Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

JonsonContrary as always, Ben Jonson could cast horoscopes – but didn’t believe in them. What, then, would he have made of his own?

In some ways, perhaps, he was born lucky: winter offered the worst chances of survival for an Elizabethan baby; Jonson was born in midsummer. Even so, he was fortunate to survive. One in fifty babies were dead within a day; one in twenty within a week; one in ten within a month; one in eight within a year. One in three would not live out their childhood. Wherever he was born, it was not in London, and in this he was lucky, too: mortality in the City was higher than anywhere else in the country.

He entered the world on 11 June 1572, the feast of St Barnabas. In Canterbury and Stratford-on-Avon, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both eight years old, were already at school. Spenser was still studying at Cambridge; Sidney had left Oxford – and friends like William Camden – before graduating and was now on the Grand Tour. It would be another four years before London would get a permanent theatre, its first since Roman times. The Elizabethan moment had yet to arrive.

Under the old calendar, the feast of St Barnabas was the longest day of the year. The people celebrated it as Barnaby the Bright; they cut flowers to garland the altars. But there was not a great deal else to celebrate for England that summer. Fear and suspicion were rife. May Day had seen the first demonstration before Elizabeth of London’s – and England’s –  trained bands, a Privy Council innovation to ensure that there was an adequate ‘home guard’ in case of invasion. Counties were required to ensure that their best men received ten days training a year in use of pike and musket, and in military discipline generally. On that May holiday, 3,000 of the finest from London’s City militia took part in a war game – perhaps around one in 20 of the adult male population.

A few weeks later, and nine days before Jonson was born, the Catholic Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, was executed for his part in the Ridolfi plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Abroad, the wary, impoverished monarchy had been offering minimal support to its co-religionists in the Low Countries since their 1566 uprising against imperial Spain. But France was flexing its muscles northwards. Many English protestants felt compelled to help; Elizabeth, too, saw the need to loosen the reins a little. Within a month of Jonson’s birth, some 1,500 English soldiers under Sir Humphrey Gilbert – half-brother of Sir Walter Ralegh – would arrive in the newly liberated ports of Brill and Flushing. (George Gascoigne was one of those serving under Gilbert’s command.) The stakes were high: later that summer, on 24 August, Charles IX of France would unleash the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; estimates of the Hugenot dead range as high as 100,000.

Jonson may have been born lucky. But he was certainly born too late. A month earlier, his father had died. We don’t know who he was or where they lived. Perhaps he was the John Johnson buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields – near Jonson’s childhood home – on 28th May. In any event, the death of his father would change and complicate, perhaps even scar, the whole of Jonson’s life, emotionally as well as practically.

Jonson’s father – a minister – was himself the son of an émigré Scottish gentleman who had perhaps left Scotland around the time of its calamitous defeat by the English at the Battle of Solway Firth in 1542. An alternative theory is that he was in the retinue of Margaret Tudor, elder sister to Henry VIII and wife of James V of Scotland, who spent several years in exile in England, staying at Scotland Yard, on the northern edge of the Palace of Westminster. All we know, via Jonson, is that his grandfather had served Henry VIII and must therefore have been in England by 1547. On one level, the death of his father was just as well. Jonson’s father had been persecuted for his faith some 20 years early under Queen Mary; it is unlikely he would have wished to live to see his son turn Catholic. On every other level it was a disaster.

Jonson’s mother, Rebecca was a formidable woman. But bringing up a child alone in Elizabethan England was next to impossible and her husband’s estate, Jonson remembered bitterly, had been lost to Queen Mary. It wasn’t long before she remarried. No doubt this was necessity; it may too have been love. Her new husband was a bricklayer named Robert Brett.

For Jonson, though, who could probably not remember life before Brett, fortune was not favouring him. He became used to adversity at an early age. True, he and his mother were not destitute. They were certainly very poor, however. But his grandfather had been a gentleman; his father a minister; his stepfather was now a bricklayer. The trajectory was not propitious. More than that, whatever Jonson would do, the tag would always hang over him. Whenever anyone wanted to humiliate and belittle him – as they did right through to the 1630s – they would reach for bricklaying to slur his achievements and – in an age that equated social status with moral worth – his character.

There seem to have been other issues here too, though. Father/son relationships – especially when broken off – run throughout his work. But there are other, more complex, autobiographical strands, too, Adultery hangs like a shadow over much of Jonson’s life and work. In many of his plays – five of the seven comedies in the Folio, for instance – there is a triangle between a dimwitted husband, distant wife and younger man. A conventional enough comic trope, perhaps. But for an artist as conscious – self-conscious, even – as Jonson, it is an interesting coincidence.

