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

John Taylor The Praise, Antiquity and Commodity of Beggary, Beggars & begging, etc. 1621

“I have here made bold to present to your illiterate protection, a beggarly Pamphlet of my threed-bare invention . . . I thought to have dedicated it to Beggars Bush, neere Andever, or to his Hawthorne brother within a mile of Huntingdon; but I considered at last, that the laps of your long Coate could shelter me as well [o]r better than any beggarly Thorne-bush.”

The Fool

Taylor’s mock dedication from the introduction to his pamphlet was directed towards Archy Armstrong, King James’s Fool, and refers to his coat of motley, the symbol of the Fool. Taylor despised Armstrong, who was renowned for his illiteracy and venality. He refers elsewhere to Armstrong’s “nimble tongue, to make other mens money runne into your purse” and called him “the bright eye-dazeling mirrour of mirth, adelantado of alacrity, the pump of pastime, spout of sport and Regent of ridiculous Confabulations”.

Never one to hold back he compares Armstrong to previous worthy fools “Scoggins or worth Will Summers” to whom Armstrong is the Nero or Caligula to their “good Augustus”. Taylor signed off “He that admires your unparallelable parts, and wisheth the reversion of your gaines rather than your Office”.


Taylor refers to two specific locations. I have traced no record of a Beggars Bush place name near Andover, Hampshire, although there are possible sites to which Taylor may be referring. The second is clearly the Beggars Bush at Godmanchester. He also travelled past the site on his Penniless Pilgrimage in 1618 as he records staying in Huntingdon on his return journey back from Scotland to London, but he makes no mention of it in that work. Taylor must have known of it through Saxton’s map. In reality the site is more than two miles from Huntingdon but Taylor was a poet not a surveyor.
Taylor is also unique in giving a species for the Beggars Bush. He describes it as being hawthorn, and also refers to a thorn bush. That is not consistent with Saxton’s illustration of the Godmanchester site, although Saxton’s trees are schematic. It implies some personal acquaintance with the site. There are hawthorn hedges along the road, and may have been then in 1621. It must be said that Taylor is not the most reliable writer and quite capable of using a word for effect.


The usage is consistent with the literary use. Taylor is suggesting he might find his home at Beggars Bush, as the refuge of the poor, but that alternatively Armstrong might shelter him. Taylor implies that Armstrong owed him something, having, in Taylor’s eyes usurped his own position.

The Woodcut Illustration – Beggars All

There is an entertaining illustration of Beggars Bush in the woodcut which is the frontispiece to John Taylor’s pamphlet. It shows the three degrees of Beggary; ‘A Gallant Beggar, ‘A Maundering Beggar’ & ‘Beggars Bush’. There is no reason to suppose that it is intended to show a real place.
Like the reference in the introduction the woodcut is incongruous. It does not directly reflect the themes of the work. Nor does the pamphlet refer to ‘Gallant’ or ‘Maundering’ beggars. Taylor took care with the woodcuts some of his publications, but for others used or re-used old woodcuts. It is likely that this illustration was originally intended for another work, and was inserted to add to the marketability of the pamphlet. It more closely fits the vagabond literature and canting pieces, by authors such as Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker.
The images are archetypes. They echo of the illustrations of the tale of Nicholas Jennings, the counterfeit rogue in Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566) which formed the source for much of the vagabond literature. The Gallant Beggar has a rod of authority, a symbol of the Upright Man, a senior rogue in Thomas Harman’s typology. The inhabitants of Beggars Bush have torn clothes, a crutch and enormous lice.
The woodcut has been used as an illustration to modern works (see below).It may be an indication of the attraction of the phrase that one of these, Salgado, misquotes a contemporary remark about the reputation for vice of Old St Paul’s, that it was “as well known to all men as a beggar knows his bush”. In the original “bush” is actually “dishe”.


The Praise, Antiquity and Commodity of Beggary, Beggars & begging, etc. is one of a series of pamphlets written and published by Taylor between 1620-24, other subjects so praised included jails, clean linen & hemp seed. They are exercises in doggerel rather than serious reportage or polemic. Taylor takes the theme that beggars have easier lives than kings, and wrings it dry. He compares the toil and trouble of noblemen and lawyers to the easy life of the beggar. Some indication of the style may be had from the marginal headings to paragraphs, such as “A Begger never grows mad with too much study”, “The weak beggars have a great advantage over the strong”, “Virtues that Beggers have – Humility, Patience, Fortitude, Temperance”. The theme was not new; other early modern authors wrote similar conceits. The legend of St Martin of Tours featured crippled beggars who try to avoid being cured so as to preserve their easy life.
Taylor does not refer to Beggars Bush anywhere in his poem itself, nor does he use the phrase in any of his other works.
Only six copies of the original volume survive, and the dedication was omitted from Taylor’s own Collected Works (1630). This may have been because Armstrong remained in favour under Charles I, although the collection did include a thinly veiled attack on the Fool in Honour Conceal’d: Strangely Reveal’d. Armstrong had an extraordinary career as the last of the Royal Fools; amusing two monarchs with slapstick jousts, getting away with the traditional privilege of stating blunt truths, and even acting as part of a diplomatic mission to Spain to negotiate for a marriage with the Infanta, where he was even able to get away with jokes to the Spanish King and Court about the Armada and the Pope. However, he inevitably made enemies, and Taylor might well have assumed in 1621 that Armstrong’s behaviour would bring him down, in the current literary usage of the phrase. In fact Armstrong retired in comfort to Scotland and lived until 1672, in contrast to Taylor who seemed to have struggled financially throughout his life.


