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 / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 in the 18th century, the mighty dictionary-maker Sam, were spellings regulated to distinguish such variants. To anyone of the time, therefore, Johnson and Jonson were the same name. The Jacobean authorities would have been negligent indeed not to pull in a known troublemaker who shared the surviving arch-conspirator’s name.
And despite his literary claims, Jonson was a natural suspect. He was a Catholic, and by the laws on religion from the time of Elizabeth I, this spelled treason. Not all Catholics were traitors, but all active traitors of the time were Catholics, committed as keenly as today’s jihadi fanatics to the destruction of the ungodly in order to bring about a world united in the one true faith. As a convert, Jonson was also a Catholic of the worst kind, one who had turned his back on his Protestant faith. Worse still, he was the son of a Protestant priest who had suffered under the Catholic Queen Mary. He was doubly a traitor, to his father and to the state.
Ben Jonson had other links with “John Johnson” too. Like Fawkes, he had fought in the low countries, where he would have encountered plenty of other Catholics, good and bad. And it could not have escaped the privy council that both Jonson and Fawkes had a similarly rash and reckless temperament, openly professing their Catholicism when plain self-preservation dictated otherwise.
But there was more than this. Both Jonson and Fawkes had made open and hostile comments on the followers of the king, the vast army of Scotsmen on the make who had swarmed south with James in the hope of sharing his good fortune and any loot that might accrue. Fawkes deposed on oath that one object of the plot had been to blow them all back to Scotland. And Jonson had been arrested and imprisoned early in 1605, only months before the gunpowder plot, for satirising the greed of the Scots in a play called Eastward Ho! and for mocking the king because he sold titles for gold.
Jonson had been lucky to emerge from the Eastward Ho! debacle unscathed. The penalties for criticising the king were severe, and the danger was that “he should have his ears cut, and nose.” Fearless as ever, Jonson had bombarded every highly placed person he knew with letters protesting his innocence, including one to the Earl of Salisbury, the selfsame leader of the privy council who had sent for him now. Salisbury would have every reason to remember this “seditious” rogue.
As if this were not bad enough, Jonson was also the unrepentant friend of other known Catholics, men who had attracted the authorities’ attention by recusancy, and, as it was suspected, darker dealings still. Some were bookish priests like Hugh Holland and Thomas Wright, literary men with whom Jonson could share his vast knowledge and love of words.
Others were not. Less than a month before “the gunpowder treason,” Jonson was a guest at a supper party at a private house in the Strand given by the plot’s ringleader, Robert Catesby. A disaffected Catholic country gentleman, Catesby had developed an implacable grudge against King James for his failure to implement religious toleration for Catholics, as had been widely anticipated when Elizabeth died. Of the seven guests that night, Thomas Winter was also a principal in the plot, and John Ashford was Winter’s brother-in-law. Henry, Lord Mordaunt, was later imprisoned in the Tower for a year on a charge of complicity in the plot, and Francis Tresham was another of the conspirators. Tresham was the man supposed to have sent the letter to his cousin Lord Mounteagle, a member of the House of Lords, warning him to stay away from parliament, which betrayed the whole enterprise.
Jonson himself was not long released from prison, and here he was in the bosom counsels of proven traitors and dangerous men. Nor was the recent Eastward Ho! escapade his only brush with the law. Arrogant, quick to anger and pathologically touchy, Jonson was a dangerous man himself. He had already provoked the wrath of the authorities once before in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when he had put his hand to a play called The Isle of Dogs.
What was his offence? We shall never know. Elizabeth’s enraged authorities acted with such speed and thoroughness that no copy of the play has survived. But it apparently attacked under thin disguise some person in high authority, and the queen herself was very greatly angered. Jonson was arraigned by the privy council, among whose members then was one Robert Cecil, now the Earl of Salisbury and heading the investigation into the plot.
So when Fawkes gave his tormentors the alias of “Johnson,” Jonson became a marked man. But he was always a fighter. Arraigned as a suspect before the Earl of Salisbury and the rest of the Council of Lords on 7th November, he boldly turned the tables by asserting his total innocence of any treason and offering to prove his loyalty to the crown.
As far as their lordships were concerned, Jonson had to take an active part in the investigation if he wanted to clear his name. Passionately patriotic, Jonson leaped at the chance. A London priest whose name is now lost had apparently contacted the authorities to offer some information in his country’s hour of need. Jonson left the interview under orders to make contact with this man, and to act as a go-between, authorised to promise him that he would not be arrested, tortured or imprisoned.
But would any Roman Catholic, priest or not, put himself in Protestant hands at a time when anti-Catholic hysteria and paranoia were at their height? And was a man of God likely to respond to the overtures of a turbulent scribbler, himself in trouble with the law? To overcome any hesitation by the priest, Jonson was furnished with a special warrant from the privy council, providing documentary proof of his authority and making a binding commitment that there would be no dirty tricks:
A warrant unto Benjamin Johnson [note spelling] to let a certain priest know (that offered to do good service to the state) that he should securely come and go to and from the Lords [the privy councillors, not the House of Lords] which they promised, in the said warrant, upon their honours.
