era, currently), was a god-sib, a sibling made such by standing as godparent to one’s child. So your gossips would be your children’s godparents, or the parents of those children for whom you were godparent, or those who were godparents to the same child as you – and they could, of course, be both male and female. So while a gaggle of gossips might bring to mind the kind of domestic or familial intimacy that the early modern world usually saw as feminine, gossips could still, in an uncomplicated way, be men.

Complication, though, arises from the fact that the term could be used to mean other kinds of intimacy. Still in relation to spiritual kinship, your gossip could be your own godparent – bringing in a cross-generational aspect that would seem to sit badly with the word’s roots in ‘sib’ or sibling. And it could also be used imprecisely, or figuratively, to mean – as the OED fetchingly puts it – ‘a familiar acquaintance, friend, chum‘. It could be used for erotic, or at least eroticised, bonds: in their correspondence, both King James and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, addressed each other as ‘gossip’.

So when our narrator calls Ben Jonson his gossip, what does he mean? The short, perhaps disappointing answer is that we can’t tell for sure. What we can say is that he’s laying claim to intimacy: ‘my gossip’, as he says on each of those 92 occasions. Jonson may be the big man (in several senses), the celebrity, the famous and feted author, but to me he’s family. He may be heavy, but he’s also (something like) my brother.

Foot Voyages

Making the trip from London to Edinburgh was hardly unusual in Jacobean Britain. In fact, it was the Jacobean creation of something called ‘Great Britain’ that made it no longer unusual – when James VI became James I he united the crowns of England and Scotland, and gave an antiquarian term of slightly uncertain reach (did it refer to the whole island? Or just the extent of the old Roman province?) new currency. James wanted to be called King of Great Britain. He minted new coinage with his ambitions stamped upon it, and ordered the design of a Union flag; he renamed the border counties either side of the Tweed the ‘middle shires’ and established a commission of representatives from both kingdoms to investigate how best to pursue full union.


Designs for the Union Flag, c.1604

But his grand ambitions could not, then, be fulfilled. Many in the English parliament were alarmed by the kind of radical constitutional change that union would apparently require, and wouldn’t countenance it unless it was essentially the incorporation of Scotland into a greater England; the Scots, for their part, had no desire for their unconquered kingdom to be subsumed by its larger neighbour, as had happened to Wales a century earlier. So plans for full union stalled, and James had to settle for a long game. His two peoples would be brought together piecemeal, one aristocratic marriage at a time.

In the meantime, both peoples had plenty to discover about each other. Scots courtiers found themselves serving in the royal household in England, to the great discontent of English rivals unwilling or unable to get their heads round the dual nature of James’s court. Such courtiers became regulars on the roads between James’s capital cities, and they were joined by others who had a part to play in the increasing business between the kingdoms. When Jonson came to travel these roads in 1618, he was following a familiar route. Indeed, King James himself had made the journey to Edinburgh from London in the summer of 1617, in what was his only return journey to Scotland after his departure for England in 1603.

So a journey north was no longer a great adventure. Promising to walk all the way, however, would turn it into something special. The account in the Aldersey manuscript draws attention to this defining aspect of the journey in its title: this was, it says, a ‘foot voyage’. A similar emphasis on the fact of Jonson’s walking occurs in most other contemporary mentions. Francis Bacon made a literary joke out of it, saying he ‘loved not to see poesy go on other feet than poetical dactylus and spondaius‘. This particular twist would make Jonson’s journey as noteworthy as the clown Will Kemp’s nine day dance to Norwich, or one of John Taylor’s strange excursions – his trip down the Thames in a paper boat, or his own 1618 walk to Edinburgh, made without spending any money along the way. It would be another ‘Famous Voyage’, like some of the comically grand adventures mentioned in Jonson’s disgustingly scatological poem of the same name. It might be made the subject of a wager or two.


Will Kemp dancing to Norwich, from Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder (1600)

Such voyages still take place today. The comedian Tony Hawks hauled a fridge round Ireland, and took his own inspiration from people who’d unicycled across America, or run a backwards marathon. (Funnily enough, one of the feats mentioned by Jonson in the ‘Famous Voyage’ is a walk from London to Berwick undertaken backwards.) Simon Armitage conducted his own ‘penniless pilgrimage’ along the Pennine Way, busking like a modern troubadour. Jonson’s walk was clearly also a public feat (pun intended), even a performance piece. And in choosing to go on foot he was travelling like a pilgrim, eschewing courtly grandeur, bringing his own status and reputation back down to the common earth.