‘They ran in throngs to see us…’

Jonson’s entry into Edinburgh, seventy-one days after leaving London, was a theatrical performance, the Royal Mile running from Holyrood upto the castle, his stage. The city’s gentlemen and officials dramatically sank to their knees at the Mercat Cross to testify that Jonson had truly completed his journey.  His mobile audience mobbed him in the street, offered aquavitae and sugar, and popped their heads out of round holes in the wooden shutters of tall stone tenement buildings. The staging of Jonson’s welcome recalled another grander one on the entry of the king the year before.

The water poet, John Taylor’s arrival had been rather different: into the

‘Ancient famous City of Edinburgh, which I entered like pierce penniless, altogether moneyless, but I thank God not friendless… Walking thus down the street [melancholically], presently fixing mine eyes upon a Gentleman-like object, I looked on him [until] at last he crossed the way and made toward me.’

Taylor had struck lucky, and this gentleman found him lodgings.

Slezer castleLike Jonson however, no sooner had Taylor arrived but he was whisked up the Royal Mile to view the fortifications of Edinburgh castle.

‘The Castle on a lofty Rock is so strong, grounded, bounded, and founded, that by force of man it can never be confounded; The Foundation and Walls are impenetrable, the Ramparts Impregnable, the Bulwarks Invincible.  In a word I have seen many Fortresses but they must all give place to this unconquered Castle.’

Mons_Meg_-_Edinburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1310151Both travellers too were shown one of the castle’s most notable sights, then and now, the massive iron cannon Mons Meg, Philip of Burgundy’s present to James II on his marriage to Mary of Gueldres: ‘a great piece of Ordinance, it will serve to defend a breach, or to toss balls of wild fire against any’. And like today’s tourists will soon be told (as a result of our project), Taylor relates that his guide said that

‘so great [was the cannon] that a Child was once gotten there, but I to make trial crept into it, lying on my back, and I am sure there was Room enough and spare for a greater than myself.’

Or in Jonson’s companion’s words, ‘the bore was so big that one got a woman with child in it’.

Taylor thought Edinburgh a fine place:

‘the fairest and goodliest street that ever mine eyes beheld… The buildings on each side being all of squared stone, five, six, and seven storeys high, and many by Lanes and Closes on each side of the way, wherein are Gentlemen’s houses … wherein I found entertainment beyond my expectation or merit.’

His was a view not shared by a subsequent snootier traveller, Sir William Brereton in 1635.  Whilst he agreed that the Royal Mile was

‘the glory and beauty of this city, … if the houses were not lined to the outside and faced with boards; but this face of boards doth much blemish it, and derogate from glory and beauty; as also the want of fair glass windows.’

But worse… despite it being that

‘This city is placed in a dainty, healthful, pure air, and doubtless were a most healthful place to live, were not the inhabitants most sluttish, nasty, and slothful people. The sluttishness and nastiness of this people is such, that I cannot omit the particularizing thereof: their houses, and halls, and kitchens, have such a noisome taste, a savour and that so strong, as it doth offend you so soon as you come within their walls.’

This is not the impression that we get from Jonson who was subsequently to describe Edinburgh as ‘Britain’s other eye’.

Read more about the ceremony at the Mercat Cross, and other literary stories associated with Edinburgh at A Secret Golden Age: Walks through early literary Edinburgh.

Warm Welcomes and Familiar Faces

When Sir William Bowyer of Berwick saw Jonson and his companion across the border, he didn’t quite relinquish his role as host. As the account makes clear, Jonson and his companion had ‘Sir William’s man’ with them all the way to Cockburnspath – twelve difficult miles of walking from Ayton Castle, itself seven miles north of Berwick. It’s clear, too, that the companion was flagging at this point. As he says, ‘this was the tediousest day’s journey in the whole voyage, for I had not slept two nights before‘. He had only himself to blame – on the first of these two nights, he records, ‘I drank hard‘; on the second, at Ayton, there’d clearly been further carousing, since one ‘Val West played his prank in drink‘.

The road into Cockburnspath

The road into Cockburnspath

What perhaps made it worse for our man was Jonson’s own undimmed stamina – on the road to Cockburnspath, far from flagging, he was striking up new friendships, ‘growing cousins’ with his fellow walkers. You get a sense, from details like this, of the sheer and singular force of his personality – this hefty 46 year old, at the centre of a long whirl of sozzling entertainment and with more than 300 miles already under his belt, still striding cheerfully on.

He’d have had good reason for the spring in his step. If southern Scotland was new terrain, it nonetheless offered Jonson a warm welcome. At Cockburnspath, his host was the postmaster, William Arnot, son of a former provost of Edinburgh. Arnot was expressly charged with providing good hospitality for travellers, and Cockburnspath itself was a welcome stop on the mostly upland road between Berwick and the gentler landscape of coastal east Lothian.

