As Jonson ‘came weary to bed’ at Huntingdon on the night of Wednesday 15 July he will have been glad to find this red-brick hostelry which still operates as an inn today, positioned on the old burgh’s limits. In 1598, The George was owned by Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchingbrooke, of a local gentry family, and grandfather to the future Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It is possible that by 1618, The George was in the hands of the family of Oliver’s father, Robert, who had inherited property in Huntingdon from Sir Henry.
Huntingdon was then a busy market town given its position on the Great North Road. The George was one of several such inns servicing the travellers, traders, and dignitaries that passed through, though it was probably grander than most of the others – The Bull, The Cock and Hoop, and The Swan on Temple Lane, and The Falcon on St Mary’s Lane amongst others. In 1598, Sir Henry Cromwell had paid 11s 11d rates on it to the borough, considerably more than the 3 pennies paid by the owner of The Falcon.
Inns were the nexus points in a network of roads that linked towns in the regions to each other, and to London. They provided lodgings and sustenance for travellers, the place in which to entertain visiting grandees, local JPs often met there to hold their assizes, and horses were replenished. Although no mention is made of any accompanying horse, Jonson will presumably have had one to carry his bags. In addition, one innkeeper in each of the larger towns on the Great North Road will have also acted as postmaster, the inn providing a staging post for the carriers of the royal mail.
Innkeepers thus became important figures in any journey, and travellers’ tales often recount the quality of their entertainment. John Taylor, the water-poet travelling to Scotland the same summer of 1618, thought innkeepers should be ‘the Mirror of Goodfellowship, the Pattern of true Friendship, and the nonparallel of jovial Entertainment’. At Huntingdon he had stayed at The Crown, the postmaster’s inn. His host being
Informed who I was, and wherefore I undertook this my pennilesse Progress, came up into our chamber, and supped with us, and very bountifully called for three quarts of Wine and Sugar, and four Jugges of Beer. He did drink and begin Healths like a Horse-leech, and swallowed downe his cuppes without feeling. In a word, as he is a Poste, he drank poste, striving by all means to make the Reckoning great…
which he left to a disgruntled Taylor.
Jonson was to stay in such inns when on the Great North Road, but appears to have had a happier experience than Taylor in most, except one hostelry at Chester-le-Street where ‘mine host was a drunken, disordered fellow’. Some, like the Nag’s Head on Sandhill in Newcastle, and The George, ‘the famous ordinary’, in York’s Coney Street have gone. But several of them, such as The Falcon in Puckeridge as well as The George at Huntingdon, retain their original operations today. Some erstwhile inns have been converted to other purposes – the oldest part of the White Hart at Newark, for example (of which more in a later blog post) is now the office of a building society.
Jonson will have stayed overnight in inns, but there were other grades of hostelry where he could expect different fare. An ‘ordinary’ was any type of establishment where a meal could be had at a fixed price, the more elevated of these turning into gambling clubs for the urban elites in the later part of the seventeenth century. Innkeepers usually had wine licences, their annual dues helpfully (for us) recorded in the Exchequer Accounts at the National Archives in Kew. Thomas Kay’s at York was a pricey £4 10 shillings pa, whilst only £2 was due from William Carver who hosted Jonson, and judges on their circuits, at Doncaster (Carver soon made his money back, one judges’ bill coming to over £11). A step down was to the more prolific alehouses, where Jonson and his companion will have slaked their thirsts in the heat of the day, drinking small beer or ale rather than the heavier canaries and hullocks of the finer inns.
But the prevalence of alcohol and ‘mine hosts’ throughout our journal attests to the centrality of such establishments in seventeenth century life. In the absence of a sufficient town hall, the better sorts of inns became a central meeting place of the civic elites. Borough accounts throughout England include payments, such as at Doncaster in 1618 for the five shillings and 10 pence to an innkeeper ‘for a gallon of Claret a pottle of sack a pottle of white wine for my Lords grace of yorke & a quart of Claret & sugar for Mr Maior’. Jonson, the frequenter of the Mermaid and other such London taverns, was to indulge liberally in the liquid fare of their country cousins.