This is Ben Jonson Crossing the Border…

Bicycle 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.

The Bridges of Berwick

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.

Speed, Berwick

John Speed, plan of Berwick, 1610

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.

Jacobean bridge, Berwick

Jacobean bridge, Berwick

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.

Victorian rail bridge, Berwick

Victorian rail bridge over the Tweed, Berwick

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.

Of Merrybubs, Syllabubs and Possets

Jonson had dined, supped and ‘banketted’ his way up the Great North Road but perhaps the strangest food (to the modern palate) he was offered was in a Northumbrian field. Having spent a couple of days at Howick, one Mrs Grey led him with her maid to a pasture in which a cow was grazing, whereupon Jonson was given a ‘merrybub’ to bid him farewell (this lady was possibly the widow of Philip Grey to whom Jonson was to pen an epitaph).

It appears that ‘merrybub’, also recorded as ‘merrybauk’, was a northern term for a type of syllabub or posset, in this case a hasty mixture of freshly foaming milk with an alcoholic liquid whisked with herbs and spices. Such a confection found its way into Jonson’s Sad Shepherd:

Fall to your cheese-cakes, curds, and clotted cream,
Your fools, your flans; and of ale a stream
To wash it from your livers: strain ewes milk
Into your Cider syllabubs, and be drunk …

Recently, to celebrate a visit to Edinburgh by Ian Donaldson and in the interests of academic research (honest), we attempted to whip up a similar concoction taken from a seventeenth century manuscript recipe for a ‘Snow Syllabub’:

‘Take a Quart of Cream & half a pint of White wine, Squeeze in the Juice of a Lemon, & put in a Musk-Plumb or two, beaten Small; sweeten it with fine sugar; then take a whisk & whisk it up till it be a full Froth.’

Surprisingly large quantities of it were spooned from small cups, though it was certainly not to everyone’s taste.


Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook or The art and mystery of Cookery, 1660

A similar recipe is to be found in Charles I’s chief cook, Joseph Cooper’s recipe book, The art of Cookery refin’d and augmented of 1654. Here nutmeg and rosemary were added to the cream and sack, and fermented in a pot overnight. And there are countless recipes for a variety of syllabubs, an eating syllabub, a whipped one, a ‘Whip Jellybub’. Add some eggs, and ‘beat well to thicken on a soft fire’, and you have a posset.

Entranced by seventeenth century cooking, we proceeded to serve up scotch collops (a spiced and herbed meatball), fried artichokes, anchovy pastries, and a spiced posset at a reading by the poet Thomas A Clark of his work on walking and landscape, making a connection to Jonson’s own travels, and the food he encountered. Sadly time was too short for the ‘Hedgehog Pudding’, a sweet suet pudding with ‘raisins of the sun’, studded once baked with blanched almonds. But another pudding we made, an almond cake with rose water, was much like the currently fashionable almond and orange ones.

One particular food recurs several times in our account of Jonson’s ‘Foot-Voyage’ – venison. It’s clear from the way in which the journal notes the giving of venison that it was intended to honour Jonson: at Pontefract, the countess of Shrewsbury sends him a buck, one side of which he gives to his previous hostess at Skelbrooke. The rest he feasts on with the town’s aldermen. At Welbeck he had ordered a deer killed for supper that night. And this may have been the way it was served:

‘To roast a Haunch of Venison
If your Venison be seasoned, you must Water it & stick it with sprigs of Rosemary. Let your Sauce be Claret Wine, a Handful of grated Bread, Cinnamon, Ginger, Sugar & a little Vinegar, boil these up so thick as it may only run like Butter: it ought to be sharp & sweet. Dish up your meat on your sauce.’

Seventeenth century cookbooks would not suit a vegetarian, stuffed with recipes for game, mutton, beef, sturgeon, and salmon, heavily spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and mace. But the odd vegetable creeps in, a carrot pudding baked in pastry, and a ‘grand sallad’ of raisins, blanched almonds, samphire, green beans, and olives, surrounded by sturgeon and roasted chicken.

Jonson’s only recorded indisposition on the journey was at Newcastle, following an over-indulgence in ancient red wine. But perhaps he was carrying with him one of the sweet or licorice waters, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ for indigestion:

‘Take of Galingal, cloves, long pepper grains, mellilot flowers, mace, nutmegs, of each half an ounce, juice of salendine four ounces, mingle all these made in powder with a pint of Aquavitae & with a pint of Sack, & a quart of good white wine put all these into ye still over night and in the morning still it with a gentle fire, [adding] a quarter of a pound of white sugar candy.’

