The King in the North

York is a significant presence in the ‘Foot Voyage’, and clearly more than an incidental destination. When Jonson and his companion pitched up at Thomas Key’s fine inn, The George in Coney Street (long since demolished, more’s the pity) they were ‘no sooner housed but diverse came to see us‘. There were plenty of people keen to greet the walkers, and to offer them a lavish welcome to what was then England’s second city.

York Minster

York Minster

It’s clear that the travellers went off to do a bit of sightseeing, since appended to the ‘Foot Voyage’ account in the Aldersey manuscript are some antiquarian notes in the same hand on a couple of notable events in York’s history, combined with observations on heraldic detail in the Minster. The historical episodes recalled in these notes are moments of national and international political significance: the elaborate celebrations for the marriage of Henry III’s daughter, Margaret, to Alexander III of Scotland, at York Minster on 26 December 1251, which were attended by many of the nobility and knights of both kingdoms, and the public ceremony and feast for the installation of George Neville as archbishop in 1465, a byword at the time for conspicuous consumption. The notes include an abbreviated version of the extensive list of provisions, fuller instances of which survive in other sources.

We also have the companion’s record of a visit he made – without his gossip – to a very grand building to the north west of the city centre:

This day Mr Walter, my Lord President’s steward, showed me the new manor which the king hath new built where St Mary’s monastery stood, and carried me down into the cellar, which is the fairest, largest, and fullest of light that I have seen. Two springs of excellent sweet water rising in the middest thereof.

This is the King’s Manor, which had its origins in a palace hastily constructed on seized monastic lands for a visit by Henry VIII. The new complex was constructed on the orders of James VI and I as the seat for the Council of the North, the instrument of royal government for the whole of the north of England – the ‘Lord President’ mentioned here was Edmund Sheffield, President of the Council until 1619. Construction of the imposing building began in 1611, and by 1616 had already cost £1000; the new manor incorporated the only remaining part of Henry’s palace, the extensive cellar which so impressed Jonson’s companion.

King's Manor

The King’s Manor, York

So what the travellers find in York is a city which is its own centre of political and historical gravity. Interestingly, King James had once spoken of a plan – or threat – to set up his court at York, the union of the Scottish and English crowns raising the possibility of the city’s reinvention as a new nation’s capital.

Sir Arthur Ingram

Sir Arthur Ingram

And it’s notable that Jonson’s other host here, who ‘sent to my Gossip telling him he hoped he would take none other house but his whilst he was in town’, should be the magnate and monopolist Sir Arthur Ingram. Formerly one of the company of wits who met at the Mitre in London, and rebuffed in his attempts to secure court office, he concentrated instead on his growing estates in Yorkshire: he acquired the position of secretary to the Council of the North in 1613, and subsequently bought a lease of the crown’s rights in the alum industry. He built himself an impressive house in York while continuing to accumulate property, office and influence in the county; by 1625, his estates yielded between £4,000 and £5,000 per year. He was living proof – to set alongside the architectural evidence – of York’s capacity to sustain, among other qualities, grand ambition.

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‘Whatsoever Tasted of Antiquity’ at Pontefract

In Pontefract Jonson swapped the boots of a traveller for the eyes of an antiquarian, or what might be termed a tourist, for the journal records that they

‘visited the castle and whatsoever tasted of antiquity’.

Here they were shown around the ancient fortress, their guide telling them tales of past events, an oral version of our present-day interpretation boards. Two were apparently noteworthy enough to merit recording by Jonson’s companion.

Richard_II_King_of_England The first was of the alleged murder of the unfortunate Richard II in 1400 in Pontefract castle, having been held there in captivity since Henry of Bolingbroke’s invasion the previous year, and his replacement of Richard as king. Following Bolingbroke’s coronation as Henry IV, Richard was apparently starved to death, though the exact manner of his demise is not known. The account of his ‘murder’ by Exton is common to familiar sources, including Holinshed and Shakespeare.

Richard_II_(Play) This sad event was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, The Life and Death of King Richard II, first performed in 1595; at its first printing in 1597, its title was The Tragedie of King Richard II.

The castle was the site for several political executions over the centuries, including one described by Camden:

‘here King Richard the Third caused Antony Earl Rivers, King Edward the Fifth, his Uncle by the mother’s side, and Sir Richard Grey Knight, half brother to the same King by the mother’s side, both innocent persons, to lose their heads’ (Camden, 1610, 696)


HowardCatherine02 The other more lascivious tale, was of Henry VIII’s stay at Pontefract in 1541 with his lively young queen, Catherine Howard, and his alleged cuckolding by Thomas Culpeper, when the queen admitted him into her chamber. Both were subsequently executed for the affair, Archbishop Cranmer using an affectionate letter from Catherine to Culpeper as proof.

The Ben Jonson Show

When Jonson and his companion left Welbeck on the morning of 6 August, walking on towards Gervase Clifton’s house at Hodsock Priory and the great north road beyond that, they were bringing the curtain down on one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole adventure. Yet while what happened here, as recorded in the ‘Foot Voyage’, is remarkable in itself, it is also significant for what it says about who Ben Jonson was – or, at least, could be.

Velazquez, Bacchus

Velazquez, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629

The predominant note is one of unbridled and well lubricated festivity. During his visit to nearby Worksop, we find Jonson going in search of a Welsh goldsmith whose drinking ‘cans’ he has seen at Belvoir, a pair of which he now wishes to acquire for himself. At the workshop they find some exceptionally capacious vessels, and filling these according to the proverbially generous ‘London measure’ they hand them round to anyone passing by. On their last day in the Cavendish household, the account seems to suggest that dinner was punctuated by some kind of pissing contest – you can almost picture the diners staggering off, one after the other, to attempt the toilet challenge that has somehow struck them as a good idea. If this interpretation is even half right, then there would seem to be little sign here of any conformity to ideals of refined and noble hospitality. Earthy humour, rather, would seem to be the order of the day.

