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A guest post by LH Member Catharine Arnold. This article was previously published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of November 2014.

Playwright Ben Jonson [1572-1637], scholar of Westminster School, soldier and one time bricklayer, a trade he hated, is best known for his satires Bartholomew Fair and Volpone. As a dramatist, Jonson was Shakespeare’s greatest rival, and he was fortunate to survive the knockabout world of the London stage, as this anecdote illustrates.

By 1598, Ben Jonson’s dramatic talents ensured that he was much valued by his acting company, the Admiral’s Men, which performed at the Rose. While Francis Meres recorded that Jonson was considered ‘the best for tragedy’, Jonson’s satirical skills were also in the ascendant and he would see a positive reception for his comedy, Every Man in His Humour. This was in spite of the debacle of his previous play, The Isle of Dogs, a political lampoon regarded as so contentious by the authorities that the theatre was raided on the first night and Jonson and his comrades thrown into jail. However, as Jonson’s star rose, so another actor’s reputation sank. Gabriel Spenser, Jonson’s cellmate in the Marshalsea after the disastrous production of The Isle of Dogs had joined him in the Admiral’s Men but a bitter feud had developed between the pair, and plummeted to new depths over the following year. As the 26-year-old Jonson scaled the professional heights, the unpopular Spenser sank deeper into drink and developed an implacable hatred of Jonson. Unpopular among the actors, Spenser had a reputation as a troublemaker, and worse.

Two years earlier, on 3 December, 1596, Spenser had been present at the house of Richard East, along with a man named James Feake, between five and six in the afternoon. According to witnesses ‘insulting words had passed’ between Spenser and Feake. Feake had seized a copper candlestick which he threatened to throw at Spenser, whereupon Spenser seized his sword and stabbed Feake in the right eye, penetrating the brain and inflicting a mortal wound. Poor Feake ‘languished and lived in languor at Holywell Street’ for three days before he died. Despite being accused of murder, Spenser was not executed, or required to forfeit any goods. Perhaps the three days between the fight and Feake’s death gave Spenser the opportunity to assemble friendly witnesses to testify that Feake had provoked him. It was a violent age and men such as Spenser did not hesitate to resort to their weapons if the opportunity demanded it. But Nemesis came for Gabriel Spenser two years later.

On the evening of 22 September 1598, Ben Jonson encountered Spenser in Hoxton Fields in Shoreditch, just around the corner from the Curtain Theatre. The men quarrelled and Spenser challenged Jonson to a duel. Fighting came naturally to both men. Jonson had been a soldier, but as an actor Spenser had trained for fight scenes. All Englishmen had the right to bear arms, and fencing was regarded as a vital accomplishment and an extension of one’s masculinity, as indicated in these lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I bruised my shin th’ other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence.’ Elizabethan youths flocked to the fencing schools, and swordplay was an everyday occurrence in Elizabethan London, part of the throbbing violent pulse of the times.

ben johnson duel

Fighting for his life. Sword fighting in the late Tudor style. Jonson’s weapon is considerably shorter than that of his assailant, Gabriel Spenser.

So here stood Jonson, the provoked, and Spenser, the provoker, with weapons drawn, about to fight to the death. The protagonists were equally matched in terms of skill, but as the younger man, Jonson had the advantage. The fight between Jonson and Spenser must have been as theatrical as any performed on stage. Once violence is imaginatively re-created, it gains its own momentum. Did this skirmish start as a drunken taunt, a play-fight between two hot-headed hell-raisers? In terms of weapons, it was scarcely a fair fight. Spenser’s sword was ten inches longer and it was only the fact that Spenser had been drinking all day that gave Jonson the advantage. As Spenser staggered about waving his sword, Jonson swiped back at him and, within minutes, Spenser was dead at his feet.

Although he maintained that Spenser had struck first, wounding him in the arm, Jonson was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully’ slaying Gabriel Spenser’ with ‘a certain sword of iron and steel called a rapier, of the price of three shillings, which he then and there had and held drawn in his right hand.’ According to witnesses, Jonson inflicted a six inch wound to Spenser’s right side which killed him instantly. Despite claiming to have been acting in self-defence, Jonson was arrested and taken to Newgate, charged with murder. For all his genius, it looked as if Jonson’s final performance was to be upon the scaffold at Tyburn. But Jonson had one trump card left. As a former pupil at Westminster School, he possessed one item which nobody could take away from him, and that was his education. Jonson’s life was saved by a legal loophole which permitted the literate man to escape sentence ‘by benefit of clergy’ on the grounds that any man with a working knowledge of Latin was a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. The ‘Benefit of Clergy’ posed no difficulty for Jonson, who was required to do nothing more than recite an extract from Psalm 51 which began Miserere Mei or ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord.’ This stratagem saved so many prisoners from the gallows that it became known as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson emerged from Newgate with an ‘x’ branded on his thumb to prevent him claiming benefit of clergy a second time. This was a lasting reminder of his imprisonment, but he had at least escaped with his life.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was horrified by this turn of events. On 26 September 1598, he wrote: ‘I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer.’ Jonson, no doubt, would have been hurteth greatly to be referred to as a bricklayer, the trade which he so despised.

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