Ben Jonson

J. C. B., "Ben Jonson's Grave" Gentleman's Magazine 93 (September 1823) 227-28.

Aug. 29.


The absence of a friend from home, whom I was desirous of seeing, afforded me a leisure hour this morning at Westminster, which I thought I could not better employ than in visiting the interior of the sublime Abbey Church, a venerable magnificent building, in which I have passed many an hour in contemplating the architecture of its lofty ailes, and in viewing the tombs which adorn, as well as those which disfigure, their design and beauty. I had scarcely entered the usual door of admittance in Poets' Corner, when I was met by an old and particular friend, a member of the Church, with whom I had not long paced the external ailes of the choir, when the hurried step of workmen, and the unusual activity of the Vergers, announced the speedy commencement of some ceremonious spectacle, which we soon ascertained to be the Funeral of Lady Wilson, whose grave was opened in the North aile of the nave opposite the third arch from the West end.

But what followed this piece of information engaged my interest, and forms the subject of this Letter. It was no less than a brief account of the discovery of the grave of Ben Jonson, against whose narrow cell the foot of the coffin of the above lady now rests, on its Western side. This description was followed by a promise of a sight of the skeleton; and no sooner was the funeral dirge ended, and the Church cleared of the procession, than I passed with rapid step to the spot where have lain in quiet repose from the period of their deposit, namely, 1637, to the present day, the mortal remains of this distinguished Bard.

The spot of his interment is marked by a small stone, inscribed with the following laconic and well-known inscription: "O rare Ben Jonson!" which is repeated on his tomb in the Poet's Corner. The eccentricity of the Bard is acknowledged, and perhaps no one particular instance is better known than the agreement he is said to have made with the reigning Dean of Westminster, about the quantity of ground his body was to occupy within the Abbey after his decease. If this anecdote has gained credit, that which stated him to have been buried in an upright posture has been almost universally rejected as ridiculous and improbable; in proof of which I need only refer your readers to the Histories of Westminster Abbey by Malcolm and Brayley: the former says, the story of Jonson having been buried in a piece of ground eighteen inches square, arose from the size of the stone, and "from no other reason." The latter follows the same opinion, and calls it "an absurd tradition." But extraordinary and absurd as it may appear, it is nevertheless true that Ben Jonson's body occupied a space not more capacious than eighteen inches. This doubt set at rest for ever, I proceed to a description of what I saw of his remains.

I have already mentioned that the foot of the new grave joined the depository of Ben Jonson, and broke into, if it did not entirely destroy, the side of it. The skeleton then appeared, and was in tolerable preservation; the skull was loose, and on the removal of the earth, the tibia or large hone of both of the lower legs, several ribs, and one piece of the spine, separated from their joints.

Every care was taken to prevent the workmen from breaking the skeleton more than was possibly avoidable, or of scattering the fragments which their spades accidentally removed; and so carefully were the injunctions obeyed, although the diggers were ignorant that they had exposed the crumbling remains of an eminent man, that most of the ribs, still clinging to the spine, protruded into the new grave, and were not broken off.

It is remarkable that the back is turned towards the East, and more remarkable still that the corpse was buried with his head downwards, the feet being only a few inches below the pavement of the Church.

Ben Jonson was of small stature, and but for a rude interruption, I should have ascertained the exact depth of the cell which the body occupied, and some other particulars which it would have been curious and interesting to have preserved. There were a few small fragments of wood, to show that the body had been enclosed in a coffin or box, but the proof that it was constructed of no very substantial materials, and that it has long been completely destroyed, appears in the condition of the skeleton, the body of which was filled with a solid mass of earth, and the cavity where the head had reposed remained a perfect mould of its form.

Under the strongest feelings of reverence, and unawed by the curse denounced by Shakspeare, against the violators of his tomb in Stratford Church, I examined the skull and other detached bones, which were firm and perfect, and of the usual dark brown colour. When first exposed, the skull was not entirely deprived of hair, but repeated disinterments in the space of a few hours, or, what is equally probable, the fingers of the curious, had not left a single thread of this natural covering for me to see.

All the bones were again buried with the most scrupulous care, the new grave was speedily, closed up, and the remains of the learned Dramatist sheltered, perhaps for ever, from further disturbance, or the gaze of the curious.

Yours, &c.

J. C. B.