History

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson, dramatist and poet, is the only person buried in an upright position in Westminster Abbey.

He was born on 11 June 1572 but little is known about his parents. The family was of Scottish descent and his father became a clergymen. He was educated at Westminster School at the expense of one of the masters there, William Camden, and later possibly attended St John's College, Cambridge. He went into trade as a bricklayer for a short time (his stepfather's occupation). In Flanders he fought with the English troops there and on returning to London he married, but no children survived him. He became an actor and playwright. In 1598 he killed a fellow actor in a duel but escaped hanging and was imprisoned as a felon for a short time. This incident does not seem to have affected his reputation. His play Every Man in his Humour included Shakespeare in its cast. Jonson was a well-known writer of masques and a tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh's son. He became Poet Laureate in 1619 (although it was not a formal appointment).

Burial

Jonson always seemed to be poor, in spite of gifts from royalty, and he died in great poverty in August 1637 in a house near the Abbey. One story says that he begged "eighteen inches of square ground in Westminster Abbey" from King Charles I. Another story says that one day, being railed by the Dean of Westminster about being buried in Poets' Corner, the poet is said to have replied "I am too poor for that and no one will lay out funeral charges upon me. No, sir, six feet long by two feet wide is too much for me: two feet by two feet will do for all I want". "You shall have it" said the Dean. So Jonson was buried standing on his feet in the northern aisle of the Nave and not in Poets' Corner. At this period the design on the Nave floor included several lines of stones measuring eighteen inches square (the rest being in a lozenge pattern), to which Jonson was obviously referring in his conversation with the Dean.

The simple inscription "O Rare Ben Johnson", was said to have been cut at the expense of Jack Young who was walking by when the grave was covered and gave the mason eighteen pence to inscribe it. The inscription has also been ascribed to Sir William D'Avenant, Jonson's successor as Poet Laureate, on whose own gravestone in the Abbey the words "O Rare..." also appear. Jonson's original stone was moved in the l9th century to the base of the wall opposite the grave to preserve it when the whole nave floor was re-laid and many larger gravestones taken away. His grave site is today marked with a small grey lozenge stone, just to the east of the brass to John Hunter. The inscription is the same as on the original stone although Ben himself always used the form Jonson. In 1849, the place was disturbed by a burial nearby and the clerk of works saw the two leg bones of Jonson fixed upright in the sand and the skull came rolling down from a position above the leg bones into the newly made grave. There was still some red hair attached to it. It was seen again when Hunter's grave was dug.

Monument

A monument to Jonson was erected in about 1723 by the Earl of Oxford and is in the eastern aisle of Poets' Corner. It includes a portrait medallion and the same inscription as on the gravestone (again shown as Johnson). At the base are three masks, linked by a ribbon through the eyes. This was designed and signed by James Gibbs and attributed to the sculptor J.M. Rysbrack. It seems Jonson was to have had a monument erected by subscription soon after his death but the English Civil War intervened.

 A photograph of the stone and monument can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.

Further reading:

Peter Cunningham: Handbook of London, 1850 (reprint 1978 p.536)

Arthur P.Stanley: Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey. Addenda to 1 stedition 1868 and Supplement to the 1st and 2 ndeditions p.117.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"Ben Jonson of Westminster" by Marchette Chute,1954