The Poet, The Parson and a Pailful of Ale

When Ben Jonson Came to Bottesford

Catherine Pugh

Ben Jonson by George Vertue


From thence we were brought by Captain Stratford, Mr Marks and another gentleman of My Lord’s to Bottesford, three miles off Belvoir, where lie all the Earls of Rutland entombed. But by the way, the Earl, my Lord Willoughby, and Sir Robert Willoughby being a hunting and spying us on our journey, galloped over to us, and the Earl bid God send us well on our pilgrimage. At Bottesford, a grave and reverent man called Doctor Fleming gave us great entertainment. And an honest parson Surcot, beneficed hard by, would not part from us till he had made us taste of all the ale thereabouts, and not contented so waylaid us at the town’s end with a pail full of ale, which when he had emptied, we made low curtsey to his red nose, and parted, etc.         

My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and mine into Scotland    Cheshire Archives


Ben Jonson, bricklayer, soldier, jobbing actor, who had been imprisoned for sedition and branded for manslaughter, became the greatest literary figure of his age, more famous even than his friend Shakespeare.

In July 1618 he visited Bottesford.

Title Page Ben Jonson’s Collected Works

In 1618 Ben Jonson, the most celebrated writer in Britain, set out to walk from London to Edinburgh and back. His motives for setting out on such a journey are unclear. He may have undertaken it for a wager, since bets of that sort were a popular sport of the day. Possibly he was following the journey taken by King James in the previous year. King James stayed at Belvoir Castle six times altogether. In 1617 he persuaded Francis Manners, who had become a trusted advisor, to accompany him to Scotland. The King’s visit to Scotland was vastly expensive. Jonson’s, in contast, was deliberately frugal. Probably Jonson was curious to visit the home of his ancestors, since his father, who died a month before Jonson’s birth, came from Annandale, in the ‘debateable lands’ of the Scottish borders.

Frontispiece to ”The Muses Welcome to the High and Mightie Prince James” (Edinburgh, 1618)

It was generally assumed that Jonson walked alone and that any details of his journey were lost. A Discovery, Jonson’s account of the walk, which took almost a year, was destroyed in a fire in 1623. In 2013, however, Professor James Loxley of Edinburgh University found a manuscript entitled My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and mine into Scotland in the Cheshire archives. The identity of the writer is unknown, but he methodically records the places through which he and Ben Jonson passed and the names of the people they encountered on the way. [1]

Jonson was born in London in 1572. He was educated at Westminster School until he was 15, then worked variously as a bricklayer, soldier and jobbing actor before turning his hand to writing. In spite of being imprisoned for sedition and branded for manslaughter, by 1618 he had become the most famous poet and dramatist in the country, with many nobles as friends and patrons and commissions to create masques for the court as ‘the king’s poet.’

Detail from the frontispeice of Coryat’s Crudities. Coryat was a traveler and friend of Jonson.

His walk was not entirely unlike a royal progress. In many towns they were greeted by local dignitaries and ‘the maids and young men came out to meet us’. He was entertained in a succession of aristocratic households and was invited by Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland, to stay at Belvoir.


Why Did Jonson Stay at Belvoir?


Belvoir Castle c. 1780

It seems likely that Francis Manners and Jonson had been acquainted for some time. Like Shakespeare, Jonson seems to have been associated  with the intellectual circle around the Earl of Essex who was executed for treason in 1601 and Jonson possibly came to know the Manners family first in that context.

Fancis Manners, 6th Earl Of Rutland

Francis Manners and his brother, Roger, the 5th Earl, had been implicated in the Essex uprising, but were pardoned by King James. Both brothers had close connections with the court, the theatre and the literary world. Roger Manners was married to Elizabeth Sidney, to whom Jonson wrote poems. Amongst his other patrons were Elizabeth Sidney’s cousins, Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, and Philip and William Herbert, Earls of Pembroke. The Manners brothers were early patrons of Inigo Jones, who is believed to have travelled to Denmark with them in 1603 and is recorded in the Belvoir accounts as a ‘picture maker’. Jones and Jonson collaborated on the production of extravagant courtly entertainments, The Masque of Blackness and the Masque of Beauty, in which Elizabeth Sidney and Lucy Harrington appeared.

Why Did Jonson Stop in Bottesford?

