Archive discovery brings colourful life of Shakespeare's rival Ben Jonson into focus

By Richard Moss | 26 October 2011
a portrait of a bearded man with large white collar
Ben Johnson, Elizabethan poet, playwright and firebrand.
As academics, actors, filmmakers and half the population of Stratford-upon-Avon debate the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays, an archive discovery has brought the career and work of one of the Bard's biggest rivals into sharper focus.

Ben Jonson, who pops up in the controversial new Hollywood Shakespeare movie Anonymous, was the author of several enduring Elizabethan plays including The Alchemist and Volpone. He also lived a notorious and intriguing life, which included a couple of spells in gaol and a charge for manslaughter after he killed an actor in a duel.

One of his more eccentric, albeit less contentious escapades, was a walk from London to Scotland in 1618. His own account of the journey, however, was destroyed in a fire at his house a few years later and no direct record of the trip has existed – until now.

Researchers from The University of Nottingham and The University of Edinburgh are examining an anonymous 41-page journal in a major research project, which they believe will reconstruct a large missing piece of the colourful jigsaw of Ben Jonson's life story.

The 7,500-word handwritten manuscript was found by the University's Dr James Loxley among papers in the archives of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall in Cheshire in 2009.

Experts believe the document, which is enigmatically titled "My Gossip Jonson's foot journey and mine into Scotland", was written by a mystery companion and represents the only surviving first-hand account of the legendary literary journey.

"Jonson's 'foot voyage' has long been thought of as one of the more striking episodes in a sumptuously colourful life," says Dr Loxley. "This newly discovered account is a treasure trove of detail on Jonson’s famous walk for anyone with an interest in British cultural history."

A team from the University is now working to translate the document for inclusion in a new Complete Works of Ben Jonson by Cambridge University Press, due out in spring 2012.

A separate annotated edition of the manuscript with newly-commissioned essays on cultures of travel including other literary walks of the time will be published in 2014.
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