Inns and Taverns east of St Pauls . - Henry C Shelley
Boswell relates how, in one of his numerous communicative moods, he informed Dr.
Johnson of the existence of a club at "the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, the very
tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all
assume Shakespeare's characters. One is Falstaff, another Prince Henry, another
Bardolph, and so on." If the assiduous little Scotsman entertained the idea of
joining the club, a matter on which he does not throw any light, Johnson's
rejoinder was sufficient to deter him from doing so. "Don't be of it, Sir. Now
that you have a name you must be careful to avoid many things not bad in
themselves, but which will lessen your character."
Whether Johnson's remark was prompted by an intimate knowledge of the type of person frequenting the Boar's Head in his day cannot be decided, but there are ample grounds for thinking that the patrons of that inn were generally of a somewhat boisterous kind. That, perhaps, is partly Shakespeare's fault. Prior to his making it the scene of the mad revelry of Prince Hal and his none too choice companions, the history of the Boar's Head, so far as we know it, was sedately respectable. One of the earliest references to its existence is in a lease dated 1537, some sixty years before the first part of Henry IV was entered in the Stationers' Register. Some half century later, that is in 1588, the inn was kept by one Thomas Wright, whose son came into a "good inheritance," was made clerk of the King's Stable, and a knight, and was "a very discreet and honest gentleman."
But Shakespeare's pen dispelled any atmosphere of respectability which lingered around the Boar's Head. From the time when he made it the meeting-place of the mad-cap Prince of Wales and his roistering followers, down to the day of Goldsmith's reverie under its roof, the inn has dwelt in the imagination at least as the rendezvous of hard drinkers and practical jokers. How could it be otherwise after the limning of such a scene as that described in Henry IV? That was sufficient to dedicate the inn to conviviality for ever.
How sharply the picture shapes itself as the hurrying dialogue is read! The key-note of merriment is struck by the Prince himself as he implores the aid of Poins to help him laugh at the excellent trick he has just played on the boastful but craven Falstaff, and the bustle and hilarity of the scene never flags for a moment. Even Francis, the drawer, whose vocabulary is limited to "Anon, anon, sir"--the fellow that had "fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman"--and the host himself, as perplexed as his servant when two customers call at once, contribute to the movement of the episode in its earlier stages. But the pace is, increased furiously when the burly Falstaff, scant of breath indeed, bustles hurriedly in proclaiming in one breath his scorn of cowards and his urgent need of a cup of sack. We all know the boastful story he told, how he and his three companions had been set upon and robbed by a hundred men, how he himself--as witness his sword "packed like a hand-saw"--had kept at bay and put to flight now two, anon four, and then seven, and finally eleven of his assailants. We all can see, too, the roguish twinkle in Prince Hal's eyes as the braggart knight embellishes his lying tale with every fresh sentence, and are as nonplussed as he when, the plot discovered, Falstaff finds a way to take credit for his cowardice. Who would not forgive so cajoling a vaunter?
It was later in this scene, be it remembered, that the portly knight was found fast asleep behind the arras, "snorting like a horse," and had his pockets searched to the discovery of that tavern bill--not paid we may be sure--which set forth an expenditure on the staff of life immensely disproportionate to that on drink, and elicited the famous ejaculation--"But one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!"
But Shakespeare had not finished with the Boar's Head. More coarse and less merry, but not less vivid, is that other scene wherein the shrill-tongued Doll Tearsheet and the peace-making Dame Quickly figure. And it is of a special and private room in the Boar's Head we think as we listen to Dame Quickly's tale of how the amorous Falstaff made love to her with his hand upon "a parcel-gilt goblet," and followed up the declaration with a kiss and a request for thirty shillings.
