Pedants’ Corner: When did Ben Jonson die?

Not actually a picture of Ben Jonson. As accurate an image as the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare, though.

An actor personating Ben Jonson in a risible film. The surviving portrait of the poet suggests a young Tom Baker or Rory McGrath would make a better likeness

Each year, on August 6, the world stops to commemorate Ben Jonson’s death. Well, that’s obviously overstating it, but a few ‘on this day’ tweets go round; likewise, we get the odd mention in almanacs and lists of memorable anniversaries. Westminster Abbey, where Jonson is both buried and commemorated in Poets’ Corner, gets in on the act too. Thing is, this work of mourning also takes place – to a much lesser extent – on August 16 each year, and it would surely be beyond the extravagance even of big Ben to have had two deaths. Indeed, there’s long been confusion over exactly when the most celebrated poet of his age closed his account – and when I say ‘long’, I mean right from the month it actually happened.

Wayne Phelps gave a neat summary of the sources in an article published thirty five years ago, showing that the earlier date, settled fact of literary history thought it was, flew in the face of much of the contemporary evidence; and while Phelps would commit himself only to the claim that Jonson died ‘about the middle of August’, the statement by Jonson’s friend John Taylor that the sad event transpired on ‘the sixteenth day’ of that month has been enough to convince most modern and recent biographers.

Since Phelps wrote, however, a new piece of evidence has come to the attention of Jonson pedants, er, scholars. In an article of 2004, Mark Bland unveiled a letter written on the ’22th’ (i.e. ‘two and twentieth’) of August by an inhabitant of Grays Inn to a relative in north Wales. ‘Yor ould freind Ben Iohnson the poet died at westm[inster] one (i.e. ‘on’) friday last,’ wrote the correspondent, dating Jonson’s demise to Friday 18 August instead.

Bland is confident enough in this source to suggest that it is definitive. A more measured view might be that it adds to the evidence against August 6, but doesn’t necessarily settle all dispute. It is possibly the earliest reference to Jonson’s death that we have, but it still might be mildly wrong.

Simon Thelwall's note of Jonson's death - (Flintshire Record Office, Rhual MS, D.HE.457 - detail)

Simon Thelwall’s note of Jonson’s death – (Flintshire Record Office, Rhual MS, D.HE.457 – detail)

There is, though, further reason for thinking it might be accurate. Bland suggested that it had been written by a man called Edward Thelwall, who was a relative of Jonson’s friend Sir John Salusbury. In fact, the writer was Simon Thelwall, a sprig from another branch of that family. In our book on Jonson’s walk to Scotland, Anna Groundwater, Julie Sanders and I were able to identify this man as the joint holder, with Henry Herbert, of the reversion for the Mastership of the Revels. What this means is that he and Herbert were in the queue for an important court office – although Herbert had been exercising some of the functions of the Master for a while already, he had had to pay its formal holder, Sir John Astley, a fee for the chance to do so.

However, Herbert and Thelwall were not at the front of the queue. Ahead of them stood Ben Jonson himself. So Jonson’s death in August 1637 was of material relevance to both men, perhaps giving Thelwall a particular reason to note when it happened accurately. While I don’t embrace the date without reservation, it seems to me as plausible a contender as any other. Next year, I will be pedantically correcting all the August 6 ‘on this day’ tweeters, and suggesting they join me in marking this solemn event on August 18 instead.

Why the reservation, still? Well, in 1662, during the course of a legal tussle over the Mastership, Herbert and Thelwall rehearsed some of the relevant events of the early decades of the seventeenth century in papers produced for the suit. The document (see pages 108-10 in the book linked here) contains some startling inaccuracies – including the claim that Jonson died on November 20 1635. Thelwall might well have had nothing to do with this – but it sets the benchmark for sheer carelessness with the facts particularly high, maybe even high enough to cast doubt on his earlier note. The pedant in me can’t help but give a little, thoroughly horrified shudder.