Playwright Ben Jonson Duels to the Death

On 22 September 1598, Elizabethan actor Gabriel Spencer settled his creative differences with playwright Ben Jonson with a duel.

Pointy end: duelling techniques used by Elizabethan theatrical luminaries like Gabriel Spencer and Ben Jonson, illustrated in Vincentio Saviolo, his Practise, 1595. The Granger Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

The late 16th century was a precarious time to be in the theatre. It wasn’t the money, or the ever-present threat of closure, so much as the men you worked with. They seemed to enjoy killing people.

In June 1587, for instance, William Knell was stabbed in the neck with a five-shilling sword in Thame by fellow actor John Towne after an argument. Henry Porter died the day after an assault by fellow playwright John Day. In 1589, poet and playwright Thomas Watson killed a man named William Bradley on what is now Curtain Road in Shoreditch after Bradley had attacked Watson’s friend Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe himself died after being stabbed in the eye. In 1596 actor Gabriel Spencer drove a sheathed rapier into a man’s eye – a popular vulnerability, it seems – and killed him. That was in Shoreditch, too.

Two years later, on 22 September 1598, Spencer fought a duel with playwright Ben Jonson in Shoreditch. (Where else?) The two had been imprisoned the year before. The Isle of Dogs, a now-lost play that Jonson co-wrote, had so incensed the Privy Council that they closed all the theatres. But we don’t know why the two men fought.

Accounts of what happened differ. Jonson later claimed that Spencer’s sword was ten inches longer than his own and that he had been wounded in the arm before he fought back. The indictment, however, reports that it was Jonson who ‘feloniously and wilfully struck and beat’ Spencer with a rapier, before striking him ‘a mortal wound, of the depth of six inches and of the breadth of one inch’. Spencer died instantly.

At the Old Bailey, Jonson pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He would have hanged were it not for a quirk in English law, a holdover from the medieval battle for legal jurisdiction between church and secular courts. If you were literate, you could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ – proved in court by reading out Psalm 51, the Miserere – and escape with a branded ‘M’ on the thumb. The psalm was known, darkly but not inaccurately, as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson read it, and walked free