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Ben Jonson

​Ben Jonson

​Archive Treasures: Artists in trouble

Laurence Ward

The records of judicial proceedings provide us with many stories, some sad and lamentable, others scandalous and disturbing. One feature of these collections that never fails to capture popular imagination is the plight of artists or celebrities of the day who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

Ben Jonson was 26 when he was indicted for manslaughter at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace. A young actor and playwright, he had worked with the Admirals Men at The Rose since 1597. By the summer of 1598, it seems likely that he had already written several unrecorded plays for the company as well as Every Man in his Humour and the infamous Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe. The piece was deemed offensive enough to be suppressed and Jonson served a short term in Marshalsea Prison.

In September 1598, he was in trouble again. The indictment which arraigned him to appear at the October Gaol Delivery session records that on 22 September in the fields at Shoreditch, he killed Gabriel Spencer after inflicting a mortal wound to his right side with a rapier (MJ/SR/0358/068.) Spencer was a fellow actor and the injury was the result of a duel. Jonson admitted the crime, but was able to use his literary background to save himself. He pleaded for benefit of clergy, a legal loophole which since the 12th century had placed clergymen and others who could read outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts. By passing a literacy test (usually by reading Psalm 51, commonly known as the ‘neck verse’), Jonson escaped the noose, but was branded on the thumb with the ‘Tyburn T’, a mark which disqualified him from making the plea again.

Wandsworth Prison admissions register for Oscar Wilde, 1895

​Wandsworth Prison admissions register for Oscar Wilde, 1895

​Another great name of literature, Oscar Wilde, is found among the inmates listed in the 1895 register of Wandsworth prison (ACC/3444/PR/01/070.) Wilde had been sentenced to two years’ hard labour along with his alleged lover Alfred Taylor following a very public trial. Queensberry, incensed by Wilde’s relationship with his son, publicly slandered Wilde as a ‘posing sodomite’. Wilde subsequently took Queensberry to court on a charge of libel, but lost the case and quickly found himself up on charges of both sodomy and gross indecency. Conviction led to a sentence of two years in Wandsworth Prison. The register lists him by his full name (Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde), with the occupation ‘author’. His incarceration was the beginning of a personal decline which ended in illness and his death in Paris just five years later, aged forty six.

Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, sessions papers, John Hunt and Leigh Hunt, 1813

​Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, sessions papers, John and Leigh Hunt, 1813

The papers of the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace record that Leigh Hunt, critic, essayist, writer and friend of Keats and Shelley was also sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. In 1813 Hunt was the editor of his brother John’s newspaper The Examiner. They published a criticism of the Prince Regent which led to a charge of libel and an appearance at the Old Bailey in February 1813 (MJ/SP/1813/02/001.)

According to proceedings published in the Newgate Calendar, the affidavit prepared by the Hunt brothers was dismissed by Mr Justice LeBlanc who stated that the head of the country was not to be “…held up in public newspapers, in the manner you have held up the Prince Regent, as an object of detestation and abhorrence.”  The brothers were ordered to pay a fine of £500 each and were separately imprisoned, John in Cold Bath Fields and Leigh in the Surrey County Goal in Southwark. Given that a further £500 each was required in security and a surety of £250 was to be payable by the brothers on release in lieu of good behaviour for the next five years, it turned out to be a very costly criticism. However, all was not lost. Leigh Hunt continued to write during his period of incarceration and the court records even include a petition from his brother for paper and pens.


04 July 2013
Last Modified:
27 September 2018