Then you have the fact that as a young man Jonson would only sleep with married women. Even in later life, perhaps in his long periods of separation from his wife, we know he was caught at least twice inflagrante by husbands. And there is another strange triangle involving a cocksure husband inviting a gallant to test the virtue of his wife, who is willingly seduced. Jonson told the story with himself as the adulterer. John Marston, satirising Jonson on stage in 1601, used the same story ­– but made Jonson the cuckold. Which version, one wonders, is true? There is nothing concrete, here, of course; but a fierce tangle of primal emotions and obsessions. Nothing clearly connected to Jonson’s parents, either. But then, given the nature of the fixation, where else could such passions gain such purchase, stoke such rage? Did he see sex as a weapon? Or as revenge?

Perhaps his later conversion to Catholicism was a kind of vengeance, too, on his father.

Jonson grew up in the shadow of the court. Either literally or metaphorically, he would spend most of his life there. By the time he could walk, he was living with his mother and stepfather in Hartshorn Lane near Charing Cross, which lies under what is now Northumberland Avenue.  In what was something of a slum area, in the liberties about Westminster Abbey, Hartshorn Lane can hardly have been a choice address. At the top of the lane, where the family lived, a small stream that functioned as an open sewer ran alongside before it veered west and emptied into the Thames by Scotland Yard. Nevertheless, they made it as habitable as possible: sometime in the 1580s, Brett built a garden over the sewer where it ran past their house. More than likely, Jonson helped him.

Perhaps that kind of improvement is a measure Brett’s tenacity and aspiration, characteristics which Jonson seems to have inherited, too. Brett would eventually become Master of the Tilers and Bricklayers Company, not the most auspicious of guilds but a guild nonetheless; in the strict social hierarchy of Elizabethan England, it was as great a position as he could hope to attain. Jonson, of course, would aim higher, although it seems likely that he began a career as a bricklayer and – despise it as he might ­ – he would certainly fall back on the trade in hard times. More than that, he would keep up his dues to the guild long after necessity required it. Until shortly after his stepfather’s death in 1609, in fact.

Hartshorn Lane, like most of the roads south of the Strand to the river, began life as the yard of an inn, from which an alley led to a wharf on the Thames. Every day, Jonson would have walked through the gateway at the top of the lane under the Christopher Inn. About a mile to the east, lay the City, along the unevenly paved Strand and over two small bridges where streams crossed the street. The northern side of the Strand was still largely open fields up towards Holborn; the south was dominated by the houses of the wealthy, whose long gardens dropped away to the river. Traffic between court and city was constant and the eastern end of the Strand was notorious for pick-pockets and thieves.

If Jonson walked straight ahead out of Hartshorn Lane he would come immediately upon the Charing Cross itself, much decayed by now, and then, a few steps further, to St Martin’s Lane. On the western corner was the Chequer Inn, built 80 years previously, and then the King’s Mews, rebuilt in the 1550s, where Elizabeth stabled her horses. On the eastern corner was the Swan Inn, where Jonson would drink throughout his life; some 40 years later he eulogised its tapster, Ralph, for a bemused King James.

Past the Swan was the church itself – already growing too small for its parish’s burgeoning population – and the parish school, where Jonson received his first education. Beyond that the fields around St Giles, where hay was grown to feed the royal horses and women went to lay out their washing to dry. It was in these fields that Babington and his fellow conspirators would meet and discuss the ill-fated plot that would cost Mary, Queen of Scots her head.

But in any event, it was to the west of Hartshorn Lane where Jonson’s future lay. There was the court, of course. More importantly, perhaps, there was Westminster School, where Jonson was sent by an unknown benefactor towards the end of the 1570s. To reach it, Jonson would walk past the chapel and hospital of St Mary Rounceval, by the 1570s converted into a private house but once the foundation to which Chaucer’s Pardoner belonged, and then past the tenements and houses on King Street (modern Whitehall) inhabited, like much of the area, by servants at court: the chief clerk to the kitchen; the sergeant of the cellar; the queen’s glazier; grooms of the Queen’s scullery; hairdressers; and so on.

His path then took him past through the two public gates of Whitehall Palace, confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey by Henry VIII and onto the Abbey and to the small school in its precinct.

It was arguably the luckiest thing that would ever happen to him.

9 thoughts on “Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

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  1. I am doing a close reading of To Penshurst for my Open College of the Arts degree – I love this poem for all the right and the wrong reasons!

    The blushing apricot and woolly peach
    Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach …

  2. I have not seen this before, and now that I have, I am grateful you brought it to my attention via Twitter. Excellent post and very informative. I have limited knowledge of the man, but I know some of his work.

  3. This is all most interesting. And have you read THE SECRET LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE by Jude Morgan? Ben J is very important in that…throughout! You learn an enormous amount about him as well as about Shakespeare.

    1. Thank you Adele, that’s very kind of you! No I haven’t read Jude Morgan’s novel yet. It does sound wonderful, though, so I must shuffle it nearer to the top of the ‘must read’ pile!

  4. Loved this, love Ben Jonson but have realised how appalling my geography of London is. I assume he grew up between Westminster and the City. But it must have been outside, west of the City walls.

    1. Thanks for your comment Carol – very much appreciated! Yes, he would have been quite a way outside the City walls in contemporary terms – getting on for a mile, I would guess.

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