Further on, Jonson found himself very much among friends. At ‘Addam’, as it’s spelled in the account – Auldhame, near Tantallon – he was looked after by two members of the Auchmuty family, James and Alexander. Together with their brother, John, they were fixtures at the Jacobean court – John was a regular dancer in Jonson’s masques. The Auchmutys also hosted John Taylor, himself a member of the royal household, when he was heading south later that autumn. He memorably records eating ‘solan goose‘, better known as gannet, there – these seabirds bred in profusion, as they still do today, on the nearby Bass Rock. Taylor reported that the meat from the birds ‘must be well liquored with two or three good rouses [i.e. large or full cups] of sherry or Canary sack‘, and seems – perhaps surprisingly – to have enjoyed it.

Bass Rock, C17

A somewhat fanciful seventeenth century view of the Bass Rock, complete with flocks of ‘solan geese’. Edinburgh visible in the distance.

The Auchmutys may not have been the only familiar faces Jonson met here. At North Berwick, they were greeted by one William Ramsay, who had come out from Edinburgh specially to see them. We can’t be completely sure, but it seems likely that this man was another courtier – kinsman, maybe even brother, to John Ramsay, a royal favourite who was created Viscount Haddington in 1606 and Earl of Holderness in 1621, and for whose wedding in 1609 Jonson wrote the Haddington masque.

So when he made his way into Scotland, Jonson found himself to some extent closer to home than he’d been for a fair while. As members of the royal household, these men would have been well known to him, and he to them; their paths would have crossed often in London. While some English travellers found Scotland strange and foreign, and wrote slightingly of it, Jonson’s long immersion in the binational court of King James seems to have generated in him a very different response. We know from William Drummond that Jonson claimed Scots ancestry; perhaps the affinity embodied in that claim also found expression in friendships with some of James’s Scottish courtiers, and in his desire to journey to Scotland in the first place.

Of Merrybubs, Syllabubs and Possets

Jonson had dined, supped and ‘banketted’ his way up the Great North Road but perhaps the strangest food (to the modern palate) he was offered was in a Northumbrian field. Having spent a couple of days at Howick, one Mrs Grey led him with her maid to a pasture in which a cow was grazing, whereupon Jonson was given a ‘merrybub’ to bid him farewell (this lady was possibly the widow of Philip Grey to whom Jonson was to pen an epitaph).

It appears that ‘merrybub’, also recorded as ‘merrybauk’, was a northern term for a type of syllabub or posset, in this case a hasty mixture of freshly foaming milk with an alcoholic liquid whisked with herbs and spices. Such a confection found its way into Jonson’s Sad Shepherd:

Fall to your cheese-cakes, curds, and clotted cream,
Your fools, your flans; and of ale a stream
To wash it from your livers: strain ewes milk
Into your Cider syllabubs, and be drunk …

Recently, to celebrate a visit to Edinburgh by Ian Donaldson and in the interests of academic research (honest), we attempted to whip up a similar concoction taken from a seventeenth century manuscript recipe for a ‘Snow Syllabub’:

‘Take a Quart of Cream & half a pint of White wine, Squeeze in the Juice of a Lemon, & put in a Musk-Plumb or two, beaten Small; sweeten it with fine sugar; then take a whisk & whisk it up till it be a full Froth.’

Surprisingly large quantities of it were spooned from small cups, though it was certainly not to everyone’s taste.


Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook or The art and mystery of Cookery, 1660

A similar recipe is to be found in Charles I’s chief cook, Joseph Cooper’s recipe book, The art of Cookery refin’d and augmented of 1654. Here nutmeg and rosemary were added to the cream and sack, and fermented in a pot overnight. And there are countless recipes for a variety of syllabubs, an eating syllabub, a whipped one, a ‘Whip Jellybub’. Add some eggs, and ‘beat well to thicken on a soft fire’, and you have a posset.

Entranced by seventeenth century cooking, we proceeded to serve up scotch collops (a spiced and herbed meatball), fried artichokes, anchovy pastries, and a spiced posset at a reading by the poet Thomas A Clark of his work on walking and landscape, making a connection to Jonson’s own travels, and the food he encountered. Sadly time was too short for the ‘Hedgehog Pudding’, a sweet suet pudding with ‘raisins of the sun’, studded once baked with blanched almonds. But another pudding we made, an almond cake with rose water, was much like the currently fashionable almond and orange ones.

One particular food recurs several times in our account of Jonson’s ‘Foot-Voyage’ – venison. It’s clear from the way in which the journal notes the giving of venison that it was intended to honour Jonson: at Pontefract, the countess of Shrewsbury sends him a buck, one side of which he gives to his previous hostess at Skelbrooke. The rest he feasts on with the town’s aldermen. At Welbeck he had ordered a deer killed for supper that night. And this may have been the way it was served:

‘To roast a Haunch of Venison
If your Venison be seasoned, you must Water it & stick it with sprigs of Rosemary. Let your Sauce be Claret Wine, a Handful of grated Bread, Cinnamon, Ginger, Sugar & a little Vinegar, boil these up so thick as it may only run like Butter: it ought to be sharp & sweet. Dish up your meat on your sauce.’

