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.
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.
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.
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.