As you enjoy the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot this November, spare a thought for Ben Jonson, who, Prospect can reveal, was arrested after Guy Fawkes's capture and forced to prove his loyaltyby Rosalind Miles / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
When terror strikes, panic, confusion and the urgent need for information follow, whether the threat occurs in 1605 or 2005. When the gunpowder plot burst upon the consciousness of the authorities 400 years ago, they were caught napping, and the frantic search for new sources produced an unlikely result. Shakespeare’s great contemporary and friend, the actor, poet and playwright Ben Jonson, was dragged into the gunpowder plot, and employed by the government in the aftermath.
In Jonson’s day, theatre and politics were closely intertwined, as we know from the life and murky death of Shakespeare’s other famous contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Jonson himself had already come to the attention of the authorities for activities long forgotten now that posterity has crowned him a leading man of letters and one of England’s finest dramatists. In November 1605, Jonson was a convicted killer and jailbird, notorious for the violent duel which had ended a fellow actor’s life and for his involvement with “seditious and slanderous” plays. A man of huge appetites and passions, over six feet tall and weighing 22 stone, he was also famous for his fearless and quarrelsome temperament. Inevitably he was surveyed and pulled in.
He was not alone. Feverish enquiries were being made on all sides. Like 9/11 and the London suicide bombings, the plot to blow up King James and his parliament seemed to come out of nowhere, and was all the more terrifying for that.
And for the first few days, no more information could be gleaned. Guy Fawkes had been arrested alone guarding the gunpowder in the cellar, and despite being put on the rack, baffled all interrogation with heroic fortitude. Even as a trained soldier and experienced undercover agent who had served with the Spanish army in the low countries, his coolness and courage under interrogation were extraordinary. Pressed by King James, the privy councillors became increasingly desperate to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and ordered new suspects brought in. At the top of their list was one Ben Jonson, lowlife and convicted criminal.
Fawkes himself was almost certainly responsible for Jonson’s arrest. True to form as a trained agent, he gave a false name on his arrest and called himself John Johnson for several days. Ben stubbornly called himself “Jonson” to distinguish himself from the common herd of ordinary Johnsons, but not until the advent of another Johnson…