Hooked on Ben Jonson

A guest post by John Newton

Christmas browsing in my local book shop, my eyes settled on a portrait of a bearded, middle aged man and I pondered on the words: Ben Jonson – A Life. (Ian Donaldson) . Ever since turning the first pages of that book, I have been like a fish on a line. Why? What’s been the attraction of Ben Jonson?

First it was the bobbing float: who was he, this contemporary of Shakespeare? As I read on, I was amazed at how much seemed to be recorded of Ben’s life and personality (complex, paradoxical) compared to his shadowy friend Will. And then I wondered why it was that his life and work was not more generally well known?

Then came the bait: the drama of his life – from bricklaying to Kings Poet, from prison to palace, from murder to marriage, from Protestant to Catholic and back again.

Then a hook sunk itself in, drawing me along the Jonson road. I learnt of his extraordinary walk from London to Edinburgh. This led me to meet up with James Loxley who discovered in 2009 the long lost document of Jonson’s 71 day journey – his ‘Foot Voyage’ from London to Edinburgh in 1618. I was by now literally tracing many of Jonson’s steps and becoming creatively involved on Ben Jonson-associated projects.

Then the hook twisted, and pierced my publishing skin. Having worked for some years for the publisher of Dr Johnson’s dictionary (Longman) I was fascinated by Ben Jonson’s outrageous assertion (in his day) of his intellectual property rights as a playwright (a word he perhaps created!) with the publication of his Works in 1616. This was a groundbreaking publishing milestone that needed to be celebrated – which this year, 400 years later, I am doing in a concert at Sutton House, the National Trust Elizabethan house in London. (Please come!)

And finally, I was hauled in by some enchanting writing. Some of Jonson’s work has been a revelation to me: to read and see performed some of his plays which I think have relevance to today’s world of greed, corruption and deception.; to enjoy some poems of love and death; to become aware of his masques (like Jacobean corporate events with gigantic budgets!) and some other writings which are often beautiful in themselves or interesting from a historical or biographical point of view.  I’ve just begun, scratched the surface if you like, but ‘Fie how I have been fishified!’ (Sorry Will). I’m just wondering what lies ahead when I’m thrown back in!


This is Ben Jonson Crossing the Border…

Bicycle Border_sign_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1747439After 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.

James VIKing 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.

Hey Ho, the Wind and the Rain

Walking out of York, the travellers seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of a change in the weather. Perhaps they could feel it coming on, or knew that fine conditions were unlikely to last: they decided not to take a detour to spend the night at Sir Henry Frankland’s house at Aldwark, three miles west of Tollerton, but press on a further nine miles to Topcliffe, ‘desiring to take advantage of the fairness of the weather‘, as the account puts it.

Copyright Beinecke Library

Charles Stanhope’s annotations to his copy of Jonson’s Works, now in the Beinecke Library, Yale

In so doing, they abandoned a plan to meet up with Sir Edward Stanhope, who was – interestingly enough – the cousin both of Sir John Stanhope, who’d assaulted Sir Charles Cavendish of Welbeck in 1599, and of Charles, later Baron Stanhope, who left some enigmatic annotations in his copy of an edition of Jonson’s Works, including the claim to have met Jonson at Lyon when the poet was travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh’s son, the imaginatively named Wat, in 1612-13. I hope the two knights weren’t too put out  – you can imagine them sat silent in the acutely empty hall at Aldwark, more than a bit deflated by the news of their intended guest’s sudden change of plan.

Needs must, however, and for a long distance walker the weather isn’t a factor easily ignored. Jonson and his companion seem to have had a reasonably easy time of it up till now, at least if the account is faithfully taking note of conditions. Only two spells of rain are mentioned: at Hoddesdon it had thundered and rained, and delayed their progress for most of the day, while north of Huntingdon they’d been ‘frecked by rain‘ – ‘freck’ here being either a shortened form of ‘freckle’ or a variant of ‘freak’, meaning dappled or flecked. It’s a great but rare word – used, so the OED tells me, by George Sandys in his translation of Ovid and then, much later, by John Clare. It catches the experience of being touched by raindrops falling thinly enough to be felt individually, rather than merging – as they often go on to do – into a more general, more thoroughly wettening, rain. These are the gradations that you become aware of, and that matter, when you spend a lot of time outdoors.

Raindrops_on_water resized

Here, though, north of York, the conditions appear to have become notably worse. Having made it through dry to Topcliffe, they spent the next day ‘shut up with rain‘. When they set out again on the following morning they were forced to divert to Sandhutton (not to be confused, confusingly enough, with Sand Hutton), ‘where we shifted by reason of a huge shower [which] overtook us‘. They were to arrive wet at Darlington the next day, but the worst was still to come. As the companion somewhat miserably records, north of Ferryhill they were assailed by a storm: ‘by the way I lost my gossip, and came muck wet‘ to Durham. Another fine phrase, that – very wet, soaked through – noted now by the OED as an English dialect term, but its origins not all that well described. ‘Muck’ here is an intensifier, but does it come from the same root as ‘mickle’, sometimes given as ‘muckle’, meaning ‘much’ or ‘a lot’? Or does it instead stem from the word ‘muck’ meaning ‘dirt’? In fact, it could be both: there is a now relatively unusual phrase, ‘wet as muck’, which works on the same principle as ‘common as muck’, but uses ‘muck’ to mean ‘very’ or ‘completely’, seemingly losing any association with dirt – hence the otherwise not very intelligible phrases ‘drunk as muck’ and ‘sick as muck’.

Though I imagine that nothing could have been further from our bedraggled author’s thoughts as he trudged into Durham that day. After all, being soaked by rain and blown about by wind tends to concentrate the mind on matters more immediate and less abstruse then etymology. And there was also, now, the small matter of finding his walking companion: unsurprisingly, as the account notes, he went looking in the nearest inn.

Road Maps

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?

Nixon, Anthony Footpost image, 1616, p1

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.

Norden, Intended Guide, 1626

Table of distances for Hertfordshire, John Norden, Intended Guide for English Travellers (1625)

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.

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.