Jonson in York

This week in 1618 Ben Jonson visited the city of York, where today HIDden Theatre is based, so our Artistic Director shares her reflections on this.

One of the great glories of living in York is that we daily walk in the footsteps of the past. While this is true everywhere, the fact that York has kept its medieval street patterns and many of its historic buildings give its past a particularly ‘present’ feeling. Living in York makes the past real in a special way. This fact has never really been lost on the city, and much of its economy is based on the tourists who come to revel in its historic beauty. While we tend to think of tourism as a largely modern phenomenon, visitors have enjoyed stopping in York to see it for centuries. And one of them, in 1618, was Ben Jonson.

This week in that year, he arrived in our beautiful city en route on his walking journey to Edinburgh. York, still the northern capital in Jonson’s day, was a logical stopping-off point in concept, although if you look at the map of his route (as detailed by The University of Edinburgh), you’ll notice that it was actually a bit of a detour. Visiting York was therefore a deliberate thing, a moment of Jonson being a tourist good and proper. Although Jonson’s journey seems to have been rather enjoyable – at least, it doesn’t seem as agonizing or arduous as the simple phrase ‘walking from London to Edinburgh’ would imply to most of us – such a detour would have required a bit more effort then than now, so he must have known that a few days in the city would be worth the mileage.

Given the current character of York, it’s easy enough to imagine Jonson walking among its streets; harder is the realisation that, although we would recognize many features that he saw, it would also have looked quite different. Antiquarian prints from two centuries show many of the features that may have been there in his time but have since disappeared, including the inn on Coney Street where he lodged. Places which today we treasure almost as museums, such as the guild halls, were very much working buildings in his time. We can’t really think that Jonson saw “our” York, and yet some things don’t really change. The city’s highlights remain the same. York Minster, even in the seventeenth century, was not to be missed – and Jonson didn’t. He also saw King’s Manor, which was largely new built just a few years before he was there.

It’s a shame that we don’t have any direct reflections from Jonson about our city, and what he thought of it. Given how much we associate him with London, it would be interesting to know how he felt that the northern capital compared to the national one. He knew he was walking in spaces where events of historical importance had occurred, but we don’t know what that meant to him.

And what does it mean to us, that he came to visit our beautiful city? On the whole, Jonson’s visit isn’t remembered as a major event in York – in a city which has seen so many famous visitors, he is just one among many, and whatever Jonson thought of York, he didn’t use his visit to inspire any of his dramatic writings, so there isn’t much direct impact. At least, it’s nice to imagine that he carried happy memories of a place we love so well. And for those of us working on his plays, it’s a link between our tangible reality and his, and perhaps makes it feel a bit more personal. We get to walk in his footsteps through his dramatic works, but it’s also kind of nice to think that while we are doing this, we are also walking his footsteps throughout the city around us as well.

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