York is a significant presence in the ‘Foot Voyage’, and clearly more than an incidental destination. When Jonson and his companion pitched up at Thomas Key’s fine inn, The George in Coney Street (long since demolished, more’s the pity) they were ‘
no sooner housed but diverse came to see us‘. There were plenty of people keen to greet the walkers, and to offer them a lavish welcome to what was then England’s second city.
It’s clear that the travellers went off to do a bit of sightseeing, since appended to the ‘Foot Voyage’ account in the Aldersey manuscript are some antiquarian notes in the same hand on a couple of notable events in York’s history, combined with observations on heraldic detail in the Minster. The historical episodes recalled in these notes are moments of national and international political significance: the elaborate celebrations for the marriage of Henry III’s daughter, Margaret, to Alexander III of Scotland, at York Minster on 26 December 1251, which were attended by many of the nobility and knights of both kingdoms, and the public ceremony and feast for the installation of George Neville as archbishop in 1465, a byword at the time for conspicuous consumption. The notes include an abbreviated version of the extensive list of provisions, fuller instances of which survive in other sources.
We also have the companion’s record of a visit he made – without his gossip – to a very grand building to the north west of the city centre:
This day Mr Walter, my Lord President’s steward, showed me the new manor which the king hath new built where St Mary’s monastery stood, and carried me down into the cellar, which is the fairest, largest, and fullest of light that I have seen. Two springs of excellent sweet water rising in the middest thereof.
This is the King’s Manor, which had its origins in a palace hastily constructed on seized monastic lands for a visit by Henry VIII. The new complex was constructed on the orders of James VI and I as the seat for the Council of the North, the instrument of royal government for the whole of the north of England – the ‘Lord President’ mentioned here was Edmund Sheffield, President of the Council until 1619. Construction of the imposing building began in 1611, and by 1616 had already cost £1000; the new manor incorporated the only remaining part of Henry’s palace, the extensive cellar which so impressed Jonson’s companion.
So what the travellers find in York is a city which is its own centre of political and historical gravity. Interestingly, King James had once spoken of a plan – or threat – to set up his court at York, the union of the Scottish and English crowns raising the possibility of the city’s reinvention as a new nation’s capital.
And it’s notable that Jonson’s other host here, who ‘
sent to my Gossip telling him he hoped he would take none other house but his whilst he was in town’, should be the magnate and monopolist Sir Arthur Ingram. Formerly one of the company of wits who met at the Mitre in London, and rebuffed in his attempts to secure court office, he concentrated instead on his growing estates in Yorkshire: he acquired the position of secretary to the Council of the North in 1613, and subsequently bought a lease of the crown’s rights in the alum industry. He built himself an impressive house in York while continuing to accumulate property, office and influence in the county; by 1625, his estates yielded between £4,000 and £5,000 per year. He was living proof – to set alongside the architectural evidence – of York’s capacity to sustain, among other qualities, grand ambition.
Read more stories about York at www.yorkstories.co.uk.