In the course of his epic walk from London to Edinburgh, Ben Jonson took a memorable detour through the English midlands. This film introduces viewers to Jonson, to the walk, and to the landscape through which he journeyed in 1618.
After 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.
King 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.
As they walked up from the south to meet the river Tweed the travellers must have had some sense that they were approaching a landscape feature of real importance. Rivers were key geographical markers in early modern times, much more so than they usually are today. John Speed’s county maps, or those in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, show rivers rather than roads; indeed, rivers are the personified speakers of Drayton’s lengthy chorographical poem. The Tweed, like the Trent and the Severn, was invested with the special significance of a boundary marker – as the Trent divided the English south from its north, and the Severn divided England from Wales, so the Tweed divided England from Scotland.
Only it didn’t, of course – or at least, not here. At the mouth of the Tweed the neatly fortified town of Berwick, a thriving port and important settlement, occupied the northern bank. It was something of an anomaly: an English town on Scotland’s side of the river, a Scottish royal burgh and county town with no county to call its own. It had long been a site of contention, fought over, besieged, sacked and rebuilt, and had been in Scottish hands as recently as the 1480s. By the time it was recaptured by English forces under Richard Duke of York – later Richard III – in 1482, it had passed between English and Scottish control more than a dozen times.
Thereafter, Berwick became a vitally important border outpost for the English crown, and vast sums were spent on its fortifications. Overseeing the garrison there was a crucial role, entrusted only to important men with good court connections. But with the demise of the Tudors in 1603, and the emergence of a new, British monarchy in the person of James VI and I, the town’s role changed again. Although the kingdoms of Scotland and England remained distinct, the prospect of conflict receded, and the need for an expensive garrison at Berwick seemed much less obvious than it had been. The town was transferred from military to civic command in 1604; by 1616, the garrison consisted only of ‘
two companies and some old pensioners,’ as a survey of crown lands put it.
And Berwick was now no longer an outpost, but an important stopping place on the main arterial route conjoining the king’s two British capitals. At the outset of James’s reign it relied on a somewhat rickety timber bridge – visible on the John Speed map above, and the route into the town taken by Jonson and his companion – which was clearly not a satisfactory state of affairs. So plans for a new, stone bridge, 50 or so yards downstream from the wooden crossing, were set in train. Construction began in 1611, and despite the best efforts of Sir William Bowyer, Jonson’s host in 1618, the project was hit by the usual twin curses of slow progress and ballooning costs. When he visited in 1620, Richard Neile, Bishop of Durham, recorded that ‘
the expenses of his Majesty’s monies rise apace, but the bridge riseth slowly‘. Nevertheless, it was substantially complete by 1624, and still stands today – 1164 feet long, 17 feet wide, and consisting of fifteen elegant arches.
Berwick is one of those places where different stages in the history of human commerce are simultaneously visible, like layers in rock. The timber bridge is long gone, of course, but the Jacobean road bridge has been joined by the grandeur of a Victorian railway viaduct, a fine mid-twentieth century road bridge, and – upstream – the functional crossing which now sweeps the plentiful traffic on the modern A1 past the town.
Berwick is still a border town. A sociolinguistic study at the turn of the century found that people from southern Scotland identified the Berwick accent as English, Northumbrian or Geordie, while people from Northumberland identified it as Scottish. In the summer of 1998, the last time that England and Scotland both reached the World Cup finals, I spent a great afternoon in a lively Berwick pub – the front room was singing Scotland songs, and the back room chanting for England. The local football team, meanwhile, play in the Scottish league, and the era of devolution has on occasion led to speculation about where Berwick’s political future lies. Rivers and bridges are such fecund sites in the topographical imaginary because they can be seen both as dividing and connecting, marking boundaries and enacting their crossing. To this extent, its history has made Berwick itself both a river and a bridge.
One of the more intriguing references in the ‘Foot Voyage’ is the brief mention of Stangate Hill:
Frecked by rain, we were fain to take an alehouse at a place called Stukeley, where the minister came to us whose name was Seaborne; where we were warned of Stangate in the Hole…
Why would they be ‘warned’ about this place, a stretch of Ermine Street between Little Stukeley and Stilton? Daniel Defoe, writing nearly a hundred years later, provides an answer:
Hence we came through Sautrey Lane, a deep descent between two hills, in which is Stangate Hole, famous for being the most noted robbing-place in all this part of the country.
We tend to think of highwaymen as an eighteenth century phenomenon, but they were an acknowledged danger to travellers as early as the mid-sixteenth century – earlier, in fact, if you take some of the tales of Robin Hood into account. The term ‘highwayman’, as Gillian Spraggs has shown, was in use by 1617. Places like Stangate Hole (sometimes confused with Stangate in Lambeth) and Shooter’s Hill in Kent were proverbially notorious for ‘robberies committed daily’, as one writer put it in 1606.
As Dick Turpin would later become a legendary figure, so the highwaymen of this earlier age were similarly commemorated. One of the most notorious at the beginning of the seventeenth century was Gamaliel Ratsey, a former scholar and soldier from a respectable family who pursued his criminal career in the east midlands; in 1605, after his conviction and execution, he was the subject of a couple of pamphlets recounting his ‘mad pranks’ and celebrating his generosity to the poor. At least one of these exploits – the robbery of a lawyer – is said to have taken place at Stangate Hole.
Interestingly, there’s another Jonsonian connection. In the opening scene of The Alchemist, when Face and Subtle are having an explosive argument, the former threatens the latter’s defamation through, among other things, having an engraving made of him with a ‘
face … worse than Gamaliel Ratsey’s’. The suggestion is that Ratsey wore a grotesque mask to help him terrify his intended victims, though this is only speculation.