Seventeenth century cookbooks would not suit a vegetarian, stuffed with recipes for game, mutton, beef, sturgeon, and salmon, heavily spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and mace. But the odd vegetable creeps in, a carrot pudding baked in pastry, and a ‘grand sallad’ of raisins, blanched almonds, samphire, green beans, and olives, surrounded by sturgeon and roasted chicken.

Jonson’s only recorded indisposition on the journey was at Newcastle, following an over-indulgence in ancient red wine. But perhaps he was carrying with him one of the sweet or licorice waters, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ for indigestion:

‘Take of Galingal, cloves, long pepper grains, mellilot flowers, mace, nutmegs, of each half an ounce, juice of salendine four ounces, mingle all these made in powder with a pint of Aquavitae & with a pint of Sack, & a quart of good white wine put all these into ye still over night and in the morning still it with a gentle fire, [adding] a quarter of a pound of white sugar candy.’

A Hangover in Newcastle

On Friday 29 August 1618, Ben Jonson, famed tippler, was suffering from a hangover.  The previous night he had indulged in forty year old hullock, a Spanish red wine, as he caroused with Newcastle’s prosperous aldermen. Newcastle then, as today, was living up to its reputation for dangerously extravagant hospitality.

As Sir Thomas Wentworth (later earl of Strafford) was to hear from a similarly indisposed correspondent, at Newcastle

‘before we had remained 24 hours, the worst enemy I saw was Mr Mayor’s great pieces of beef and the profuse entertainment we had from the gentlemen in those parts which endangered our health more than the Spaniards did our coasts.’

Hullock, according to the great traveller Richard Hakluyt, was to be used

‘For banqueting on shipboard [of] persons of credit’

along with sack, vials of good sweet waters, figs, walnuts, and almonds. The offering of it to Jonson suggests the esteem in which he was held. Newcastle’s civic elite had a tradition of feasting well, guild accounts showing regular entries for dinners held, for ‘charges concerning the feast for vittles, wine and beer, £2’.

Perhaps these good aldermen should have also given Jonson one of the many hangover cures that were available for ‘surfeit’, such as this one,

‘A powder excellent for the Liver: Take of Rhubarb three drams, of Licorice two drams, of white sugar candy four drams, one dram of Anise seeds, make all these into powder, and take every morning as much as you will upon a shilling and fast an hour after it.’

Jonson’s relationship with the vine was well known, his membership of London’s convivial societies a focal point for his admirers and detractors alike.  William Drummond of Hawthornden thought wine for Jonson was one of the ‘elements in which he liveth’.  But the abandonment to alcoholic excess that this jibe suggests, is not the Jonson that we see on his ‘Foot-Voyage’, or from his life in metropolitan taverns.


Richard Brathwaite, A Solemne Joviall Disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke; briefly shadowing the Law of Drinking (1617)

Alcoholic consumption came with rules. Wine was said to liberate the creative senses to produce elevated wit, conversation and poetry. Too much of it, however, or of the lowly ale, produced boorish or bestial behaviour.

The society of which Jonson was the leading light, that met in the Apollo Rooms over the Devil and St Dunstan in Fleet Street, welcomed its members with the words

‘Here he speaks out of his Pottle,
Or the Tripos, his Tower Bottle;
All his Answers are Divine:
Truth itself doth flow in Wine.
Wine it is the Milk of Venus,
Tis the true Phoebeian Liquor,
Clears the Brains, makes Wit the quicker.
Pays all Debts, cures all Diseases
And at once three Sense pleases.’

But inside were the rules of behaviour, the Leges Conviviales, that Jonson penned

‘And let our only emulation be,
Not drinking much, but talking wittily.
Let it be voted lawful to stir up
Each other with a moderate chirping cup;
Let none of us be mute, or talk too much…’

So prevalent was alcohol in Jacobean society, where light ale was thought healthier than perilous water, that these concerns sat oddly with more puritanical thought. Countless tracts appeared against the evils of excessive alcohol, its corrosive effects on the morals and functioning of society.  Englands Bane: or, The Description of Drunkenness by Thomas Young, Milton’s tutor, published in 1617, enumerated nine types of drunkards:

‘The first is Lion drunk, which breaks glass windows, calls the Hostess Whore, strikes, fights or quarrels.  The second is Ape-drunk, who dances, capers, and leaps about the house, sings and rejoices, and is wholly ravished into jests, mirth and melody.  The third is sheep drunk, … Sow, Fox, Maudlin, Goat, Martin, Bat drunk’

looking glassAnd in 1627, another critic warned against ‘Drunkenness … a flattering Devil, a sweet poison, and a pleasing sin’ in A looking glass for drunkards: Wherein drunkards are unmasked to the view of the world. Very convenient and useful for all people to ruminate on in this drunken Age. I’ll say no more…

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.

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)