On the Heritage Trail

On Wednesday 2 September, Ben Jonson and his companion set off from Widdrington Castle, the grand – and long since vanished – home of his main Northumberland host. Sir Harry Widdrington was a Cavendish-Ogle kinsman, a figure of some fame – and notoriety – in the factious world of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics; his brother, Roger Widdrington, and his kinsman Randall Fenwick (here called ‘Randy’, winningly enough – I’d always thought that was a much more recent diminutive) had even been accused of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

Sir Harry clearly enjoyed his role as host. He’d gone to collect the travellers from Bothal castle and escort them to Widdrington, and had chosen to walk alongside them on the way. On 1 September he’d taken them out hunting, ‘where we killed a buck‘. Now he was going to show them some of the local sights as they made their way north.

Jonson’s interest in ‘antiquities’ has already been seen in his exploration of Pontefract and Durham. On the road between Widdrington and Alnmouth, however, stood a monument as fine as anything he’d met with before. The approach to the bridge over the River Coquet at Warkworth was – and is – dominated by an imposing and evocative ‘ancient castle‘, as our writer put it, part of the patrimony of the earls of Northumberland.

Warkworth Castle

Warkworth Castle

The ninth earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, had been incarcerated in the Tower of London since 1605, implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. Warkworth was leased out, and not in the finest state of repair. Indeed, when King James and his entourage visited it in 1617 – also accompanied by Sir Henry Widdrington, ‘they seemed to grieve at the waste of it, every one of them commending it for the best sight that every they had seen’ despite the ‘goats and sheep in every chamber’. Of the lion carved in a crest on the tower, the king joked ‘this lion holds up this castle’. Although Northumberland reclaimed Warkworth later in 1618, angry at the neglect visited upon it by the lessee, it was as an evocative ruin – an antiquity, a heritage site – that it was later to become the object of the artistic attentions of Turner, among others.

Warkworth Castle, by J. M. W. Turner. Copyright V&A.

Warkworth Castle, by J. M. W. Turner

The castle, though, was not the only heritage site that Warkworth had to offer. A mile upstream could be found what our man calls ‘the strange Hermitage‘ – The Hermitage of the Holy Trinity, ‘wonderfully built out of a rock-hewn hollow, wrought without beams, rafters, or any pieces of timber’, as William Camden put it, in the cliff above the river Coquet. It consists of a fourteenth century outer chapel and an older inner chapel with an adjacent dormitory lying above a kitchen, and is ornamented with a number of figures chiselled out of the stone in niches. Until the Reformation the earls of Northumberland had employed a chaplain to hold weekly services there. It clearly made an impression on Jonson and his friend, just as it has continued to do for visitors down to this day.

Warkworth Hermitage

The interior of Warkworth Hermitage, 1814

I don’t know about you, but when I visit sights such as this I’m always trying to imagine them in the heyday of their occupation, bustling with daily business or just ordinarily in use in some kind of unfussy way. A lot of the interpretative information you get in guidebooks and on panels points you in that direction, too. I tend, consequently, to forget that some of them have been tourist sites for centuries, their original functions and capacities long since overlaid by their appeal to the curious mind and eye of the visitor. As the ‘Foot Voyage’ reminds us, places such as Warkworth castle have been ‘antiquities’ for much longer than they were ever the settings for quotidian life. What makes them special, to some extent, is just the fact that they have been sites for a kind of secular pilgrimage – sites of memory – for centuries.

A Hangover in Newcastle

On Friday 29 August 1618, Ben Jonson, famed tippler, was suffering from a hangover.  The previous night he had indulged in forty year old hullock, a Spanish red wine, as he caroused with Newcastle’s prosperous aldermen. Newcastle then, as today, was living up to its reputation for dangerously extravagant hospitality.

As Sir Thomas Wentworth (later earl of Strafford) was to hear from a similarly indisposed correspondent, at Newcastle

‘before we had remained 24 hours, the worst enemy I saw was Mr Mayor’s great pieces of beef and the profuse entertainment we had from the gentlemen in those parts which endangered our health more than the Spaniards did our coasts.’

Hullock, according to the great traveller Richard Hakluyt, was to be used

‘For banqueting on shipboard [of] persons of credit’

along with sack, vials of good sweet waters, figs, walnuts, and almonds. The offering of it to Jonson suggests the esteem in which he was held. Newcastle’s civic elite had a tradition of feasting well, guild accounts showing regular entries for dinners held, for ‘charges concerning the feast for vittles, wine and beer, £2’.

Perhaps these good aldermen should have also given Jonson one of the many hangover cures that were available for ‘surfeit’, such as this one,

‘A powder excellent for the Liver: Take of Rhubarb three drams, of Licorice two drams, of white sugar candy four drams, one dram of Anise seeds, make all these into powder, and take every morning as much as you will upon a shilling and fast an hour after it.’

Jonson’s relationship with the vine was well known, his membership of London’s convivial societies a focal point for his admirers and detractors alike.  William Drummond of Hawthornden thought wine for Jonson was one of the ‘elements in which he liveth’.  But the abandonment to alcoholic excess that this jibe suggests, is not the Jonson that we see on his ‘Foot-Voyage’, or from his life in metropolitan taverns.