Later in the ‘Foot Voyage’, it becomes clear that Jonson and his companion are carrying pistols. It was presumably the threat of latterday Ratseys, lurking in some of the dingier parts of the highway, that made this a sensible expedient.
As Jonson crossed the little bridge into Buntingford on Saturday 11 July 1618 he will have seen a building site on his left. This was to be a small ‘chapel-at-ease’ on which work had begun in 1614, but was not finished until 1628 at a cost of £420. St Peter’s, as it became known, was the great project of Buntingford’s minister, the Rev Alexander Strange, in order to spare the town’s inhabitants the trials of crossing a swollen river to the parish’s main church in Layston. You can still visit it today, though its Victorianisation in 1899 means that it has been altered from the building whose foundations Jonson will have seen. In the western transept, however, there is a plain wood-paneled gallery front from around 1615, and a stone on the east gable bears the inscription DOMUS ORATIONIS 1615.
Inside, a brass plaque of 1620 hangs on the south wall depicting the minister preaching to his congregation in a small Renaissance chapel, thought to represent Strange and his parishioners, on which is inscribed ‘
In Stature small, yet great in mental powers,/ Good
Alexander built this Church of ours’. Rev. Strange appears to have been a singular fellow, and we are lucky that his memorandum book survives, his distinctive hand recording the parish accounts and administrative decisions, his advice and a tract on poverty. From its pages emerges a deeply conscientious and intensely godly man, whose concern for his parishioners and the poor amongst them results in several schemes to help them.
The first was to ensure their godly souls by erecting this convenient new chapel, and money was set aside for vicars to include thanks in a sermon to those, like Jonson, ‘at whose expense the chappell was built’. Then Rev Strange himself donated several lands whose income was to be used for the poor. He encouraged wealthy Londoners also to make charitable grants, such as one by a goldsmith in 1623 who gave £20 ‘to be ymployed in the buying of flax to sette the poore to work’.
But Buntingford had a problem common to other towns on the main arterial roads in London’s hinterland. A population explosion in southern England had forced many from their villages in search of work. These itinerant families created a pressing problem in towns such as Buntingford, their numbers outstripping the capacity of the rates collected for poor relief. As Rev Strange wrote in his Advice of 1636, ‘I see and am sorry to see the misery into which Buntingford’s residents are fallen …. I will be bold to tell you the Causes of it. Your misery is this, there are come into your parish within the space of these twenty years past, no less than twenty Families, all of which receive’ the parish’s alms. At the same time, the increased pressure on housing led Rev Strange to castigate his parishioners for having fallen victim to ‘the roote of all evill, covetousness’ in their raising of rents.
Jonson and Strange will have had something in common (if not the minister’s more puritan godliness) since Strange had a library filled with classical volumes, including eight volumes of Tulley. At almost the same age (b.c.1570) as Jonson, both had enjoyed an education shaped by classical humanism, its influence plain in Strange’s Advice of 1636 in which he terms Layston and Buntingford a ‘little commonwealth’ where it was every citizen’s duty to play his part.
Jonson was to experience a number of these ‘little commonwealths’ as he progressed north, towns in which their civic communities fretted equally about how to look after, and control the poor, at Huntingdon, Stamford, Newark etc. And as he left Buntingford, he walked along the road that joined them, a route still marked by road signs bearing its medieval name of Ermine Street. It’s a remarkably straight route, and one I’ve driven now several times at dusk, imagining Ben’s weary footsteps as he toiled up long slopes towards the light and warmth of a welcoming inn.
Here’s a thing: how did Jonson and his companion know the way? We’re completely reliant on signposts, maps and, increasingly, GPS, so it’s hard to imagine navigating your way between places without them. In a world before the Ordnance Survey and the A-Z, though, how could they be sure to stay on track?
Maps from this period don’t tend to show the roads between towns, so carrying a copy of John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain wouldn’t have been much help, even if they could have fitted one in their luggage. Early on, though, the travellers were walking along a very well trodden way indeed – the route of Roman Ermine Street, which headed north out of London making for Lincoln and then York. More use to them, however, would have been the fact that they were sticking to the post route. King James’s double reign made the maintenance of good communication links between London and Edinburgh a high priority, and he ensured that those links were kept in good order. Crucial to this was a quick and efficient way of conveying official correspondence between his two capitals, so the proper organisation of a system of local postmasters was necessary. These postmasters would have the job of ensuring that correspondence was carried up and down the road to the next post town; private travellers could make use of their knowledge of routes and distances, and of the horses they kept ready.
As this reliance on postmasters shows, and as Andrew McRae and Catherine Delano-Smith have pointed out, finding the way required the traveller to be able to make use of local knowledge. Jonson and his companion, therefore, would have been dependent on their hosts in particular localities to guide or escort them, and that’s what we see happening in the account. Usually, they’re being met or taken on their way by local dignitaries and their servants; on one occasion, it says, they hired a guide to show them the way. On occasion, they’re accompanied by perhaps more regular travellers, who might be presumed to have a working knowledge of the way.
By the early seventeenth century, some people were making attempts to gather up these kinds of scattered local information in ways that would be of general use. In 1625, John Norden published his Intended Guide for English Travellers, with its innovative tables for working out distances. Much later came John Ogilby‘s famous and elegant book Britannia, which contained pages of beautiful, scroll-like maps of particular well-travelled highways, and detailed descriptions of the routes to be taken and avoided. Ogilby also introduced accurately standardised distances, rather than relying on local measures or estimates. But none of this would have been available to Jonson.
So we have to imagine his walk as a social enterprise – conducted in company, reliant for guidance and direction on his hosts and fellow travellers. In later generations, poets might wander alone through an unpeopled landscape. But in 1618, walking was a – literally, etymologically – convivial activity.