The Buzz of a Big Town

The travellers’ arrival at Newark is one of those points in the walk where we see plans giving way to events. ‘We had purposed to lie at Mr Atkinson’s, the postmaster’s‘, it says, ‘but Wombwell of the Hart subtly anticipated us‘. Newark was a busy place, wrote an observer in 1609, ‘a great thoroughfare town and a post town, and the Kinges Majesties subjects doe usually travell from the north parts into the south parts through the said town, and lykewyse back again‘.

Newark, Market square

Market square, Newark

It seems that two of its most prominent hosts were vying with each other for the privilege of accommodating this important visitor. William Wombwell’s trump card here may well have been the White Hart itself, one of the grandest and oldest inns in Newark, which was located in the south west corner of the market square and distinguished by its ornately decorated fifteenth century front range. Miraculously, much of this part of the building survives to this day, and it is now a branch of the Nottingham Building Society. Inside, you can still see seventeenth century wall decorations similar, if not identical, to those which would have greeted Jonson when he arrived here.

Newark, old White Hart inn 2

Front range, Old White Hart inn, Newark

Comfortably parked in this corner of Newark’s bustling market square, Jonson and his companion took the opportunity to relax and let the world come to them. Scots courtiers – regular users, now, of this north road – passed through. John Twentyman of the Saracen’s Head – a rival inn almost next door to the White Hart – gave them ‘good sport‘. Local gentry families entertained them. The vicar, Edmund Mason, was a member of such a family, and also a man with ample court and literary connections. He had counted the actor and playwright Nathan Field and the poet Francis Beaumont among his associates; in 1615, he played several parts in the performance of George Ruggle’s neo-Latin satire Ignoramus before the king and Prince Charles at Cambridge. Indeed, Mason was tutor to the prince, probably prior to his appointment at Ordsall in 1614, and from at least 1621 a chaplain-in-ordinary at court: his Sermon Preached at Oatlands was published in 1622 by royal command. His fellow royal chaplain, the poet and later bishop Richard Corbet, celebrates Mason as ‘a man whose Tongue and Life is eloquent’ in his lengthy travel poem Iter Boreale [‘A Northern Journey’], written in the early 1620s.

So the conversation at Newark was undoubtedly good – good enough, perhaps, to explain a stay of four days in this lively place. But there were other diversions: ‘here were fireworks and bull baiting‘, the account says. Newark had a castle and a garrison, so perhaps the pyrotechnics originated there. And the market square features, even now, a bear or bull baiting post, though it isn’t of seventeenth century vintage and probably also isn’t in the original location. Given that the travellers stayed from Friday till Tuesday, it’s possible that ‘the Lord’s holy sabbath‘ was ‘profaned‘ with these and like recreations – ‘Beare and Bull baiting, … dicing and carding, … May games and morrice dance‘, as the more godly complained. If it was, then it’s hard to imagine Jonson being too fussed about it.

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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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