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.

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.