For Shakespeare's sake, then, the Boar's Head is elect into that small circle of inns which are immortal in the annals of literature. But, like Chaucer's Tabard, no stone of it is left. Boswell made a mistake, and so did Goldsmith after him, in thinking that the Boar's Head of the eighteenth century was the Boar's Head of Shakespeare's day. They both forgot the great Fire of London. That disastrous conflagration of 1666 swept away every vestige of the old inn. Upon its foundation, however, another Boar's Head arose, the sign of which, cut in stone and dated 1668, is among the treasures of the Guildhall Museum. This was the building in which Boswell's club met, and it was under its roof Goldsmith penned his famous reverie.
As was to be expected of that social soul, the character of Falstaff gave Goldsmith more consolation than the most studied efforts of wisdom: "I here behold," he continues, "an agreeable old fellow forgetting age, and showing me the way to be young at sixty-five. Sure I am well able to be as merry, though not so comical, as he. Is it not in my power to have, though not so much wit, at least as much vivacity?--Age, care, wisdom, reflection, begone--I give you to the winds! Let's have t'other bottle: Here's to the memory of Shakespeare, Falstaff, and all the merry men of Eastcheap!"
With such zest did Goldsmith enter into his night out at the Boar's Head that when the midnight hour arrived he discovered all his companions had stolen away, leaving him--still in high spirits with the landlord as his sole companion. Then the mood of reverie began to work. The very room helped to transport him back through the centuries; the oak floor, the gothic windows, the ponderous chimney-piece,--all were reminders of the past. But the prosaic landlord was an obstacle to the complete working of the spell. At last, however, a change came over mine host, or so it seemed to the dreaming chronicler. "He insensibly began to alter his appearance; his cravat seemed quilled into a ruff, and his breeches swelled out into a farlingale. I now fancied him changing sexes; and as my eyes began to close in slumber, I imagined my fat landlord actually converted into as fat a landlady. However, sleep made but few changes in my situation: the tavern, the apartment, and the table, continued as before: nothing suffered mutation but my host, who was fairly altered into a gentlewoman, whom I knew to be Dame Quickly, mistress of this tavern in the days of Sir John; and the liquor we were drinking seemed converted into sack and sugar."
Such an opportunity of interviewing an acquaintance of Falstaff was not to be lost, and to the credit of Dame Quickly be it said that she was far more communicative than some moderns are under the questioning ordeal. But it was no wonder she was loquacious: had she not been ordered by Pluto to keep a record of every transaction at the Boar's Head, and in the discharge of that duty compiled three hundred tomes? Some may subscribe to the opinion that Dame Quickly was indiscreet as well as loquacious; certainly she did not spare the reputations of some who had dwelt under that ancient roof. The sum of the matter, however, was that since the execution of that hostess who was accused of witchcraft the Boar's Head "underwent several revolutions, according to the spirit of the times, or the disposition of the reigning monarch. It was this day a brothel, and the next a conventicle for enthusiasts. It was one year noted for harbouring Whigs, and the next infamous for a retreat to Tories. Some years ago it was in high vogue, but at present it seems declining."
One other son of genius was to add to the fame of the Boar's Head, the American Goldsmith, that is, the gentle Washington Irving. Of course Shakespeare was the moving spirit once more. While turning over the pages of Henry IV Irving was seized with a sudden inspiration: "I will make a pilgrimage to Eastcheap, and see if the old Boar's Head tavern still exists." But it was too late. The only relic of the ancient abode of Dame Quickly was the stone boar's head, built into walls reared where the inn once stood. Nothing daunted, however, Irving explored the neighbourhood, and was rewarded, as he thought, by running to earth Dame Quickly's "parcel-gilt goblet" in a tavern near by. He had one other "find." In the old graveyard of St. Michael's, which no longer exists, he discovered, so he avers, the tombstone of one Robert Preston who, like the Francis of "Anon, anon, sir," was a drawer at the Boar's Head, and quotes from that tombstone the following admonitory epitaph:
"Bacchus, to give the toping world surprise,
Produced one sober son, and here he lies.
Though rear'd among full hogsheads, he defied
The charms of wine, and every one beside.
O reader, if to justice thou'rt inclined,
Keep honest Preston daily in thy mind.
