By any standard, even today, a journey to the Dales of North Yorkshire would not be undertaken lightly. A careful motorist would certainly check the tyre pressure, make sure there was a full tank of fuel and think where a couple of stops en route might be taken.
What must a journey have been like in 1626? Roads were bad, safety uncertain, accommodation sparse. It would need careful planning and could only sensibly be made in summer when the weather would be kinder. And how to make such a journey? The only apparent option was to travel by horseback. A sea journey along the coast for some of the route is possibly feasible, but it would still require a lengthy east to west overland journey through Richmond and along the Ure. A ride on haulage carts travelling to say, York sounds equally unlikely.
And then there was the danger of banditry in Wensleydale. In 1609, men were still living who recalled that to pass through the forest a fine had to be paid to avoid attack.
So why did Edward Alleyn, at the age of 60 undertake such an uncomfortable and hazardous trip?
Edward Alleyn’s first wife, Joan had died in June 1623. Five months later he married Constance Donne, the eldest of John Donne’s, Dean of St Paul’s, seven surviving children. She was 40 years his junior.
The match was probably arranged by the wife of his friend and neighbour, Sir Thomas Grymes of Peckham, whose wife was Constance’s maternal aunt (and related to Sir Thomas More).
So we must question again, why, why, at the age of 60, with a young wife of less than three years, contemplate such a journey? Was it an act of bravado to impress a young wife – he could certainly boast of such journeys taken in the past when he went on year-long theatrical tours when the plague closed the London playhouses. But that was thirty years earlier, when he was a young man as tough as old boots. Or was he keen for one last great trip because he was bored in his retirement; his College established and running smoothly, his estate ticking over, his theatre performance days long over.
Yet he was still running at least one theatre and he was still apparently interested in property speculation. It was the intercedence of a lawyer from the Inner Temple, George Cole which persuaded him to make what would be his final great journey.
George Cole was born in Stokesley, Yorkshire and was a a wealthy man, In 1616 he and his brother Thomas had bought a third of the vast manor of Simondstone, Aysgarth, Yorkshire for £4750 and soon after he purchased a further third. To give some idea of property prices, Edward Alleyn had bought the more valuable manor of Dulwich, comprising 1500 acres, in 1605 for £5000.
Cole had bought the Yorkshire manor, which had a number of leases which were due to expire in 1626, from the Crown. The manor was originally vested in the Abbey of Jervauix and following the Dissolution of the Monasteries was acquired by the Duke of Lennox, reverting later to the Crown.
George Cole, who appears to have acted for Alleyn as his lawyer must have persuaded Alleyn that it would be a good deal to buy some of this land situated in Simondstone in the parish of Aysgarth. Convinced, Alleyn bought the land, which seems to have comprised nine farms of varying sizes, in February 1626. In July of that year he decided to make the long journey to have a look at it.
The parish of Aysgarth was one of extremes, extreme remoteness, extreme size. It extended to 80,000 acres. Although it is now divided into four parishes, Aysgarth itself, is still one of the largest parishes in the country. The church of St Andrew’s in Aysgarth also has a 4 acre churchyard which claims to be the biggest in the country.
However, the area is thinly populated even today, and that population is in decline still. Aysgarth’s population today is 178, half of what it was a century ago.
St Andrew’s possesses the screen and Abbott’s stall from Jervauix Abbey, the former a remarkably rare survivor of the Reformation. When the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place the monks of Jervauix appear to have been awarded St Andrew’s and with the apparent agreement of the parishioners set about its restoration in 1536. It was restored again in 1866 – the same year Christ’s Chapel, in Dulwich, was restored.
The church’s list of vicars shows that a Samuel Jonson was vicar at the time of Alleyn’s visit. Something of a coincidence, considering that the actor and contemporary, Ben Jonson, was a friend and great admirer of Alleyn. Trinity College, Cambridge is the lay rector of St Andrews and it insists that its records name the spelling as Janson.
Did Edward Alleyn take time to admire the spectacular series of waterfalls on the River Ure as it passes through the village? At what date Alleyn made the return journey from Aysgarth in the summer of 1626 we do not know. What is certain is that it did him no good at all and he fell very ill soon after, rallying somewhat in November before succumbing in December.
He left to Constance, his young wife, her jewels, £100 and the interest in an investment of £1500. In 1630 she married Samuel Harvey of Albury Hatch, Surrey.
Lawyer,George Cole was also. it seems, a friend of DrJohn Donne, because it was in Cole’s house that Donne himself fell ill and died a year later.