Jonson’s companion’s account of their time in Bottesford says little about the reasons for their visit, but a number of possibilities have been suggested. Jonson was an admirer of Elizabeth Sidney, whose poetry he thought was equal to that of her father, Sir Philip Sidney. The tomb to Roger, 5th Earl of Rutland and Elizabeth, who had both died in 1612, was just reaching completion and he would have wished to see it.

Tomb of Elizabeth Sidney and Roger, 5th Earl of Rutland, from Angels and Dragons: Faces at St. Mary the Virgin, Bottesford

Jonson may have already known the rector, Dr. Samuel Fleming, who had been chaplain to the Earls of Rutland since 1582. He would also have known of, and possibly met, Abraham Fleming, Samuel’s brother, who died in 1607. Abraham Fleming’s memorial tablet lay close to the new tomb.  Samuel and Abraham Fleming, like Jonson, were scholars and writers.  Abraham was a significant figure in Elizabethan literary circles as the editor of Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Woodcut used to illustrate Macbeth’s meeting with the witches in Holinshed’s Chronicles,

Jonson’s visit coincided with the period leading up to the Belvoir witchcraft trials of January – March 1619. [2] Jonson may have heard the rumours of witchcraft in the Vale of Belvoir and the suggestion that sorcery was responsible for the death of the Earl’s first son, Henry, and the precarious health of Francis, his surviving heir. Jonson was sceptical about witchcraft and had presented a witch and her disciples in  the Masque of Queens (1609)  as a comment on the current witch mania:

The ditch is made, and our nails the spade,

With pictures full, of wax and of wool;

Their livers I stick, with needles quick;

There lacks but the blood, to make up the flood.


     A worm in his mouth, and a thorn in his tail,

     Fire above, and fire below,

     With a whip in your hand, to make him go.

Costume designs for a witch by Inigo Jones 1640

Jonson’s royal patron, James, had taken a close personal interest in the subject, believing himself to have been a victim. In Demonology James set out to refute the arguments of Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft. Scott maintained that there was no such thing as witchcraft and that witches were innocent victims of persecution. Although attributed to Reginald Scott, the Discovery of Witchcraft was  partly written by Abraham Fleming and it seems that Jonson had studied it closely.

Suspected witches kneeling before King James Daemonologie 1597

King James himself began to have doubts about witchcraft. In 1616 he visited Leicester so that he could question a boy who had testified that 15 women were witches. James exposed the boy as a fraud. In The Devil is an Ass (1616) which satirized claims of diabolical possession Jonson refered to the King’s intervention in the Leicester case :

                                        ‘Tis no hard thing t’ outdo the devil in:

                                       A boy o’ thirteen year old made him an ass

                                       But t’other day

We do not know if witchcraft was discussed either at Belvoir or at Bottesford. Perhaps, given the failing health of  the Earl’s remaining son and the increasing rumours around the Flower family in the Vale it was too sensitive a topic at Belvoir.

Effigies of Henry and Francis Manners, Tomb of Francis, 6th Earl of Rutland, from “Angels and Dragons: Faces at St. Mary the Virgin, Bottesford”

This was not Jonson’s last visit to Belvoir. In August 1621, after the death of Francis the young heir in 1620, Jonson oversaw a production of his masque The Gypsies Metamorphosed for a payment of £100 plus £13 for a horse.[3]

Church of St. Mary the Virgin Bottesford, early C19th

At Bottesford the Rector proved a generous host. If Jonson had been planning a learned discussion of witchcraft  with that ‘grave and reverent’ humanist  he seems to have been thwarted by Parson Surcot, from Muston ‘hard by’, who was determined they should sample the local ale by the paleful. Given Jonson’s reputation for hard-drinking, ‘he would many times exceed in drink’  according to John Aubrey, Surcot probably got his way.

The Mermaid Tavern, where Jonson reputedly drank with Shakespeare.

[1] For more information about Jonson’s walk to Edinburgh go to:

Ben Jonson’s Walk on Film

[2] For an examination of the local cicumstaces and cultural background to the Belvoir Witch Trial see Wicked Pratise & Sorcerye The Belvoir Witchcraft Trial of 1619 Michael Honeybone Baron Books 2008

[3]Details of the Manners association with Jonson and other aspects of his life from Ben Jonson:A Life  Ian Donaldson Oxford 2011

This page was added on 09/08/2021.

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