Often noted as the second greatest English dramatist of his generation (after that Shakespeare guy), the playwright Ben Jonson stands tall in his own right as one of the leading literary figures of the late 16th and early 17th century.

Born in 1572, Jonson was educated at Westminster School in London and possibly went on to Cambridge before he started work as a bricklayer with his stepfather and later served as a soldier, fighting with English troops in The Netherlands.

It was on his return to London that he ventured into acting – among his early roles was Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie – and by 1597 he was employed as a playwright.

While one of his early play-writing efforts (The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe) led to a term of imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison in 1597 (he was also briefly imprison about this time for killing another actor in a duel, escaping a death sentence by pleading “benefit of the clergy”), the following year – 1598 – the production of his play Every Man In His Humour  established his reputation as a dramatist. Shakespeare, whom some suggest was a key rival of Jonson’s during his career – is said to have been among the actors who performed in it.

Further plays followed including Every Man Out Of His Humour (1599), his only tragedy Sejanus (1603), the popular Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and it was during these years, particularly following the accession of King James I in 1603, that he became an important figure at the royal court).

His political views continued to cause trouble at times – he was again imprisoned in the early 1600s for his writings and was questioned over the Gunpowder Plot after apparently attending an event attended by most of those later found to be co-conspirators – but his move into writing masques for the royal court – saw his star continue to rise.

All up he wrote more than 20 masques for King James and Queen Anne of Denmark including Oberon, The Faery Prince which featured the young Prince Henry, eldest son of King James, in the title role. Many of these masques saw him working with architect Inigo Jones, who designed extravagant sets for the masques,  but their relationship was tense at times.

In 1616 – his reputation well established – Jonson was given a sizeable yearly pension  (some have concluded that as a result he was informally the country’s first Poet Laureate) and published his first collection of works the following year. Noted for his wit, he was also known to have presided over a gathering of his friends and admirers at The Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Tavern at 2 Fleet Street (Shakespeare was among those he verbally jousted with).

Jonson spent more than a year in his ancestral home of Scotland around 1618 but on his return to London, while still famous, he no longer saw the same level of success as he had earlier – particularly following the death of King James and accession of his son, King Charles I, in 1625.

Jonson married Anne Lewis – there is a record of such a couple marrying at St Magnus-the-Martyr church near London Bridge in 1594 – but their relationship certainly wasn’t always smooth sailing for they spent at least five years of their marriage living separately. It’s believed he had several children, two of whom died while yet young.

Jonson, meanwhile, continued to write up until his death on 6th August, 1637, and is buried in Westminster Abbey (he’s the only person buried upright in the abbey – apparently due to his poverty at the time of his death).

For an indepth look at the life of Ben Jonson, check out Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: A Life.

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Today marks what was traditionally known as Guy Fawkes Day or, as it’s known more popularly today, Bonfire Night, when, along with people throughout the UK, Londoners celebrate the capture of would be regicide Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, who in 1605 plotted to blow up the House of Lords and with it, King James I, during the State Opening of Parliament.

We’ve previously run a couple of pieces on the conspiracy and some of the key people and places involved – check out our earlier entries here and here.

Meantime, if you’re wanting to attend a celebration in London, Time Out has a terrific guide to all the events taking place – simply head to their page here. Enjoy the night!

One of the most significant events during the early year of King James I’s reign was the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.

The plot, which involved a group of Catholic conspirators including Robert Catesby and  Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes (you can read more about Fawkes in our earlier entry on Bonfire Night), centred on a plan to blow up the House of Lords in Westminster Palace during the State Opening of Parliament in November 1605, thus killing the king (who had aggrieved Catholics in a public denunciation at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604; it should also be noted that he was already aware of several other failed Catholic plots to kill him) and, presumably, many MPs and Lords.

It is believed they intended replacing James with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, whom they hoped could be made more amendable to Catholic worship.

But such a plot was hard to keep mum and an anonymous tip-off to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, not to attend the event, led authorities to eventually uncover the plot in a basement storeroom below the House of Lords where, at around midnight on 4th November, they found Fawkes guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – a sentence never fully carried out after he leapt off the scaffold and broke his neck – and the other plotters, who had fled from London soon after the discovery, were either killed during subsequent arrest attempts, imprisoned or executed.

