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.