Foot Voyages

Making the trip from London to Edinburgh was hardly unusual in Jacobean Britain. In fact, it was the Jacobean creation of something called ‘Great Britain’ that made it no longer unusual – when James VI became James I he united the crowns of England and Scotland, and gave an antiquarian term of slightly uncertain reach (did it refer to the whole island? Or just the extent of the old Roman province?) new currency. James wanted to be called King of Great Britain. He minted new coinage with his ambitions stamped upon it, and ordered the design of a Union flag; he renamed the border counties either side of the Tweed the ‘middle shires’ and established a commission of representatives from both kingdoms to investigate how best to pursue full union.


Designs for the Union Flag, c.1604

But his grand ambitions could not, then, be fulfilled. Many in the English parliament were alarmed by the kind of radical constitutional change that union would apparently require, and wouldn’t countenance it unless it was essentially the incorporation of Scotland into a greater England; the Scots, for their part, had no desire for their unconquered kingdom to be subsumed by its larger neighbour, as had happened to Wales a century earlier. So plans for full union stalled, and James had to settle for a long game. His two peoples would be brought together piecemeal, one aristocratic marriage at a time.

In the meantime, both peoples had plenty to discover about each other. Scots courtiers found themselves serving in the royal household in England, to the great discontent of English rivals unwilling or unable to get their heads round the dual nature of James’s court. Such courtiers became regulars on the roads between James’s capital cities, and they were joined by others who had a part to play in the increasing business between the kingdoms. When Jonson came to travel these roads in 1618, he was following a familiar route. Indeed, King James himself had made the journey to Edinburgh from London in the summer of 1617, in what was his only return journey to Scotland after his departure for England in 1603.

So a journey north was no longer a great adventure. Promising to walk all the way, however, would turn it into something special. The account in the Aldersey manuscript draws attention to this defining aspect of the journey in its title: this was, it says, a ‘foot voyage’. A similar emphasis on the fact of Jonson’s walking occurs in most other contemporary mentions. Francis Bacon made a literary joke out of it, saying he ‘loved not to see poesy go on other feet than poetical dactylus and spondaius‘. This particular twist would make Jonson’s journey as noteworthy as the clown Will Kemp’s nine day dance to Norwich, or one of John Taylor’s strange excursions – his trip down the Thames in a paper boat, or his own 1618 walk to Edinburgh, made without spending any money along the way. It would be another ‘Famous Voyage’, like some of the comically grand adventures mentioned in Jonson’s disgustingly scatological poem of the same name. It might be made the subject of a wager or two.


Will Kemp dancing to Norwich, from Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder (1600)

Such voyages still take place today. The comedian Tony Hawks hauled a fridge round Ireland, and took his own inspiration from people who’d unicycled across America, or run a backwards marathon. (Funnily enough, one of the feats mentioned by Jonson in the ‘Famous Voyage’ is a walk from London to Berwick undertaken backwards.) Simon Armitage conducted his own ‘penniless pilgrimage’ along the Pennine Way, busking like a modern troubadour. Jonson’s walk was clearly also a public feat (pun intended), even a performance piece. And in choosing to go on foot he was travelling like a pilgrim, eschewing courtly grandeur, bringing his own status and reputation back down to the common earth.

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.