Merchant Adventurers' Entertainment, The

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Ben Jonson (1616)


Historical Records

Correspondence of George Gerrard

To Sir Dudley Carleton. 14 June 1616.

The King was invited by Alderman Cockin, and the new Company of Merchant Venturers to a Dinner in London, They made a greate feast, Gaue him a Present of a 1000li in a Basen and Eure of Gold; wch because it wanted nigh 300li of that value in weight, they made it vp wth 20s peeces. To the Prince also a Present. And for the Kings better Contentment, they presented, Dyers, Weauers wth theyre Shitles, and Cloth dressers; speaking by way of Interlude to grace themselues, and theyre indistrye; after thys, was presented Certayne Hamburgians, wth greate bellyed Dobletts, all druncke, wch spake such language as Ben Ionson putt into theyre mouthes, only for merriment: But thys they say since is taken so ill, that the Ld Embassador here Sr Nowell Caroune hath bin with the Lds to complayne of yt.
(National Archives, SP 14/87, ff. 117r-v.)

"Alderman Cockin" was William Cockayne, governor of the New Company of Merchant Adventurers, who would be knighted at the end of the festivities. "Sr Nowell Caroune" was Sir Noel de Caron, the ambassador of the United Provinces to England.


Theatrical Provenance

Performed on 8 June 1616 at Cockayne's house in Broad Street, London. Cockayne hosted the festivities to celebrate James's sponsorship and support of the New Company of Merchant Adventurers, which received its letters patent in 1615. Whereas the old Company had held a monopoly on the export of undyed and undressed cloth, the new Company was founded on the basis of Cockayne's proposal that greater revenue could be generated if cloth was dyed and dressed in England before being exported; James agreed and replaced the old Company with the new one. (This innovation would prove to be short-lived, as foreign markets refused to buy inferior and expensive products, thus severely damaging the English economy.) As scholars have noted, the entertainment may have been in part an attempt by Cockayne to distract the King from his serious concerns about the viability of the as yet unsuccessful New Company (Evans 144-45; Beal 250; Donaldson 341). In any event, it was a lavish occasion: John Chamberlain reported that "the whole charge of that feaste stoode the new companie in more then 3100li the thanckes remaining wholy with the Alderman who at parting was knighted with the Citie-sword" (McClure 2:9).


Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (?).


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Possibly none. (Information welcome.)


References to the Play

None known. (Information welcome.)


Critical Commentary

The Calendar of State Papers summarized Gerrard's letter as follows: "The King feasted by Alderman Cockayne and the new Company of Merchant Adventurers, who gave him 1,000l. in a basin and ewer of gold. Dyers, cloth dressers, with their shuttles, and Hamburgians were presented to the King 'and spake such language as Ben Jonson putt in theyre mouthes.'" (CSP 373)

Evans considered Jonson's contribution to the entertainment an important background to The Devil Is an Ass, composed later in the same year (142-150). Whereas Gerrard's description of the entertainment suggests "how closely Jonson's speeches must have reflected Cockayne's ideas" (143), the New Company project was soon widely seen to be a failure and The Devil Is an Ass, a "very timely satire on projects and projectors," was likely in part Jonson's attempt "to distance himself from his earlier involvement with Cockayne" (148). However, Evans also offers the possibility that the tone of Jonson's speeches for the entertainment "may have been more admonitory than simply celebratory" and that Jonson "may have felt that he was serving not so much Cockayne's interests as those of the commonwealth and the King" (148).

Bawcutt observed that previous references to this entertainment were impaired by their reliance on the Calendar of State Papers, rather than the document itself. Whereas the CSP's summary describes "Dyers, cloth dressers, with their shuttles," Bawcutt showed this not only distorts the letter's actual phrasing but inaccurately represents what probably transpired in the performance: "Weavers would have shuttles, but surely not cloth-dressers" (94). The original letter also yields the fact that the "Hamburgians" appeared drunk as well as the mention of Sir Noel de Caron, raising the question of why a Dutch ambassador should be offended by "a Rabelaisian portrayal of drunken Germans," who may have spoken "a kind of drunken gabble which was simultaneously supposed to be mock-German" (94).

Beal noted the entertainment's propagandistic agenda in foregrounding English dyers, weavers, and cloth-dressers, "the very people who supposedly stood to benefit most from the new company" (250). He also offered an explanation for the Dutch ambassador's anger by noting that the old Company's trading relationships had been beneficial to both Netherlands and the city of Hamburg, and that the dissolution of the old Company in 1614 was seen as a loss to all parties. Thus Jonson's satirical depiction of drunken "Hamburgians" in celebration of a new Company (one that would compete rather than cooperate with Hamburg) could have been used as a pretense for De Caron to cause trouble for Cockayne and the enterprise that he represented.

Donaldson suggests that the "drunken Hamburgians might also have been intended to represent disgruntled members of the old Merchant Adventurers' Company resident in that city, who had refused to take an oath imposed upon them by the new company, and had complained to the Privy Council" (498, n22).

Knowles doubts that the "Hamburgians" were meant to represent Germans at all (Cockayne himself having "strong connections with the German trading port") but rather "the Dutch Merchants who were displaced by the enforced cessation of trading by the old Merchant Adventurers" and who were particularly resented by English clothworkers.


For What It's Worth

The earliest example of "cloth-dresser" cited by the OED dates from 1723. The earliest example on EEBO-TCP dates from 1634 ("cloth-dressers" [Paré, p. 829]), eighteen years after Gerrard's letter makes use of the phrase.

Cockayne's house stood on Broad Street, opposite the church of St. Peter le Poer and behind Gresham College, at the current location of the City of London Club; a fire that started there in November 1623 spread across the neighborhood when Cockayne, in the words of Joseph Meade, "rudely forbid and shut out those who came to help, thinking by those of his own house to have mastered the fire, and saved his goods from filching hands, till all was undone" (Williams 2:434; Wadmore 150; Fanshawe 302).


Works Cited

Aldous, Vivienne. "Cockayne, Sir William (1559/60–1626)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004; online ed., Jan 2009.
Bawcutt, N. W. "Ben Jonson's Drunken Hamburgians: An Entertainment for King James." N&Q 44 (1997): 92–4.
Beal, Peter. "Songs by Aurelian Townshend, in the Hand of Sir Henry Herbert, for an Unrecorded Masque by the Merchant Adventurers." MRDE 15 (2002): 243–60.
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of James I. 1611–1618. Ed. Mary Anne Everett Green. London, 1858. Online.
Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson: A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
Evans, Robert C. "Contemporary Contexts of Jonson's The Devil Is an Ass." Comparative Drama 26 (1992): 140-76.
Fanshawe, Herbert Charles, ed. The Memoirs of Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Wife of the Right Honble. Sir Richard Fanshawe, Bart., 1600-72. London: John Lane, 1907.
Knowles, James. "The Merchant Adventurers' Entertainment (1616, lost)." The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Ed. David Bevington et al. 7 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 4:463–64.
McClure, Norman Egbert, ed. The Letters of John Chamberlain. 2 vols. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1939.
Paré, Ambroise. The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey. Trans. Thomas Johnson. London, 1634.
Wadmore, J.F. "Some Account of the History and Antiquities of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, London." Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archæological Society 5 (1881): 92–182.
Williams, Robert Folkestone. The Court and Times of James the First. 2 vols. London, 1848.


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