But it was mission impossible from the first. Jonson threw himself into the task with his usual vigour, to no avail. Even in normal times, it was a capital offence to be a Roman Catholic priest in England, and during the reign of King James at least one met his death every year. Now, in the current climate of rabid anti-Catholicism, anyone even remotely connected with the Old Faith had gone to ground. No priest obliging enough to comply with the privy council’s request was to be found.
Jonson’s letter to the privy council, written in his own hand the next day, makes it clear that he had tried hard enough. His first move was to make contact with one of the few Catholic priests licensed to remain openly in Britain, the chaplain to the Venetian ambassador. The chaplain readily agreed with Jonson that in this dire emergency, both conscience and patriotism should compel any priest to co-operate, and volunteered to find the man for Jonson’s purposes. But he raised Jonson’s hopes only to dash them again. Shortly afterwards he sent Jonson a curt missive stating, “the party will not be found.”
Undeterred, Jonson returned to his task, scouring London’s teeming back alleys, hidey-holes and safe houses for anyone who would talk. But he could not make contact with any Catholic priests, “they being all either removed or concealed upon the present mischief.” Resorting to what he called “a second means,” relying upon the contacts he had built up during the last seven years as a practising Catholic, Jonson spread the word throughout London and managed to make the privy council’s request generally known.
But there were still no takers for what must have looked like a leap into the lion’s mouth. Jonson received nothing but evasions from those he contacted. Chief among these was the recurrent excuse that no priest could take such a step without permission from George Blackwell, the man known derisively to Protestants as “the arch-priest,” the supreme Roman Catholic authority in England.
Permission was not forthcoming. On 8th November, Jonson wrote to the Earl of Salisbury, reporting his difficulties and eventual failure. His anxiety about the possible consequences looms large in his opening words: “May it please your Lordship to understand that there hath been no want in me either of labour or sincerity in the discharge of this business.” To have completed his mission “to the satisfaction of your Lordship and the state” was his only desire. It would have been the perfect answer to the suspicions of unsoundness aroused by the “seditious” Eastward Ho!
But it was not to be. Jonson’s disappointment and disgust shines through every line of his report. He gloomily surmises that every Catholic priest in England is somehow “enweaved” in the plot, and predicts that their followers would desert them in droves if their “base conduct” was known. Jonson’s sense of failure bursts out in an emotional conclusion:
For myself, if I had been a priest, I would have put on wings to such an occasion, and have thought it no adventure [risk, danger] where I might have done (besides his Majesty and my country) all Christianity so good service – and so much have I sent to some of them.
Jonson must have taken some satisfaction from giving a few of these slippery clerics a piece of his mind. But he still wanted to be involved and again offered to serve the privy council in any way. But the moment had passed. James had ordered the repeated use of torture till every detail had been wrung out of Guy Fawkes and the entire framework of the plot had been exposed. The rest of the plotters had been rounded up, or like the plotmaster Robert Catesby, caught trying to rally support in Staffordshire, shot in the clumsy fracas surrounding their arrest.
The crisis was over, and the full story had come to light. To national relief, it was established that Jonson’s prediction of a network of “enweaved” traitor-priests was not true. Despite the scale of the plot, involving extensive tunnelling and 36 barrels of gunpowder, Catesby, Fawkes and their co-conspirators had been operating alone.
So there was no connection with any other Catholic power like England’s old enemy Spain. Nor was there any evil Popish mastermind operating like Osama bin Laden, directing operations from some malignant nest of traitors overseas. With all the surviving plotters in custody and soon to die the terrible death of traitors, the authorities could return London to its more normal state of amber alert and stand the nation down from its blood-burst of red.
So Jonson was off the hook. But with characteristic stubbornness, he was still determined to proclaim his loyalty. As England’s self-appointed sage, chronicler and bard, he also felt it was incumbent upon him to mark this huge event in the life of the nation. As soon as the dust had settled, Jonson made a poetic record of these extraordinary events, and identified the cousin of one of the conspirators, Lord Monteagle, as the key figure in the unravelling of the plot.
Monteagle’s precise role in the affair is still debated. But when he handed over to the authorities the anonymous letter he had received warning him not to attend the opening of parliament, he undoubtedly sparked off the timely discovery of the gunpowder the night before the plot. To Jonson, this made him the saviour of parliament, king and country, and he chided the authorities for their failure to “raise an obelisk or column” to Monteagle’s name. Monteagle’s deed would go down to history, he predicted, and his own part in the plot would be remembered too.
And so it is, by those who know the life of this extraordinary man. Five years later, in a gesture that he never explained, Jonson returned to the Protestantism of his father and at his first communion, “in token of reconciliation,” seized the chalice from the hands of the priest and drank the whole cup of wine.
Later in life, roistering in the Mermaid surrounded by a host of friends and admirers who dubbed themselves “the tribe of Ben,” Jonson was heard “vapouring” on every subject under the sun. But he never seems to have spoken of “The Great Treason” again. Nevertheless, it is only poetic justice on this quatercentenary that one of England’s greatest characters should be acknowledged for the part he played in one of the country’s most enduring national myths.