He drew good wine, took care to fill his pots,
Had sundry virtues that excused his faults.
You that on Bacchus have the like dependence,
Pray copy Bob, in measure and attendance."
Small as was the reward of living's quest, a still more barren result would ensue on a modern pilgrimage to the Boar's Head. It was still a tavern in 1785, for a chronicler of that date described it as having on each side of the doorway "a vine branch, carved in wood, rising more than three feet from the ground, loaded with leaves and clusters; and on the top of each a little Falstaff, eight inches high, in the dress of his day." But Dame Quickly's forecast of declining fortune moved on to its fulfilment. In the last stages of its existence the building was divided into two, while the carved boar's head which Irving saw still remained as the one sign of its departed glories. Finally came the resolve to widen the approach to London Bridge from the city side, and the carrying out of that resolve involved the sweeping away of the Boar's Head. This was in 1831, and, as has been said, the only relic of the ancient tavern is that carved sign in the Guildhall Museum. But the curious in such matters may be interested to know that the statue of King William marks approximately the spot of ground where hover the immortal memories of Shakespeare, and Goldsmith, and Irving.
Within easy distance of Eastcheap, in Upper Thames Street, which skirts the river bank, there stood, in Shakespeare's day and much later, a tavern bearing the curious name of the Three Cranes in the Vintry. John Stow, that zealous topographer to whom the historians of London owe so large a debt, helps to explain the mystery. The vintry, he tells us, was that part of the Thames bank where "the merchants of Bordeaux craned their wines out of lighters and other vessels, and there landed and made sale of them." He also adds that the Three Cranes' lane was "so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather 'of three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there." Earlier than the seventeenth century, however, it would seem that one crane had to suffice for the needs of "the merchants of Bordeaux," and then the tavern was known simply as the Crane. Two references, dated respectively 1552 and 1554, speak of the sign in the singular. Twenty years later, however, the one had become three.
Ben Jonson, whose knowledge of London inns and taverns was second, only to that of Pepys, evidently numbered the Three Cranes in the Vintry among his houses of call. Of two of his allusions to the house one is derogatory of the wit of its patrons, the other laudatory of the readiness of its service. "A pox o' these pretenders to wit!" runs the first passage. "Your Three Cranes, Mitre, and Mermaid men! Not a corn of true salt, not a grain of right mustard amongst them all." And here is the other side of the shield, credited to Iniquity in "The Devil is an Ass":--
"Nay, boy, I will bring thee to the bawds and roysters
At Billingsgate, feasting with claret-wine and oysters;
From thence shoot the Bridge, child, to the Cranes in the Vintry,
And see there the gimblets how they make their entry."
Of course Pepys was acquainted with the house. He had, indeed, a savage memory of one meal under its roof. It was all owing to the marrying proclivities of his uncle Fenner. Bereft of his wife on the last day of August, that easy-going worthy, less than two months later, was discovered by his nephew in an ale-house, "very jolly and youthsome, and as one that I believe will in a little time get him a wife." Pepys' anticipation was speedily realized. Uncle Fenner had indulged himself with a new partner by the middle of January, and must needs give a feast to celebrate the event. And this is Pepys' frank record of the occasion: "By invitation to my uncle Fenner's, where I found his new wife, a pitiful, old, ugly, ill-bred woman, in a hatt, a midwife. Here were many of his, and as many of her relatives, sorry, mean people; and after choosing our gloves, we all went over to the Three Cranes taverne, and (although the best room of the house) in such a narrow dogg-hole we were crammed, (and I believe we were near forty) that it made me loath my company and victuals; and a sorry, poor dinner it was."
In justice to the Three Cranes, Pepys must not be allowed to have the last word. That particular dinner, no doubt, owed a good deal of its defects to the atmosphere and the company amid which it was served. At any rate, the host of the Black Bear at Cumnor--he of Sir Walter Scott's "Kenilworth"--was never weary of praising the Three Cranes, "the most topping tavern in London" as he emphatically declared.