So happy was King James I – that he had Act of Parliament passed which made the 5th November a day of thanksgiving – it remained in force until 1859. Celebrations of the plot’s foiling continue every year on Bonfire Night.

But what were some of the significant places in the event? The cellar where Fawkes was arrested no longer exists – it was destroyed during a fire in 1834.

The conspirators who had been arrested were subsequently taken to the Tower of London where King James I authorised the torture of at least Fawkes and perhaps others among the conspirators. Fawkes capitulated quickly and signed two confessions (which are now in The National Archives). Another of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, died of natural causes while in the Tower.

The eight surviving conspirators went on trial at Westminster Hall – still part of the Houses of Parliament complex today; the end of the hall is visible in the above picture – in late January 1606 and were all condemned to death for treason.

Four of them were executed on 30th January in St Paul’s Churchyard outside St Paul’s Cathedral while the remaining four including Fawkes were executed the next day outside Westminster Hall in Old Palace Yard. The heads of Catesby and Thomas Percy, both of whom had been killed during a shoot-out in Staffordshire, were set up outside the Houses of Parliament.

Arrests – and in some cases executions – of others believed to be associated with the plot continued in the following months.

Another place of note in the story of the Gunpowder Plot is Syon Park in the city’s west, now the London home of the Duke of Northumberland. The aforementioned Thomas Percy was a cousin of the then Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, and apparently dined with the Catholic earl at the house on the night of 4th November, before the plot was uncovered.

That association subsequently led to the earl’s arrest and he was confined to the Tower for the next 15 years on the order of the king.

This week, on November 5th and surrounding days, people across England will mark Bonfire Night, an annual event which involves burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on top of a bonfire and setting off copious amounts of firecrackers.

So who was Guy Fawkes and what’s it all about?

Bonfire Night (the 5th November is also known as Guy Fawkes Day or Fireworks Night) has its origins in 1605 when a group of Catholics – including Guy or Guido Fawkes (the latter the Spanish form of his name) – attempted to blow up parliament in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Born in York in 1570, Fawkes converted to Catholicism some time before selling his inheritance and heading to continental Europe where he fought as a mercenary for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch in the Eighty Years War.

Having later travelled to Spain where he unsuccessfully tried to drum up support for a Catholic rebellion in England, he then returned to England where he was introduced to Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate King James I and much of parliament and put a Catholic monarch back on the throne.

Having leased an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, the group of 13 plotters stockpiled gunpowder there with Fawkes put in charge of lighting it on 5th November before making his escape to the Continent. An anonymous letter, however, to Catholic Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament, led authorities to the site around midnight on 4th November and there they found Fawkes guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Arrested (he initially gave them the name of John Johnson), he subsequently confessed under torture and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – a sentence which he shortened by leaping off the scaffold and breaking his own neck before it could be carried out. The other plotters were also either killed, imprisoned or executed.

Bonfires were supposed to have been lit the night after the plot was foiled – 5th November – to celebrate the king’s safety and they have been ever since that date (in fact, James I passed an Act of Parliament making 5th November a day of thanksgiving – it remained in force until 1859).

Effigies of Fawkes followed (although some people substitute that of Fawkes with other people) as did the firecrackers. Some children carry effigies of Fawkes around asking for a “penny for the Guy” in an effort to apparently raise money for firecrackers. The poem which starts “Remember, remember, the fifth of November” is also associated with the night.

The night, which is now celebrated for all sorts of reasons – some suggest Guy Fawkes should be recognised as a hero for defending persecuted people against governments, is reportedly still observed in places as far afield as the US and New Zealand.

The cellar where Fawkes was arrested no longer exists – it was destroyed during a fire which consumed much of the medieval Houses of Parliament in 1834. But interestingly, the Yeoman of the Guard still do search the Houses of Parliament before each State Opening of Parliament. Two confessions signed by Fawkes are held at the National Archives.

PICTURE:  Agata Urbaniak (www.sxc.hu)