Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Izaak Walton The Compleat Angler 1655

Another source which would have kept the phrase alive is Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, one of the most popular of all English books, and one with much interest to the countryman. It was first published in 1653, and continuously reprinted into the twentieth century.

In the second edition (1655) a group of beggars who, being unable to resolve an argument amongst themselves, decide to refer the dispute for resolution by “old father Clause, whom Ben Jonson in his Beggars Bush created King of their Corporation”. There is no doubt this is the Fletcher & Massinger Beggars Bush, which Walton has misattributed. It shows, and may have helped sustain, the popularity of the play and of the character Clause.


“On the other-side of this very hedge sate a gang of Gypsies, and near to them sate a gang of Beggars. The Gypsies were then to divide all the money that had been got that week, either by stealing linen or poultrie, or by Fortune-telling or Legerdemain, or, indeed by any other sleights and secrets belonging to their mysterious Government . . . However the Gipsies were too wise to go to Law, and did therefore chuse their choice friends Rook and Shark, and our late English Gusman, to be their Arbitrators and Umpire; and so they left this Honey-suede hedg, and went to Tell fortunes, and cheat, and get more money and lodging in the next Village . . .

“When these were gone, we heard as high a contention amongst the beggars, Whether it was easiest to rip a Cloak, or to unrip a cloak?  . . . These and twenty such like questions were proposed, and answered with as much beggarly Logick and earnestnesse, as was ever heard to proceed from the mouth of the most pertinacious Schismatick; and sometimes all the Beggars (whose number was neither more nor lesse than the Poets nine Muses) talk’d all together about this ripping and unripping, and none heard what the other said; but at last one beggar crav’d audience, and told them, that old father Claus, whom Ben Johnson in his Beggars Bush created King of their Corporation, was that night to lodge at an Ale-house (called Catch-her-by-the-way,) not far from Waltam-Crosse, and in the high-rode towards London; and he desired them to spend no more time about that and such like questions, but refer all to Father Claus at night.”

CHAPTER 5 from 4th edition 1668

The Compleat Angler Or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation

Although based around a dialogue between a fisherman and other types of hunters, the book is far more than a manual. As well as practical advice on fishing technique it included quotations from the classics, folklore, bucolic episodes, songs and ballads.

Walton’s treatise was one of the most commonly printed books in English literature. It was printed five times in the seventeenth century, with alterations and additions to the text, increasing from 246 to 355 pages. It was reprinted 10 times in the eighteenth century, about 117 times in the nineteenth century, and between 30 and 40 times in the twentieth century. A single edition published in 1886 had sold 80,000 copies by 1914.

Izaak Walton (1593-1683)

Walton was a remarkable example of both social mobility through trade and the value of literacy and a talent for friendship. He was the son of a tippler (an low grade publican) innkeeper in Stafford. On his father’s death his mother married a baker. After some education at the Grammar School Walton was apprenticed in London to his brother-in-law as a draper. There he seems to have risen rapidly both in the guild of the Ironmongers’ Company, opening a shop in Chancery Lane, and in literay circles. He was a close friend of writers, including John Donne, whose life he published in 1640. His household later included the young Thomas Ken, later Bishop of Bath & Wells, who was a relative of his second wife. He was an ardent Royalist during the Civil War, after which he seems to have spent more time writing. In 1651 his biography of Sir Henry Wotton was published. He later added lives of Richard Hooker (1662), George Herbert (1670), and Bishop Sanderson (1678), writing until nearly in 90s. His last revision of The Compleat Angler was published in 1676 as The Universal Angler, with an additional section by Charles Cotton, a Staffordshire gentleman and author, who professed to be honoured to call Walton “father”. Cotton’s Fishing House built on the Banks of the River Dove in 1674 still survives, with the men’s initial’s intertwined above the door.

Why Jonson?

Walton was acquainted with Ben Jonson, about whom he wrote an unusually critical letter to John Aubrey in the 1680s. Although misattribution was common it is strange that Walton should make this error, as I am not aware of any printed edition that attributed the play to Jonson. It was in the First Folio of “Beaumont & Fletcher” published in 1647. The error suggests that Walton was aware of the play through seeing a performance, but as the theatres had closed since 1640, and he may have seen it performed in London well before that, he may have forgotten the correct authors.

It is possible that Walton had more recently seen a performance of the droll The Lame Commonwealth taken from the play, as the publisher Francis Kirkman maintained that they had been performed while the theatres were closed, though this is less likely. The droll was not published until after The Compleat Angler. Kirkman was a great misattributor, but in his case it was almost all wilful and deliberate.

Walton’s reference to “Gusman” is also intriguing. This must be to The Rogue: or the life of Guzman de Alfarache, translated from Spanish into English by James Mabbe,  published in 1623 and later. This is another work which included the phrase Beggars Bush. Mabbe was acquainted with Jonson, and therefore possibly with Walton.


The Compleat Angler 1653 (1st edition)

The Compleat Angler 1668 (4th edition)

Further Reading


Jonquil Bevan, Stage Influences in The Compleat Angler, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 136 (Nov., 1983), pp. 452-457

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers, The Play | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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