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Mercat Cross: the Arrival of Ben Jonson

Mercat Cross: the Arrival of Ben Jonson

  • Original site of the Mercat Cross, Copyright Kim TraynorSite of the old Mercat Cross, Edinburgh

The Mercat Cross was the place where Ben Jonson finished his journey from London to Edinburgh in 1618. The manuscript by his unknown companion, recently discovered in Chester Archives, gives a vivid account of the kind of excitement that greeted their arrival, and a fascinating insight into the cult of literary celebrity in the seventeenth century. It suggests that local Scots were fully aware of Jonson’s fame and his literary and cultural importance. The excitement at his arrival was rather like the excitement at the arrival of a major film star today. ‘My gossip’ is the name by which the writer refers to Jonson, the ‘high cross’ at which they finished their journey is the Mercat Cross on which you are standing now, and the ‘great cannon’ these English tourists went to see is the legendary Mons Meg, still on show at Edinburgh Castle today.

On Friday all these gentlemen with others of the town brought my gossip to the high cross, and there on their knees drank the King’s health, testifying in that place that he had performed his journey. My gossip also drank to the Bailiff and Aldermen and the whole people their health, they being so thick in the street that we could scarce pass by them, they ran in such throngs to have a sight of my gossip. The windows also being full, everyone peeping out of a round hole like a head out of a pillory. From thence we went up to the castle where we saw the great cannon, the bore whereof was so big that one got a woman with child in it.

(Ben Jonson’s entry into Edinburgh, Friday 18 September 1618; from Anon., ‘My Gossip Jonson, his Foot Voyage and Mine into Scotland’)

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