No one can glance even casually over a list of tavern signs without observing how frequently the numeral "three" is used. Various explanations have been offered for the propensity of mankind to use that number, one deriving the habit from the fact that primitive man divided the universe into three regions, heaven, earth, and water. Pythagoras, it will be remembered, called three the perfect number; Jove is depicted with three-forked lightning; Neptune bears a trident; Pluto has his three-headed dog. Again, there are three Fates, three Furies, three Graces and three Muses. It is natural, then, to find the numeral so often employed in the signs of inns and taverns. Thus we have the Three Angels, the Three Crowns, the Three Compasses, the Three Cups, the Three Horseshoes, the Three Tuns, the Three Nuns, and many more. In the city of London proper the Three Cups was a favourite sign and the Three Tuns was hardly less popular. There were also several Three Nuns, the most famous of which was situated in Aldgate High Street, where its modern representative still stands. In the bygone years it was a noted coaching inn and enjoyed an enviable reputation for the rare quality of its punch. Defoe has a brief reference to the house in his "A Journal of the Plague Year."
An attempt to enumerate the King's Head taverns of London would be an endless task. It must not be overlooked, however, that one of the most notable houses so named stood in Fenchurch Street, on the site now occupied by the London Tavern. This is the tavern for which a notable historic association is claimed. The tradition has it that when the Princess Elizabeth, the "Good Queen Bess" of after days, was released from the Tower of London on May 19th, 1554, she went first to a neighbouring church to offer thanks for her deliverance, and then proceeded to the King's Head to enjoy a somewhat plebeian dinner of boiled pork and Pease-pudding. This legend seems to ignore the fact that the freedom of the Princess was comparative only; that she was at that time merely removed from one prison to another; and that the record of her movements on that day speaks of her taking barge at the Tower wharf and going direct to Richmond en route for Woodstock. However, the metal dish and cover which were used in serving that homely meal of boiled pork and Pease-pudding are still shown, and what can the stickler for historical accuracy do in the face of such stubborn evidence?
Two other Fenchurch Street taverns have wholly disappeared. One of these, the Elephant, was wont to claim a somewhat dubious association with Hogarth. The artist is credited with once lodging under the Elephant's roof and with embellishing the walls of the tap-room with pictures in payment for a long overdue bill. The subjects were said to have included the first study for the picture which afterwards became famous under the title of "Modern Midnight Conversation," but treated in a much broader manner than is shown in the well-known print. When the building was pulled down in 1826 a heated controversy arose concerning these Hogarth pictures, which were removed from the walls and exhibited in a Pall Mall gallery. The verdict of experts was given against their being the work of the master for whom they were claimed. The other tavern was one of the many mitres to be found in London during the seventeenth century. The host, Dan Rawlinson, was so staunch a royalist that when Charles I was executed he hung his sign in mourning, an action which naturally caused him to be regarded with suspicion by the Cromwell party, but "endeared him so much to the churchmen that he throve again and got a good estate." Something of that prosperity was due no doubt to the excellent "venison-pasty" of which Pepys was so fond. But Dan Rawlinson of the Mitre had his reverses as well as his successes. During the dreaded Plague of London Pepys met an acquaintance in Fenchurch Street who called his attention to the fact that Mr. Rawlinson's door was shut up. "Why," continued his informant, "after all this sickness, and himself spending all the last year in the country, one of his men is now dead of the plague, and his wife and one of his maids sick, and himself shut up." Mrs. Rawlinson died a day or two later and the maid quickly followed her mistress to the grave. A year later the Mitre was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and Pepys met its much-tried owner shortly after "looking over his ruins." But the tavern was rebuilt on a more spacious scale, and Isaac Fuller was commissioned to adorn its walls with paintings. This was the artist whose fondness of tavern life prevented him from becoming a great painter. The commission at the Mitre was no doubt much to his liking, and Walpole describes in detail the panels with which he adorned a great room in that house. "The figures were as large as life: a Venus, Satyr, and sleeping Cupid; a boy riding a goat and another fallen down, over the chimney: this was the best part of the performance, says Vertue: Saturn devouring a Child, Mercury, Minerva, Diana, Apollo; and Bacchus, Venus, and Ceres embracing; a young Silenus fallen down, and holding a goblet, into which a boy was pouring wine; the Scarons, between the windows, and on the ceiling two angels supporting a mitre, in a large circle." The execution of all this must have kept Fuller for quite a long time amid his favourite environment.