Richard Brathwaite, A Solemne Joviall Disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke; briefly shadowing the Law of Drinking (1617)

Alcoholic consumption came with rules. Wine was said to liberate the creative senses to produce elevated wit, conversation and poetry. Too much of it, however, or of the lowly ale, produced boorish or bestial behaviour.

The society of which Jonson was the leading light, that met in the Apollo Rooms over the Devil and St Dunstan in Fleet Street, welcomed its members with the words

‘Here he speaks out of his Pottle,
Or the Tripos, his Tower Bottle;
All his Answers are Divine:
Truth itself doth flow in Wine.
Wine it is the Milk of Venus,
Tis the true Phoebeian Liquor,
Clears the Brains, makes Wit the quicker.
Pays all Debts, cures all Diseases
And at once three Sense pleases.’

But inside were the rules of behaviour, the Leges Conviviales, that Jonson penned

‘And let our only emulation be,
Not drinking much, but talking wittily.
Let it be voted lawful to stir up
Each other with a moderate chirping cup;
Let none of us be mute, or talk too much…’

So prevalent was alcohol in Jacobean society, where light ale was thought healthier than perilous water, that these concerns sat oddly with more puritanical thought. Countless tracts appeared against the evils of excessive alcohol, its corrosive effects on the morals and functioning of society.  Englands Bane: or, The Description of Drunkenness by Thomas Young, Milton’s tutor, published in 1617, enumerated nine types of drunkards:

‘The first is Lion drunk, which breaks glass windows, calls the Hostess Whore, strikes, fights or quarrels.  The second is Ape-drunk, who dances, capers, and leaps about the house, sings and rejoices, and is wholly ravished into jests, mirth and melody.  The third is sheep drunk, … Sow, Fox, Maudlin, Goat, Martin, Bat drunk’

looking glassAnd in 1627, another critic warned against ‘Drunkenness … a flattering Devil, a sweet poison, and a pleasing sin’ in A looking glass for drunkards: Wherein drunkards are unmasked to the view of the world. Very convenient and useful for all people to ruminate on in this drunken Age. I’ll say no more…

A Jacobean Morning Alarm Call

On the morning of their leaving Durham, Jonson and his companion were woken by the sound of waits and cornets.  Whether it was the sweetest reveille or a cacophony of ill-played pipes, the account does not reveal, but the typical instruments of waits were shawms, also known as wait pipes, hautbois, and howboys, the ancestor of the oboe, as well as viols, curtals, and the cornetts [Many thanks for this information to Tom Hughes]

The morning alarm call was a ceremony that featured regularly in a town’s honouring of an important visitor, or indeed, a wealthy traveller might himself pay for the waits to waken him, and to advertise his presence.

Will Kemp had enjoyed the welcome that the Norwich waits gave him, he having danced his way to Norfolk in nine days in 1600:

‘Passing the gate, Wifflers [helped] make my way through the throng of the people, which pressed so mightily upon me: with great labour I got through that narrow press into the open market place. Where on the cross, ready prepared, stood the City Waits, which not a little refreshed my weariness with towling through so narrow a lane: such Waytes, few Cities in our Realm have the like, none better. Who besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the Viol, and Violin: their voices be admirable, every one of them able to serve in any Cathedral Church in Christendom for Choristers.” (William Kemp, Nine Daies Wonder, 1600)

Samuel Pepys wrote of his awakening at the Bear Inn at Cambridge on 15 October 1662: I ‘waked very early, and when it was time rose; and Music (with a Bandore for the Base) did give me a Levett, [a Reveille, or a Hunts-up] and so we got ready’

Jonson himself was to allude to these players in A Tale of a Tub in 1633:

Preamble to Hugh: You are my learned, and canonick neighbour: I would not have you stray; but the incorrigible Knot-headed beast, the Clowns, or Constables, Still let them graze; eat Salads; chew the Cud: All the town-musick will not move a log.

And an anonymous poem of 1680 described

The public waits who liveries do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn public meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’ Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
And weather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings, play them some fine Air
Or brisk new tune such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.

Town waits had originally been employed as watchmen in medieval times, but their function had evolved over the centuries to the town’s minstrels, paid and liveried by the borough council for official ceremonies. For instance in York in 1623, the council noted that

‘Edward Easton is commended to be A very skillful musician It is agreed by these present that he shall be one of the waits in this City And that Christopher Thompson and John Girdler waits their bonds shall be taken as sureties for him for the Chain & Scutcheon’

that is the badge of his office. In Durham’s case, in former times, the waits had been provided by the Bishop.

There is much more information on town waits on the International Guild of Town Pipers website; in particular on early music and historically informed performances in the music of Medieval and Renaissance Town Waits.

Information about and illustrations of York’s town waits can be found on Dr James Merryweather’s website, and on

You can hear waits in action at the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, which is being held this year in Gloucester from September 6-8th.