This is just as evident in the extraordinary licence allowed to Jonson by his hosts: twice, the account says, he is explicitly granted the freedom of Welbeck when his hosts leave to visit Jane Talbot, Countess of Shrewbury, at Rufford:

Sir William with my old Lady Candish and his own lady went to Rufford, and resigned the whole house to my gossip etc., commanding his steward and all the rest of the officers to obey my gossip in all things, which authority he did as freely put in execution.

The account goes on to say how he used his new authority, making preparations for another feast of venison, and throwing open the wine cellar. Yet equally significant is that he began to play the part of the lord of this particular manor – appointing a local gentleman as his ‘woodman’, a kind of forest officer, and perhaps even – on one reading of a somewhat enigmatic sentence – making ‘fat Harry Ogle’ – one of Sir William Cavendish’s kinsmen and most trusted of retainers – ‘mistress’ of the household over which he was now presiding.

The ‘Foot Voyage’ also highlights how this role-playing continued once the real mistress of the house returned, with Jonson acting the part of an irascible host, barking at his staff like an overbearing and ill-tempered alpha-boss:

Presently upon our return the ladies came, whom Mr Jonson welcomed to his house, and at supper bid them want nothing, for if they did it was not his fault. Chafed at the table for lights, and checked the waiters because there was no more new bread, which freedom of his mingled with a great deal of mirth much delighted the ladies.

The important point here, of course, is that Jonson was acting up for his patron’s amusement – this was a comic performance, for which he adopted a persona calculated to entertain his chosen audience. This is something, I would suggest, that we see quite a lot in Jonson’s writing, though we’re not perhaps as good at spotting it as we should be. Jonson is one of the most self-conscious of early modern writers, in the sense of attempting to cultivate a particular kind of authorial persona. That persona can seem unsympathetic, to say the least, to many readers. When posturing in this way, Jonson comes across as pompous, self-aggrandising and pretentious. We have become used to seeing him, in this mode, as unintentionally comic, with his aspiration towards authorial glory given the lie by his scholarly pedantry, his rejection by theatre audiences, or the embarrassingly proximate and far more substantial achievement of Shakespeare.

Yet this particular joke may be on us, after all. At Welbeck we see Jonson self-consciously playing the role of overweening Ben, in the context of a festive interlude in which he is set up – to his apparent delight – as a kind of lord of misrule. Perhaps, when we recoil from or laugh at his impersonation of the pompous poet, we are mistaking the kind of self-consciousness there on show; perhaps, some of the time at least, ‘Ben Jonson’ is actually one of Ben Jonson’s finest comedic creations.

de Vos, Bacchus

Cornelis de Vos, The Triumph of Bacchus

The Buzz of a Big Town

The travellers’ arrival at Newark is one of those points in the walk where we see plans giving way to events. ‘We had purposed to lie at Mr Atkinson’s, the postmaster’s‘, it says, ‘but Wombwell of the Hart subtly anticipated us‘. Newark was a busy place, wrote an observer in 1609, ‘a great thoroughfare town and a post town, and the Kinges Majesties subjects doe usually travell from the north parts into the south parts through the said town, and lykewyse back again‘.

Newark, Market square

Market square, Newark

It seems that two of its most prominent hosts were vying with each other for the privilege of accommodating this important visitor. William Wombwell’s trump card here may well have been the White Hart itself, one of the grandest and oldest inns in Newark, which was located in the south west corner of the market square and distinguished by its ornately decorated fifteenth century front range. Miraculously, much of this part of the building survives to this day, and it is now a branch of the Nottingham Building Society. Inside, you can still see seventeenth century wall decorations similar, if not identical, to those which would have greeted Jonson when he arrived here.

Newark, old White Hart inn 2

Front range, Old White Hart inn, Newark

Comfortably parked in this corner of Newark’s bustling market square, Jonson and his companion took the opportunity to relax and let the world come to them. Scots courtiers – regular users, now, of this north road – passed through. John Twentyman of the Saracen’s Head – a rival inn almost next door to the White Hart – gave them ‘good sport‘. Local gentry families entertained them. The vicar, Edmund Mason, was a member of such a family, and also a man with ample court and literary connections. He had counted the actor and playwright Nathan Field and the poet Francis Beaumont among his associates; in 1615, he played several parts in the performance of George Ruggle’s neo-Latin satire Ignoramus before the king and Prince Charles at Cambridge. Indeed, Mason was tutor to the prince, probably prior to his appointment at Ordsall in 1614, and from at least 1621 a chaplain-in-ordinary at court: his Sermon Preached at Oatlands was published in 1622 by royal command. His fellow royal chaplain, the poet and later bishop Richard Corbet, celebrates Mason as ‘a man whose Tongue and Life is eloquent’ in his lengthy travel poem Iter Boreale [‘A Northern Journey’], written in the early 1620s.

So the conversation at Newark was undoubtedly good – good enough, perhaps, to explain a stay of four days in this lively place. But there were other diversions: ‘here were fireworks and bull baiting‘, the account says. Newark had a castle and a garrison, so perhaps the pyrotechnics originated there. And the market square features, even now, a bear or bull baiting post, though it isn’t of seventeenth century vintage and probably also isn’t in the original location. Given that the travellers stayed from Friday till Tuesday, it’s possible that ‘the Lord’s holy sabbath‘ was ‘profaned‘ with these and like recreations – ‘Beare and Bull baiting, … dicing and carding, … May games and morrice dance‘, as the more godly complained. If it was, then it’s hard to imagine Jonson being too fussed about it.