[Illustration: COCK INN, LEADENHALL STREET.]
One of the lesser known Cock taverns of London was still in existence in Leadenhall Street during the first quarter of the last century. A drawing of the time shows it to have been a picturesque building, the most notable feature being that the window lights on the first floor extended the entire width of the front, the only specimen of the kind then remaining in London. At the time the drawing was made that particular room was used as the kitchen. From the dress of the boys of the carved brackets supporting the over-hanging upper story, it has been inferred that the house was originally a charity school. Behind the tavern there stood a brick building dated 1627, formerly used by the bricklayers' company, but in 1795 devoted to the purposes of a Jewish synagogue. As with all the old taverns of this sign, the effigy of the bird from which it took its name was prominently displayed in front. Far more ancient than the Cock is that other Leadenhall Street tavern, the Ship and Turtle, which is still represented in the thoroughfare. The claim is made for this house that it dates back to 1377, and for many generations, down, indeed, to 1835, it had a succession of widows as hostesses. The modern representative of this ancient house prides itself upon the quality of its turtle soup and upon the fact that it is the meeting-place of numerous masonic lodges, besides being in high favour for corporation and companies' livery dinners.
If the pilgrim now turns his steps toward Bishopsgate Street Within--the "Within" signifying, of course, that that part of the thoroughfare was inside the old city wall--he will find himself in a neighbourhood where many famous inns once stood. Apart from the Wrestlers and the Angel which are mentioned by Stow, there were the Flower Pot, the White Hart, the Four Swans, the Three Nuns, the Green Dragon, the Ball, and several more. The reason for this crowding together of so many hostelries in one street is obvious. It was through Bishop's gate that the farmers of the eastern counties came into the city and they naturally made their headquarters in the district nearest to the end of their journey.
For many years the White Hart maintained its old-time reputation as a "fair inn for the receipt of travellers." That it was an ancient structure is proved by the fact that when it was demolished, the date of 1480 was discovered on one of its half-timbered bays. The present up-to-date White Hart stands on the site of the old inn.
Far greater interest attaches to the Bull inn, even were it only for the fact of its association with Thomas Hobson, the Cambridge carrier whom Milton made famous. In the closing years of the sixteenth century the house appears to have had a dubious reputation, for when Anthony Bacon came to live in Bishopsgate Street in 1594 his mother became exceedingly anxious on his account, fearing "the neighbourhood of the Bull Inn." Perhaps, however, the distressed mother based her alarm on the dangers of play-acting, for the house was notable as the scene of many dramatic performances. That it was the recognized headquarters for Cambridge carriers is shown by an allusion, in 1637, which reads: "The Blacke Bull in Bishopsgate Street, who is still looking towards Shoreditch to see if he can spy the carriers coming from Cambridge." Hobson, of course, was the head of that fraternity. He had flourished amazingly since he succeeded to his father's business in the university city, and attained that position of independence which enabled him to force the rule that each horse in his stable was to be hired only in its proper turn, thus originating the proverb, "Hobson's choice," that is, "this or none." Despite his ever growing wealth and advanced years, Hobson continued his regular journeys to London until the outbreak of the plague caused the authorities to suspend the carrier service for a time. This is the fact upon which Milton seized with such humourous effect in his poetical epitaph:
"Here lies old Hobson. Death hath broke his girt,
And here, alas! hath laid him in the dirt;
Or else, the ways being foul, twenty to one
He's here stuck in a slough, and overthrown.
