In which Jonson enjoys a visit to the amazing Worksop Manor, an antiquarian tour of the nearby Priory, and ends his midlands diversion in the splendid surroundings of Hodsock Priory…
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.
From 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.
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.