‘Upoun ane bancquett made to Benjamin Jonson…’

On 26 September 1618, one of Edinburgh’s officials hastened to where Jonson was staying in Leith. Earlier that Friday, the city’s council had decided to make Jonson an honorary burgess and guild brother. With abject apologies for the delayed nature of his official entertainment, Jonson was asked if you would accept this honour, and to grace the city’s burgesses with his attendance at a banquet the following day.

James Ainslie's bill for BJ dinnerFrom the burgh’s treasurer accounts a month later, we see that this dinner cost the astonishing sum of £221 6s 4d. The city councillors had clearly wanted to make a good impression of their civility and prosperity, and for Jonson to report back favourably to his royal master. Jonson was to keep a memento of this occasion in the form of a ‘burgess ticket’, a certificate showing his enrollment in the burgh community – the equivalent of a guild member of an English town. In January 1619, the treasurer’s accounts record the thirteen pounds paid to Alexander Paterson ‘for writing and gilding of Benjamin Jonson’s burgess ticket being thrice written’.

Honorary burgess-ship had been given to both Jonson and his fellow traveller in Dunfermline, but in the grander civic community of Edinburgh, the companion did not make the grade. Edinburgh’s council was showing a restraint here that had been lacking in the liberal granting of such honours the previous year, to the assorted bunch accompanying the king on his return to Edinburgh. At two consecutive dinners, over scores of honorary burgesses were created from the highest noble to the more lowly court attendants.

Determinedly grabbing this fleeting opportunity to curry favour with James VI and I, the richness of the council’s entertainment reflected the sad sense of loss that many Scotsmen had felt on his departure south in 1603. As John Hay, the clerk deputy’s speech to James on his entry to Edinburgh had extolled: the

‘happy day of our new birth, wherein our eyes behold the greatest human felicity our hearts could wish which is to feed upon the Royal countenance of our true Phoenix, the bright Star of our Northern Firmament, the ornament of our age, wherein we are revived with the best and bright beams of our sun… by whose removing from us we were darkened, deep sorrow and fear possessing our hearts.’

The extravagance of the royal dinners caused much comment. Erected on the Royal Mile, close to the parliament hall and St Giles’s cathedral

‘There was a house built of timber and glass, made of purpose for it, hung with tapestry. There were above four score young men of Edinburgh, all in gold chains, that served. They had such varieties of meats, fish, and provision, that an Englishman who was a master of household himself said: I have been all over Europe and now come to Scotland, and whereas I thought there should have been nothing here, I have seen the best both for variety of meats, and also for service. The second day of the banquet, the courtiers, with many others, were invited, and after dinner were made burgesses. I speak nothing of those pleasant sorts of melodies, music, wines.’

The Presbyterian historian and minister David Calderwood was later to write deeply disapprovingly of the wines running in the fountains.

On Tour in Scotland

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.’

Mons Meg

Mons Meg in the 1680s

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.

Culross Palace

Sir George Bruce’s house at Culross

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.’


A Scottish noblewoman practising archery

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.

Sky over Leith

A wide sky over Leith

This is Ben Jonson Crossing the Border…

Bicycle Border_sign_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1747439After another fine dinner in Berwick-on-Tweed, Jonson was escorted two miles northwards by the gentlemen of the town. At this point, yet more wine was drunk and a volley of shots fired. Jonson took one step further, and crossed England’s frontier into Scotland.

In days past, that gunfire would not have been so friendly, for only fifteen years before the Anglo-Scottish border had been an international division between two previously hostile countries. When English and Scottish armies were not etching trails of devastation from Newcastle to Edinburgh, the borderers themselves were raiding each other’s livestock, and burning their enemies’ tower houses. As Jonson’s contemporary, and simultaneous traveller, John Taylor, was to describe,

Such shaking, shifting, cutting throats, and thieving,
Each taking pleasure, in the other’s grieving.
To many years this pell-mell fury lasted,
That all these borders were quite spoil’d and wasted,
Confusion, hurly-burly reign’d and revell’d,
The Churches with the lowly ground were levell’d…
That who so then did in the borders dwell,
Liv’d little happier than those in hell.