'Twas such a shifter that, if truth were known,
Death was half glad when he had got him down;
For he had any time this ten years full
Dodged with him betwixt Cambridge and The Bull.
And surely Death could never have prevailed,
Had not his weekly course of carriage failed;
But lately, finding him so long at home,
And thinking now his journey's end was come,
And that he had ta'en up his latest inn,
In the kind office of a chamberlain,
Showed him his room where he must lodge that night,
Pulled off his boots, and took away the light."
[Illustration: PAUL PINDAR TAVERN.]
Among the "Familiar Letters" of James Howell is a stately epistle addressed "To Sir Paul Pindar, Knight," who is informed to his face that of all the men of his times he is "one of the greatest examples of piety and constant integrity," and is assured that his correspondent could see his namesake among the apostles saluting and solacing him, and ensuring that his works of charity would be as a "triumphant chariot" to carry him one day to heaven. But Sir Paul Pindar was more than benevolent; he was a master in business affairs and no mean diplomatist. His commercial aptitude he put to profitable use during a fifteen years' residence in Italy; his skill as a negotiator was tested and proved by nine years' service in Constantinople as the ambassador of James I to Turkey. At the date of his final return to England, 1623, the merchant and diplomat was an exceedingly wealthy man, well able to meet the expense of that fine mansion in Bishopsgate Street Without which perpetuated his name down to our own day. In its original state Sir Paul Pindar's house, both within and without, was equal in splendour and extent to any mansion in London. And, as may be imagined, its owner was a person of importance in city and court life. One of his possessions was a great diamond worth thirty-five thousand pounds, which James I used to borrow for state occasions. The son of that monarch purchased this jewel in 1625 for about half its value and successfully deferred payment for even that reduced sum! Sir Paul, indeed, appears to have been a complacent lender of his wealth to royalty and the nobility, so that it is not surprising many "desperate debts" were owing him on his death. A century and a quarter after that event, that is in 1787, the splendid mansion of the wealthy merchant and diplomat had become a tavern under the names of its builder, and continued in that capacity until 1890, when railway extension made its demolition necessary. But the beautifully carved front is still preserved in the South Kensington Museum.
While there may at times be good reason for doubting the claims made as to the antiquity of some London taverns, there can be none for questioning the ripe old age to which the Pope's Head in Cornhill attained. This is one of the few taverns which Stow deals with at length. He describes it as being "strongly built of stone," and favours the opinion that it was at one time the palace of King John. He tells, too, how in his day wine was sold there at a penny the pint and bread provided free. It was destroyed in the Great Fire, but rebuilt shortly after. Pepys knew both the old and the new house. In the former he is said to have drunk his first "dish of tea," and he certainly enjoyed many a meal under its roof, notably on that occasion when, with Sir W. Penn and Mrs. Pepys, he "eat cakes and other fine things." Another, not so pleasant, memory is associated with the Pope's Head. Two actors figured in the episode, James Quin and William Bowen, between whom, especially on the side of the latter, strong professional jealousy existed. Bowen, a low comedian of "some talent and more conceit," taunted Quin with being tame in a certain role, and Quin retorted in kind, declaring that Bowen's impersonation of a character in "The Libertine" was much inferior to that of another actor. Bowen seems to have had an ill-balanced mind; he was so affected by Jeremy Collier's "Short View" that he left the stage and opened a cane shop in Holborn, thinking "a shopkeeper's life was the readiest way to heaven." But he was on the stage again in a year, thus resuming the career which was to be his ruin. For so thoroughly was he incensed by Quin's disparagement that he took the earliest opportunity of forcing the quarrel to an issue. Having invited Quin to meet him, the two appear to have gone from tavern to tavern until they reached the Pope's Head. Quin was averse to a duel, but no sooner had the two entered an empty room in the Cornhill tavern than Bowen fastened the door, and, standing with his back against it and drawing his sword, threatened Quin that he would run him through if he did not draw and defend himself. In vain did Quin remonstrate, and in the end he had to take to his sword to keep the angry Bowen at bay. He, however, pressed so eagerly on his fellow actor that it was not long ere he received a mortal wound. Before he died Bowen confessed he had been in the wrong, and that frank admission was the main cause why Quin was legally freed of blame for the tragic incident in the Pope's Head.
