Worksop Manor: Falling Floors and Ghostly Paces

One of the fun things about the ‘Foot Voyage’ account is its capacity to illuminate rather more than the life and progress of its central character. In recording Jonson’s pilgrimage through Jacobean Britain, the companion has accidentally – or perhaps incidentally – captured details about the people and places encountered on the way that aren’t known to us from other sources. And despite his anonymity, he’s also revealed some information about himself that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to get from a 400 year old written record.

Worksop Manor

Worksop Manor

We can see this clearly in what the account has to say about Jonson’s visit to Worksop Manor on August 2 1618. The house they were going to see stood a mile to the west of the town of Worksop itself, and was a well known architectural landmark. In the late 1570s or early 1580s George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury and husband to ‘Bess of Hardwick’, instigated an extensive remodelling and enlargement of an existing hunting lodge on the site, under the direction and to the designs of the famous Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson. The resulting building was strikingly tall and extensively glazed, a ‘lantern and skyscraper of a house’, as Mark Girouard has put it; its gallery was particularly famous throughout England for its size and its position on the second floor of the building. But this incarnation of the Manor doesn’t survive: it burned down in 1761, after having undergone extensive rebuilding and renovation.

Our knowledge of Smythson’s Worksop Manor therefore derives from some surviving architectural drawings, engravings of questionable accuracy, and what can be gleaned from records of royal visits and relevant estate accounts. To these we can now add the ‘Foot Voyage’, since the house made a strong impression on the writer and his notes include some details which, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t been found elsewhere.

Here’s what he says:

We were first brought up to the great chamber, the floor whereof fell down when the king was there, a wonderful fair room; then to the king’s chamber, far beyond that, and after to the gallery, who for the bigness and beauty thereof exceedeth most that I have seen. It is fourscore and fifteen of my paces long. There are some eight large windows, in which are set the coats and arms of all the dukes, earls and barons of England. The house is as goodly as I have seen both for the height, situation and form of building. It stands in a park which is eight miles about, furnished with the tallest, straightest and largest oaks that ere I saw, and hath had in it at one time 1500 deer; eleven hundred died in the great snow.

The information the account gives us on the gallery windows – not their number, which we know from other sources, but their inclusion of noble coats of arms – would appear to be new. But this probably seems far less arresting than the suggestion that the floor of the great chamber fell down during a royal visit – probably King James’s stay at Worksop on his journey south in 1603, when he was entertained by Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, and ceremonially welcomed to the house by a young William Cavendish. There doesn’t appear to be any other record of the king being caught up in an architectural calamity here, and one might expect something as serious as a falling floor to have been at least mentioned elsewhere. But here we too have to tread carefully: the account actually spells the word ‘flower’, which is an attested spelling for ‘floor’ in this period, but could of course mean something else – what, though, it is hard to say, as there doesn’t seem to be an architectural meaning for ‘flower’ that would make sense in the context. And if it does indeed mean ‘floor’, this may not have been quite the structural failure it would seem to be at first glance, because ‘floor’ could also mean ‘ceiling’ – so what we’re talking about here is most probably some dodgy plasterwork, rather than a major disaster. Embarrassing, perhaps, for Shrewsbury, and a bit of a nasty headache for both the household and anyone in the vicinity when it came down, but perhaps neither life- nor house-threatening.

Worksop Manor

Worksop Manor in the 18th century

And then there are the measurements. Given that the gallery at Worksop was famed for its size, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the writer chose to pace it out for himself. What I find rather winning about this – and I admit, this is a bit nerdy – is that we can actually compare this with the known length of the gallery, as recorded in a surviving plan. It was, in fact, 212 feet long. A quick calculation tells us, therefore, that the writer’s stride was about 27 inches, or 68.5 centimetres. So what? Well, it is possible to calculate someone’s height, at least roughly, from the length of their stride, and using a standard formula we can estimate that someone with a stride of that length was probably about 1.65m, or 5′ 5″, tall.

I like that. Among the traces that Jonson’s companion left us are his own paces, echoing down the gallery of a long-vanished country house. We may not be able to uncover his name, his age, his parentage or any of the usual details, but the ghostly figure we have to imagine at least has an approximate height.

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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