About James Loxley

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

The Outline of a Walk

An initial inspection had provided some clues to the provenance of the Aldersey manuscript – at least, what could be gleaned from looking at how it was put together and the signs of early usage. But that first encounter with the manuscript also raised all sorts of questions relating to the account of the walk itself. Scanning the first page had confirmed, pretty much beyond doubt, that the star of this particular show was indeed Ben Jonson – 8 July, the departure date, was a Wednesday in 1618, just as the opening sentence said, and Lady Mary Wroth would hardly have turned out to greet just anyone along the road at Waltham.

But that confirmation itself brought the slightly stunned realisation that there were bound to be more revelations in the pages that followed. And there were quite a few pages – another 40, in fact. There wasn’t going to be time that day to transcribe it all, so it became a matter of trying to get something like a handle on the scope of the whole thing, rather than focusing on particular details. The fine-grained stuff would have to wait.

So a quick estimate of the word count: those 41 pages contained, it appeared, something like 8,000 words. A pause to take that in. Then, back to scanning the first page to see what could be said, initially at least, about the style and manner of the account. Was this the work of a proto-Boswell, following an earlier larger-than-life Mr Jonson and jotting down his words? Would this give us further glimpses of Ben Jonson’s trenchant opinions on his contemporaries and their writing?

Robert Mansell

Sir Robert Mansell (c.1570-1652), by an unknown artist

Perhaps surprisingly, given Jonson’s reputation for sounding off, it appeared not. The account continued as it began – focused on the itinerary of the journey, and a careful and presumably pretty comprehensive listing of who they met. Proper names – of places and people – began to pile up. Some of them, like Mary Wroth, I knew well. Others rang a muffled bell or two – wasn’t this Robert Mansell, for example, something to do with the Jacobean navy? Others still were utterly unknown to me – they’d need some investigation. But here they all were, attendant on Ben Jonson as he walked his way up the road to Edinburgh.

As I skimmed the pages that followed, I could see that these early emphases were sustained throughout – days on the road passed, and the itinerary grew longer. Moments of colour and detail came into view: something on the weather here, a reference to drink or food or the mood and manner of ‘mine host’ there, over the page an encounter with minstrels or tinkers. Belvoir Castle seemed to flash by; but it looked as if the travellers were spending plenty of time at Welbeck Abbey. In passing, the account described visits to long vanished places such as  the original Worksop Manor and an unslighted Pontefract Castle. There were inns and ordinaries, postmasters’ houses, hospitable widows. And throughout it all the cast list grew longer and even longer. By the time that obviously Scottish names began to dominate, it was clear that there were hundreds of people mentioned here: this was nothing less than a cross-section of society along the road linking King James’s two largest kingdoms.


The original 16th century Worksop Manor, burned down in 1761

And then, abruptly, the account came to a halt in a list of Scottish harbour towns. But the writing in this hand continued: some odd bits and pieces, which looked like jests of some sort (Ben was known for his jokes, wasn’t he? Wasn’t there a popular eighteenth century book actually called Ben Johnson’s Jests?).  Some strange details re kidney stones, followed by what looked like historical notes mainly relating to York. And then four pages which were something about ‘Doggs Language’. What on earth..?

This was going to need some sorting out. There would have to be visits to archives and record offices, lengthy enquiry into local, regional and national histories, cross-checking against all of Ben Jonson’s work. There were going to be puzzles and conundrums and unanswerable questions. It was clearly going to take a while. In fact, and so far, four years.

A Document Speaks

Even in its first few lines, the ‘Foot Voyage’ had provided some pretty startling insights, and raised some pretty big questions. But it clearly promised, and raised, many more: what else could be hidden in this less than prepossessing thing? There wasn’t time, on that first visit, to make a thorough transcription, so it seemed best to try to take a proper look at the whole document, and then to gauge the extent of the account I had begun to read.

The manuscript had obviously not attracted much attention for a very long time. While this can be a problem, of course – and the evidence of mouse bites and water damage wasn’t all that encouraging – it also meant that it didn’t seem to have been much tampered with. It looked like these were all of the original sheets, still bound together in their original order. No later owner had had it trimmed or rebound, losing either marginal text or evidence of how it was put together. These 32 leaves, or 64 pages, were made from 8 sheets of paper; each sheet had been folded twice to produce ‘quarto‘ sized gatherings. The outermost leaves, both front and back, seemed not to have been opened to make separate pages; they were also made of a different kind of paper from that used by the writer of the account. It looked as if they had been added on to provide some basic covers for the sheets they enclosed. The whole thing had been stitched along the spine in a basic but competent fashion; leafing through the pages it was easy to see that this had happened after the account had been written, since the ends of some lines disappeared under the stitching.