Taylor made much of his border-crossing though he was to be surprised at the similarities that he found either side:

Eight miles from Carlisle runs a little River,
Which England’s bounds, from Scotland’s grounds doth sever…
I being come to this long look’d for land,
Did marke, remarke, note, renote, view’d and scann’d:
And I saw nothing that could change my will
But that I thought my self in England still.
The Kingdoms are so nearly join’d and fix’d,
There scarcely went a pair of Shears betwixt;
There I saw sky above, and earth below,
And as in England, there the Sun did show…

The sheep in Annandale grazed in the same way as those in Cumberland, and good Scottish ale was available in many a cottage.

Jonson’s companion does not comment on what this ceremony of wine and gunshot signified; no mention is made of the border at all in our journal, or indeed of the names England or Scotland. For Jonson perhaps, the border was not of note; he was returning to the land of his fathers, allegedly from Annandale, in the same way that his royal master King James had progressed ‘salmon-like’ to Edinburgh the year before.

James VIKing James VI and I’s return had been of great significance. His travelling across the border was in itself a performance of the union that his own person embodied; this union of the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland on the head of one man, and an important precursor to the full political union of 1707. In these days of debate over the continuation of that union, the Anglo-Scottish border may reemerge as a site of contention.

James would have been saddened by this. On his first crossing of the border in 1603, he had stopped at Berwick to declare the name of the ‘Borders’ dead, rechristening the region the ‘Middle Shires’, where they would be ‘but the midst of the Isle’ of a Great Britain. He would however have much liked Taylor’s words in 1618:

But since the all-disposing God of heaven,
Hath these two Kingdoms to one Monarch given,
Blessed peace, and plenty on them both hath shower’d
Exile, and hanging hath the thieves devour’d…
For now those Crowns are both in one combin’d
Those former borders, that each one confin’d
Appears to me (as I do understand)
To be almost the Centre of the land.

A Jacobean Morning Alarm Call

On the morning of their leaving Durham, Jonson and his companion were woken by the sound of waits and cornets.  Whether it was the sweetest reveille or a cacophony of ill-played pipes, the account does not reveal, but the typical instruments of waits were shawms, also known as wait pipes, hautbois, and howboys, the ancestor of the oboe, as well as viols, curtals, and the cornetts [Many thanks for this information to Tom Hughes]

The morning alarm call was a ceremony that featured regularly in a town’s honouring of an important visitor, or indeed, a wealthy traveller might himself pay for the waits to waken him, and to advertise his presence.

Will Kemp had enjoyed the welcome that the Norwich waits gave him, he having danced his way to Norfolk in nine days in 1600:

‘Passing the gate, Wifflers [helped] make my way through the throng of the people, which pressed so mightily upon me: with great labour I got through that narrow press into the open market place. Where on the cross, ready prepared, stood the City Waits, which not a little refreshed my weariness with towling through so narrow a lane: such Waytes, few Cities in our Realm have the like, none better. Who besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the Viol, and Violin: their voices be admirable, every one of them able to serve in any Cathedral Church in Christendom for Choristers.” (William Kemp, Nine Daies Wonder, 1600)

Samuel Pepys wrote of his awakening at the Bear Inn at Cambridge on 15 October 1662: I ‘waked very early, and when it was time rose; and Music (with a Bandore for the Base) did give me a Levett, [a Reveille, or a Hunts-up] and so we got ready’

Jonson himself was to allude to these players in A Tale of a Tub in 1633:

Preamble to Hugh: You are my learned, and canonick neighbour: I would not have you stray; but the incorrigible Knot-headed beast, the Clowns, or Constables, Still let them graze; eat Salads; chew the Cud: All the town-musick will not move a log.

And an anonymous poem of 1680 described

The public waits who liveries do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn public meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’ Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
And weather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings, play them some fine Air
Or brisk new tune such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.

Town waits had originally been employed as watchmen in medieval times, but their function had evolved over the centuries to the town’s minstrels, paid and liveried by the borough council for official ceremonies. For instance in York in 1623, the council noted that

‘Edward Easton is commended to be A very skillful musician It is agreed by these present that he shall be one of the waits in this City And that Christopher Thompson and John Girdler waits their bonds shall be taken as sureties for him for the Chain & Scutcheon’

that is the badge of his office. In Durham’s case, in former times, the waits had been provided by the Bishop.

There is much more information on town waits on the International Guild of Town Pipers website; in particular on early music and historically informed performances in the music of Medieval and Renaissance Town Waits.

Information about and illustrations of York’s town waits can be found on Dr James Merryweather’s website, and on www.townwaits.org.uk

You can hear waits in action at the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, which is being held this year in Gloucester from September 6-8th.

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)