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Biography of Ben Jonson

Portrait of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson was an Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatist.

When and Where was he Born?

11th June 1572, Westminster, London, England.

Family Background:

Ben Jonson’s father died two months before he was born. His stepfather was a bricklayer. Jonson himself claimed that he came from a Scottish family the Johnstones.


Westminster School. He was taught by William Camden.

Timeline of Ben Jonson:

1574: His mother remarries.

1592: Jonson returns to England after serving in the army in Flanders in Francis Vere’s regiment. He had joined the army to escape the bricklaying trade of his stepfather.

1593: Death of Ben Jonson’s eldest daughter Mary.

1594: He marries Anne Lewis, probably on 14 November at St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge according to Parish Registers.

1597: He joins up with Philip Henslowe in a theatrical company as playwright and performer at the Rose Theatre. Sent to prison for collaborating on a seditious satire called “The Isle of Dogs.” by Queen Elizabeth’s interrogator, Richard Topcliffe. Jonson was imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison and charged with “Leude and mutynous behavior”.

1598: Jonson’s second known play, “Every Man in His Humour”, is performed at the Globe Theatre by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and has William Shakespeare in the cast. Jonson accidentally kills Gabriel Spencer, another actor, in a duel in Hogsden Fields, in Shoreditch. He is tried at the Old Bailey for murder but is not hanged due to pleading the benefit of clergy. (He had to recite a short bible verse). He converts to Roman Catholicism whilst in prison. When released from Newgate Prison he had a felon’s brand placed on his thumb.

1600: The satire “Cynthia’s Revels” is put on at the Blackfriars Theatre by the Children of the Chapel Royal.

1601: The so called “War of the Theatres” breaks out with Jonson arrogantly assuming his superiority and performing “The Poetaster” which satirises other writers. Other dramatists such as Thomas Dekker and John Marston struck back by writing plays about him.

1603: Accession of King James the First and Jonson and other writers welcom the new king. He is briefly imprisoned by the authorities again for his play “Sejanus: His Fall” which offended the Privy Council. Death of his eldest son Benjamin from the plague,

1604: Ben Jonson ceases his feuding with Dekker and works with him on “The King’s Entertainment” and with Marston and George Chapman on “Eastward Ho”. He is sent to prison for his his views which are thought to be controversial by the Establishment

1605: As a Catholic Jonson is now a suspect after the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes.

1610: He converts back to the Anglican religion.

Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre, Southwark, reconstructed from an idea by Sam Wannamaker (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1616: Publication of his complete works in a folio edition. He is appointed as the first actual Poet Laureate and is given a pension of 100 Marks by the King. The play “The Devil is an Ass” was a comparative failure and Jonson then turned his attention to writing masques.

1618: He travels to Scotland by foot.

1619: The Scottish poet Drummond recorded a conversation with him on the banks of the River Esk. He is made an honorary citizen of Edinburgh. He receives an honorary degree from Oxford University on his return to England.

1623: Death of Camden.

1625: Death of King James the First and the Accession of King Charles the First. Jonson felt pushed out at the new court. He quarrels with Inigo Jones which curtailed his writing of masques.

1628: Jonson is appointed as the City Chronologer of London. He suffers a stroke later in the year.

1635: Death of his second son, also called Benjamin. Jonson became the leader of a group of writers later in life called the “Sons of Ben”. Men such as Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling gathered at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside to toast his success. The group later called themselves the “Cavalier Poets”.

When and Where did he Die?

6th August 1637, London, England. The exact cause of death is unclear, though it is known that he suffered a series of health problems during this last decade.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1598: “Every Man in his Humour”.
1599: “Every Man out of his Humour”.
1600: “Cynthia’s Revels”.
1601: “The Poetaster”.
1603: “The Entertainment of the Queen and Prince at Althorp”. “Sejanus, His Fall”.
1604: “The Coronation Triumph”. “The King’s Entertainment”.
1605: “The Masque of Blackness”.
1606: “Hymenaei” (Masque). “Volpone, or the Fox”.
1608: “Two Royal Masques”. (“Masque of Beauty” and “Masque of Queens”).
1609: “Epicoene, or the Silent Woman”. “The Masque of Queens”.
1610: “The Alchemist”.
1611: “Catiline His conspiracy”. “Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly”. (Masque). “Oberon the Fairy Prince”.
1614: “Bartholomew Fair”.
1615: “The Golden Age Restored”.
1616: “The Devil is an Ass”. “Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court”.
1617: “The Vision of Delight”.
1620: “News from the New World Discovered in the Moon”.
1623: “Time Vindicated to Himself and to his Honours”. (Masque).
1624: “Neptune’s Triumph for the Return of Albion”. (Masque).
1625: “The Staple of News”.
1629: “The New Inn or the Light of the Heart”.
1631: “Chlorida: Rites to Chloris and her Nymphs”. (Masque).
1632: “The Magnetic Lady or Humours Reconciled”.
1633: “The Tale of a Tub”.
1640: “Complete Works”: Vol 2 of First Folio.
1641: “Sad Shepherd’s Tale” (left unfinished at his death and published posthumously).
(1692): “Complete Works”: Second Folio.


Probably 14 November 1594 to Anne Lewis at St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge according to Parish Registers.

Site of Grave:

Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, England in an upright grave with the inscription “O Rare Ben Johnson” on his slab.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, London
(copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:


Globe Theatre.