Although there was a Mermaid tavern in Cornhill, it must not be confused with its far more illustrious namesake in the nearby thoroughfare of Cheapside. The Cornhill house was once kept by a man named Dun, and the story goes that one day when he was in the room with some witty gallants, one of them, who had been too familiar with the host's wife, exclaimed, "I'll lay five pounds there's a cuckold in this company." To which another immediately rejoined, "Tis Dun!"
Around the other Mermaid--that in Cheapside--much controversy has raged. One dispute was concerned with its exact site, but as the building disappeared entirely many generations ago that is not a matter of moment. Another cause of debate is found in that passage of Gifford's life of Ben Jonson which describes his habits in the year 1603. "About this time," Gifford wrote, "Jonson probably began to acquire that turn for conviviality for which he was afterwards noted. Sir Walter Raleigh, previously to his unfortunate engagement with Cobham and others, had instituted a meeting of _beaux esprits_ at the Mermaid, a celebrated tavern in Friday Street. Of this club, which combined more talent and genius, perhaps, than ever met together before or since, our author was a member; and here, for many years, he regularly repaired with Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Cotton, Carew, Martin, Donne, and many others, whose names, even at this distant period, call up a mingled feeling of reverence and respect." Many have found this flowing narrative hard of belief. It is doubted whether Gifford had any authority for mixing up Sir Walter Raleigh with the Mermaid, and there are good grounds for believing that Jonson's relations with Shakespeare were not of an intimate character.
All the same, it is beyond dispute that there were rare combats of wit at the Mermaid in Jonson's days and under his rule. For indisputable witness we have that epistle which Francis Beaumont addressed to Jonson from some country retreat whither he and Fletcher had repaired to work on two of their comedies. Beaumont tells how he had dreams of the "full Mermaid wine," dwells upon the lack of excitement in his rural abode, and then breaks out:
"Methinks the little wit I had is lost
Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest
Held up at tennis, which men do best
With the best gamesters. What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one (from whence they came)
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life."
That poem inspired another which should always be included in the anthology of the Mermaid. More than two centuries after Beaumont penned his rhyming epistle to Jonson, three brothers had their lodging for a brief season in Cheapside, and the poetic member of the trio doubtless mused long and often on those kindred spirits who, for him far more than for ordinary mortals, haunted the spot where the famous tavern once stood. Thus it came about that John Keats' residence in Cheapside was a prime factor in suggesting his "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern":
"Souls of poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host's Canary wine?
Or are fruits of Paradise
Sweeter than those dainty pies
Of venison? O generous food!
Drest as though bold Robin Hood
Would, with his maid Marian,
Sup and bowse with horn and can.
"I have heard that on a day
Mine host's sign-board flew away,
Nobody knew whither, till
An Astrologer's old quill
To a sheepskin gave the story,
Said he saw you in your glory,
Underneath a new-old sign
Sipping beverage divine,
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac.
"Souls of poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?"
[Illustration: ANCIENT VIEW OF CHEAPSIDE, SHOWING THE NAG'S HEAD TAVERN.]
Compared with the Mermaid, the other old taverns of Cheapside make a meagre showing in history. There was a Mitre, however, which dated back to 1475 at the least, and had the reputation of making "noses red"; and the Bull Head, whose host was the "most faithful friend" Bishop Ridley ever had, and was the meeting-place of the Royal Society for several years; and, above all, the Nag's Head, famous as the alleged scene of the fictitious consecration of the Elizabethan bishops in 1559. There is an interesting drawing of 1638 depicting the procession of Mary de Medici in Cheapside on the occasion of her visit to her daughter, the wife of Charles I. This animated scene is historically valuable for the record it gives of several notable structures in the thoroughfare which was at that time the centre of the commercial life of London. In the middle of the picture is an excellent representation of Cheapside Cross, to the right the conduit is seen, and in the extreme corner of the drawing is a portion of the Nag's Head with its projecting sign.
