By Ian Donaldson
‘Of all styles he loved most to be named honest, and hath of that an hundred letters so naming him’, wrote Ben Jonson’s Scottish friend, William Drummond, after Jonson had visited him at his castle at Hawthornden on the River Esk, seven miles south of Edinburgh, in 1618. ‘Honest’ seems a reasonable word to use in relation to Jonson’s character. Those closest to him complained at times that he was vain, egotistical, boastful, a bit of a bully, and that he drank too much, but never accused him of deceit. But it’s possible none the less to sense a certain strain within this reported self-description. If you’re an honest man, why would you need a hundred letters testifying to this fact? Why would you want not merely to be honest, but to be named as honest?
One possible explanation could be that you were required to appear in a court of law or before some other tribunal where your integrity, challenged by others, needed to be formally vouched for. Throughout his career Jonson was indeed in constant trouble with the authorities, and obliged repeatedly to assert that his satirical writings weren’t seditious, that they weren’t aimed at particular persons, and weren’t likely to endanger the security of the state. One of his first theatrical ventures, a now-lost comedy called The Isle of Dogs, written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe and performed at the Swan theatre in 1597, landed him and two fellow-players in Marshalsea prison on charges of sedition and ‘lewd and mutinous behaviour’, and provoked an edict from the Privy Council declaring that all theatrical activity in London should be henceforth suspended — as for several months it was — and that all London playhouses be ‘plucked down’: as happily, in the end, they were not. Had the edict been fully carried out, the world would never have seen such works as Hamlet and King Lear and Macbeth and The Tempest, Volpone and The Alchemist, The Changeling and The Revenger’s Tragedy: plays from the richest theatrical period England has ever known.
A year later Jonson was back in jail again on a charge of manslaughter, having killed in a sword-fight one of the players with whom he’d been imprisoned the previous summer. Expecting soon to be hanged, he rashly converted to Catholicism, but was released after pleading benefit of clergy: an archaic legal device which allowed for a stay of execution if you could prove you were literate by reading the first verse of Psalm 51 (or if you were cunning, by committing that verse to memory). In the years that followed, Jonson was in renewed trouble with the authorities. He was hauled before the Privy Council on charges of ‘popery and treason’ for his tragedy of Sejanus; summoned to the Consistory Courts for recusancy (failing to receive the Anglican communion); and clapped in jail once more for his comedy Eastward Ho!, written in collaboration with his friends George Chapman and John Marston, that contained some glancing satire on the powerful Scottish members of James’s court. ‘The report was they should then had their ears cut and noses’, Jonson later told his friend William Drummond, but once again he and his collaborators managed to escape the expected punishment. Throughout the latter part of his career, Jonson – now England’s most celebrated writer — was quizzed by the civil and religious authorities about a number of his plays, and brought before the Attorney-General on suspicion of having written verses in praise of John Felton, the assassin of Charles I’s favourite courtier, the deeply unpopular George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. All of these charges Jonson managed successfully to deflect and to deny.
The Gunpowder Plot
Never was Jonson’s reputation more endangered than in relation to a business in which he was to become curiously entangled soon after his release from prison following the Eastward Ho! affair. On or about 9 October 1605 Jonson attended a supper party at a hostelry in The Strand known as The Irish Boy, in the company of a number of discontented fellow-Catholics, who were deeply concerned about James’s failure to meet the high expectations with which members of their community had welcomed him to England in 1603. These men were now planning an extreme act of terror, plotting to blow up the House of Lords on 5 November – less than a month away – on the occasion of the state opening of Parliament, thus destroying King James, Prince Henry, and leading ministers of the crown. Jonson’s companions at this supper included Robert Catesby, Francis Tresham, Thomas Winter, John Ashfield, Sir Josceline Percy, and Lord Mordaunt: all ring-leaders in the Gunpowder conspiracy. What was Jonson doing in their midst?
Could he have been trying to dissuade the conspirators from their desperate act? Or could he (some have less generously asked) have been acting as a spy for Sir Robert Cecil, who was soon to lead the commission of enquiry into the Plot, and to recruit Jonson’s services in another capacity? How ‘honest’ were his dealings at this delicate moment? After reading the anonymous letter left at the house of the Catholic peer William Parker, Lord Monteagle, warning of an impending coup, King James had the Parliament building searched. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered, stacked behind the firewood in the cellars. A tall man loitering nearby was immediately arrested. He gave his name as John Johnson, saying that he was a Catholic from Netherdale in Yorkshire. He freely confessed that it had been his intention to blow the building sky-high and the royal family and their counsellors ‘back to Scotland’, but refused to say any more, or give the names of any of his co-conspirators.
James was impressed by the courage of John Johnson – whose true identity, as Guido Faux or Guy Fawkes was soon to be revealed – but determined to break his resolve. He ordered that Fawkes be sent to the Tower of London, where ‘the gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur, [‘and so by degrees moving up to the worst’], ‘and so God speed your good work’. Meanwhile a suitably compliant Catholic priest would need to be recruited to persuade the suspect that it was his moral duty now to disclose to his interrogators further details relating to the Plot. To help with this task the services of Ben Jonson were recruited. On 7 November Jonson received a warrant from the Privy Council instructing him ‘to let a certain priest know (that offered to do good service to the state) that he should securely come and go to their Lordships, which they promise in the said warrant upon their honours’. The following day Jonson wrote to Robert Cecil, reporting that he’d been unable to locate the priest in question, who may have been one Father Thomas Wright, a former Jesuit who is thought to have been the priest who originally had converted Jonson to Catholicism, or another Catholic priest with whom Jonson and the leading conspirator, Robert Catesby, were well acquainted, a certain Father Thomas Strange. Wright did eventually turn up to testify, perhaps as a result of Jonson’s efforts, but his presence was no longer needed, for Guy Fawkes’s resolution by this stage had broken, thanks to the tortures (gentle or otherwise) that had been administered by his interrogators in the Tower of London, and had freely made his confessions.
I believe it is unlikely that Jonson was acting as a spy for Robert Cecil. Jonson was deeply contemptuous of the whole system of espionage that Elizabeth had put in place under Francis Walsingham, which he hoped had been banished by James (though it had not been). He had a personal loathing of particular spies, such as Robert Poley and Henry Parrot who are mentioned by name in one of Jonson’s best-known poems, ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’, as not being present at the table to which he is inviting his unknown guest. None of Jonson’s contemporaries ever hinted at the possibility of his acting for Cecil, a man whom Jonson privately despised, or of his betrayal of members of the faith to which he continued loyally to belong for another seven years. It’s more likely that Jonson, in common with many other English Catholics at this time, was deeply shaken by the proposed events of 5 November, the nearest equivalent in the early modern world to the actual events in recent times of 9/11. He was a patriot in the modern sense of the term (as one who loves his country), a sense of which incidentally he’s the first known English user. He was a supporter of the Stuart dynasty, no lover of Catholic Spain (against whose armies he’d fought as a young man) and had no wish to see King James or the young Prince Henry blown sky-high or back to Scotland with Fawkes’s gunpowder. He was eager after the discovery to assert his loyalty to the King, which he did in a number of epigrams and other writings as well as in his efforts to assist the commission of enquiry. His very survival, professionally and literally, depended on his ability in these perilous times to parlay, to negotiate between parties holding sharply conflicting beliefs, to protect himself though the arts of silence and accommodation; to project an image of himself as a man who never changed and never wavered, who ’of all styles loved most to be named honest’.
Ian Donaldson is Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Ben Jonson: A Life.