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.

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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