Another of Ben Jonson's haunts was situated within easy distance of the Mermaid. This was the Three Tuns, of the Guildhall Yard, which Herrick includes in his list of taverns favoured by the dramatist.
Say how or when
Shall we thy Guests,
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the Triple Tunne;
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad?"
Close at hand, too, in Old Jewry, was that Windmill tavern, of which Stow wrote that it was "sometime the Jews' synagogue, since a house of friars, then a nobleman's house, after that a merchant's house, wherein mayoralties have been kept, and now a wine tavern." It must have been a fairly spacious hostelry, for on the occasion of the visit of the Emperor Charles V in 1522 the house is noted as being able to provide fourteen feather-beds, and stabling for twenty horses. From the fact that one of the characters in "Every Man in His Humour" dates a letter from the Windmill, and that two of the scenes in that comedy take place in a room of the tavern, it is obvious that it also must be numbered among the many houses frequented by Jonson.
One dramatic episode is connected with the history of the Windmill. In the early years of the seventeenth century considerable excitement was aroused in Worcestershire by the doings of John Lambe, who indulged in magical arts and crystal glass enchantments. By 1622 he was in London, and numbered the king's favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, among his clients. That was sufficient to set the populace against him, an enmity which was greatly intensified by strange atmospheric disturbances which visited London in June, 1628. All this was attributed to Lambe's conjuring, and the popular fury came to a climax a day or two later, when Lambe, as he was leaving the Fortune Theatre, was attacked by a mob of apprentices. He fled towards the city and finally took refuge in the Windmill. After affording the hunted man haven for a few hours the host, in view of the tumult outside, at length turned him into the street again, where he was so severely beaten that he died the following morning. A crystal ball and other conjuring implements were found on his person.
Far less exciting was the history of Pontack's, a French ordinary in Abchurch Lane which played a conspicuous part in the social life of London during the eighteenth century. Britons of that period had their own insular contempt for French cookery, as is well illustrated by Rowlandson's caricature which, with its larder of dead cats and its coarse revelation of other secrets of French cuisine, may be regarded as typical of the popular opinion. But Pontack and his eating-house flourished amazingly for all that. A French refugee in London in 1697 took pride in the fact that whereas it was difficult to obtain a good meal elsewhere "those who would dine at one or two guineas per head are handsomely accommodated at our famous Pontack's." The owner of this ordinary is sketched in brief by Evelyn, who frequently dined under his roof. Under date July 13, 1683, the diarist wrote: "I had this day much discourse with Monsieur Pontaq, son to 'the famous and wise prime President of Bordeaux. This gentleman was owner of that excellent vignoble of Pontaq and Obrien, from whence come the choicest of our Bordeaux wines; and I think I may truly say of him, what was not so truly said of St. Paul, that much learning had made him mad. He spoke all languages, was very rich, had a handsome person, and was well bred; about forty-five years of age."
Hogarth, it will be remembered, paid Pontack a dubious compliment in the third plate of his Rake's Progress series. The room of that boisterous scene is adorned with pictures of the Roman Emperors, one of which has been removed to give place to the portrait of Pontack, who is described by a Hogarth commentator as "an eminent French cook, whose great talents being turned to heightening sensual, rather than mental enjoyments, has a much better chance of a votive offering from this company, than would either Vespasian or Trajan." These advertisements, however, were all to the good of the house. They were exactly of the kind to attract the most profitable type of customer. Those customers might grumble, as Swift did, at the prices, but they all agreed that they enjoyed very good dinners. The poet, indeed, expressed the unanimous verdict of the town when he asked:
"What wretch would nibble on a hanging shelf,
When at Pontack's he may regale himself?"