Shelton, Tachygraphy

Thomas Shelton, Tachygraphy

There was, though, evidence of a further early stage in its history. At what appeared to be the back of the manuscript there were several pages of code or cipher in a seventeenth century hand, all of it upside down: someone had ‘reversed’ the manuscript, and begun to write on the blank pages left at its end. This was hardly unusual – people in the seventeenth century were disinclined to waste paper, and often used up blank pages and spaces even in printed books. But that indicated that this little manuscript had been repurposed fairly early on its history, since the coded writing made use of the system of shorthand devised by Thomas Shelton, first published in its full form in a 1635 book entitled Tachygraphy, and used most famously by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The writer here, though, had written out nothing more exciting than the first chapters of the Book of Job – shorthand exercises, perhaps.

So what could be made of this? Someone had made themselves a little booklet, written the account in it, then bound it between paper covers and stitched it all together. The attempt to enclose and protect perhaps suggested that it had been intended for circulation among readers, rather than to lie in a private desk. At some point, possibly as early as a decade after it was made, it had found itself in the possession of an owner who was more interested in practising shorthand than in reading up on the adventures of Ben Jonson. And then there were no further signs of ownership or use. The waves, as it were, closed over it.

Barnaby the Bright

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), after Van Dyck; friend of Ben Jonson

Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), after Van Dyck

If Jonson did indeed set out on his walk on 8 July 1618, as the account suggests, then he was just about 4 weeks past his 46th birthday – well into middle age, certainly, but not necessarily past it. Judging by comments he makes in poems written at the time, he would fit some aspects of the profile for the sixth of man’s seven ages – ‘in fair round belly with good capon lined’, as Jaques famously puts it in As You Like It – but might well balk at others: the figure of the self-proclaimed ‘justice’ is one that he can’t help satirising in his plays, however attractive such judicial poses might seem to him on other occasions.

That Jonson was born in 1572 has been established only relatively recently. The day and month of his birth, however, are plainly stated in a poem he wrote late in life honouring his friend and patron, Sir Kenelm Digby. There, he draws attention to Digby’s 1628 naval battle against a French and Venetian fleet at Iskenderun, or ‘Scandaroon’, on the mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey, an escapade that had made something of a hero of Digby on his return to England. In his poem, Jonson is pleased to note that ‘the action done at Scandaroon’ had taken place ‘Upon my birthday, the eleventh of June, / When the apostle Barnaby the bright / Unto our year doth give the longest light…’ (The Underwood, 78, lines 13-16).

June 11 was St Barnabas’s day, and he was proverbially known as ‘Barnaby the bright’ because this, by the Julian calendar then in use in England, was the longest day of the year. In his Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser had written that ‘the sunne is in his chiefest hight, With Barnaby the bright’ (line 266). There was even a proverbial rhyme: ‘Barnaby Bright, the longest day and the shortest night’. So Jonson was a midsummer baby, celebrating his nativity on the summer solstice. The decision to set off for Edinburgh in the middle of summer was no doubt shaped by the kind of seasonal considerations reflected in this proverb – not just the chance of warmer weather, and better roads, but also the length of the day itself, since walking between towns without street lighting along roads with neither lights nor signposts would be much more difficult in the dark. As he progressed through the weeks, the days would start to shorten; but then, as he went along, he’d find that some of that shortening was offset by the longer summer days in the north – while he’d lose an hour of daylight over the month of July if he stayed in London, he’d find he’d only have lost half an hour, relative to the length of the day at his starting point, if he made it to Edinburgh within that time.

Bright early mornings, then, and long, late evenings. Plenty of daylight to allow the travellers to cover the distance between staging posts, and – just as importantly – to give them time to enjoy the pleasures of the places they’d be passing through.

Setting Off

So this is how it begins: ‘Wee set out of London on Wensday the eight of Iuly and reach’d that night to Totnam high crosse, where wee lodgd at the [be] Beare &c. By the way thether wee met with the Shake-ragg errant, and his two doxes etc…’ It took a little while to work some of that out, despite the general clarity and ease of the writing. For a split second, as I began to transcribe ‘Shake-ragg’, there was the terrifying thought that the word was ‘Shakespeare’ – I’m not sure I’d have been up for the sort of hoopla that could have  come with that. Very happy to see it instead shape up into this colourful and obsolete term for, as the OED puts it, a ‘ragged, disreputable person’. And anyway, Shakespeare would have ruled out Jonson – the walk was definitely 1618, some two years after his old friend’s death.

One important question was immediately askable: could this departure from London be dated to 1618? Was July 8 in fact a Wednesday that year? A check established that it was – by the then-current Julian calendar – so that was a step in a good direction. But no guarantee, of course – this could still be some other Johnson entirely, and a different year. Reading on would presumably decide things:

‘From thence to Waltam, where my Lady Wroth came to my Gossip etc…’

London map showing Shakespearean theatres

London map showing theatres – detail

So from a shake-ragg and his doxies to more elevated company: Lady Mary Wroth, of all people. At that point, conviction grew: given their connection, this really did look like him. This was probably Jonson – this was his walk, datestamped and waymarked. Details lost for centuries began to clarify: if they walked from London to Tottenham, they must have left the city by Bishopsgate and headed up the Old North Road, now the A10; past the still-operating Curtain, and the site of the Theatre – whose timbers became the first Globe – on up to Tottenham.

And then, the next day, straight up the Hertford road to Waltham Cross, past – I was delighted to note, being a Spurs fan of long standing – what was many years later to become White Hart Lane. This was getting better and better!

And then other questions crowded in to trouble the clarity. How interesting, that Lady Wroth should come out from her own house a few miles away to meet him on the road! Was that what had happened? The account didn’t seem to offer any further information. And it didn’t say anything about what passed between them – how she greeted him, how he responded, the tone of their conversation. A mention, and then further names, none of which were anything like as familiar or easily identifiable.

Then a bigger question: who was writing this? Like many others, I’d always imagined a solitary Ben Jonson trudging up the country – there was no evidence to suggest otherwise, though when the royal waterman and poet John Taylor went on his ‘penniless pilgrimage’ to Scotland that same summer he had a horse and servant with him. In his 1973 play Bingo, Edward Bond had Jonson say to Shakespeare, in 1616: ‘I’m off to Scotland soon. Walking. Alone. Well, no one would come with me’. Only someone did. But who?

Getting the Measure

The moment when you open an archival document isn’t always a happy one. Sometimes, the heart sinks: the thing is unreadable for some reason – damaged, dirty, otherwise illegible – or just obviously not what you’re after. Sometimes, it’s daunting: you were expecting a thin sheaf of papers, and a huge box turns up; or it’s a folio volume with hundreds of pages, scrawled all over in a tiny and offputting hand. You know then that you’re going to be a while.

But on other occasions the manuscript is more simply inviting – it looks like you could get the measure of it soon enough, and you know it will have something to say to you if you ask it nicely. You just hope then that you’ll be able to understand what it says.

So it was with this: a small manuscript of 32 leaves, not in the best nick (the mice had been at it; the outer leaves were more than showing their age) and clearly not much messed with in several centuries. Opening the document, there were a few blank leaves still joined at the top – this first group was a single sheet, folded twice to produce, originally, four leaves, but not written on. The text began on the fifth leaf with the title quoted in the catalogue, written in an elegant italic hand that could certainly be dated to the first half of the seventeenth century. And then the main body of the text in a neat, mostly secretary hand, with regular spacing and lineation. I always find that it takes a while to get your eye in when you look at a hand for the first time, as it does when your sight adjusts to changes in light levels. Only after that can you begin to take in what you’re now starting to read.

Opening Questions

What sent me off to Chester was a catalogue entry describing a ‘Manuscript account of “My Gossip ? Joh[n]son his foot voyage and myne into Scotland” from London’, dated to the seventeenth century. That Ben Jonson had undertaken such a walk in the summer of 1618 was well known; but it was also well known, because Jonson says so in his poem ‘An Execration Upon Vulcan’, that his own account of the walk had been lost in a fire in his house some five years later. I certainly hadn’t heard of anyone going with him, or of any other account being written. So what was this? Continue reading