John Taylor, the self styled ‘Water Poet’ was a prolific author, ardent Protestant, Royalist and self-publicist. He is one of the great English characters, to whom no summary can do justice. Born and educated in Gloucester, he moved to London where he became a Thames Waterman, a Royal Waterman and an officer of the Waterman’s Company.
Taylor’s life and works are further reminders that modern taste is not a measure of past fame, although the judgement that “his execrable verses were written with a cast-iron ear, and his prose style waddles like a fat man on crutches” is too harsh.
He first came to notice as a writer in 1612 with a collection of verse, The Sculler, which included a gratuitous attack on Thomas Coryate, a young Somerset gentleman who had published an account of his journey to Venice. It continued through a series of pamphlets on both sides, until Coryate was able to persuade the King to order Taylor’s pamphlet to be burned by the public hangman. Taylor probably never saw this as any more than a literary event, and when Coryate died he seemed genuinely saddened. However, the row fascinated the Court and brought his name to a wide audience, including students at Oxford, as it was referred to in the Twyne correspondence.
Taylor made a series of remarkable journeys around Britain and Europe. For his Penniless Pilgrimage in 1618 he undertook to walk from London to Edinburgh, without funds and without “begging, borrowing, or asking meat, drink, nor lodging”. When the Protestant Elector Palatine was threatened by the power of Spain he walked to Prague. His attempt to row down the Thames to Kent in a brown-paper boat, with two stock-fish (dried cod) on sticks for oars, was characteristic. Like the Penniless Pilgrimage it was an outlandish plan supported by subscription, and the sale of the account in verse. The paper failed after two hours, but Taylor arrived survived being carried downstream all night, because the boat was actually supported by bladders. In typical showman style, Taylor had them inflated before he started by a whore, a usurer, a cutpurse and drunken bagpiper, chosen because the proverb said that a rogue born to hang would never drown, so their breath would ensure his safety! On arrival Taylor described himself and his wet companion as “like tenants beggarly and poor”.
His works were wide ranging, including the first obituary tribute to Ben Jonson, palindromes, polemics in favour of the Royalist cause, nonsense verse, accounts of events & wonders, and thumbnail versions of the Bible and Fox’s Book of Martyrs. More than 150 published works survive, but others are lost. Evidence from surviving copies and library lists shows them to have been distributed to a wide audience, both geographically and socially, including women, bishops, and schoolboys. Taylor’s works were also undoubtedly read aloud and Taylor was aware of this audience. He was well known enough for reference to him to be included in a play put on by schoolboys in Hadliegh, Suffolk in 1627. Some works were published in large editions of more than 1,500 copies, which were taken by Taylor with him on his travels. Carriers also distributed them; one of Taylor’s publications was The Carrier’s Cosmographie (1637) a list of all the provincial carriers, their timetables and all the inns in London from which they traded.
He lived in Bankside, near the Hope Theatre, close to John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Taylor was acquainted with many authors, including Ben Jonson, and Thomas Dekker. In The Praise of Hemp-Seed (1620) he lists authors “which doe in paper their true worth display” including Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher, Massinger and Heywood. Taylor must have known their work. Whether he was personally acquainted with them is less certain; he could take a personal view of those he mentioned in his works. The mention of Massinger is a very early acknowledgement of his reputation. If they were acquainted Taylor may have been the source of the name and theme for Fletcher & Massinger’s play. Even if he was not personally the source the pamphlet could be; the play was first performed about a year after it was published.

He must have met many playgoers in his work as a Waterman, and was familiar with actors in several companies. In 1614 he presented a petition to the King on behalf of the Waterman’s Company complaining about the loss of trade from the transfer of the theatres north of the river. He was accused of taking bribes from players not to press the suit. John Taylor, oarmaker, was a witness to a bond of Philip Henslowe, the theatre manager, in 1595, and although this would not have been the Water Poet it may have been a kinsman. Edward Alleyn, the partner and son-in-law of Henslowe, was one of the sponsors of Taylor’s Penniless Pilgrimage and he arranged for his return from that to be celebrated by a performance of the popular play Guy of Warwick by the Earl of Derby’s players.
Taylor was always a sociable figure. He may have been regarded as a curious character rather than a real friend by some of his contacts, though Taylor’s natural optimism may have lead him to believe otherwise. His fortunes waned after reform of the Waterman’s Company, and the failure of the Royalist cause. He ended his life running a pub, The Poet’s Head, in London. He died in 1653, after a further series of journeys undertaken in his 70’s.


The text including the introduction is now available on the open access EEBO.

The praise, antiquity, and commodity, of beggery, beggers, and begging.

Sources & Further Reading

Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water Poet 1578-1653, Oxford, 1994
John Chandler, Travels through Stuart Britain; The Adventures of John Taylor the Water Poet, Stroud, 1999
John Taylor, All the Workes of John Taylor, the Water-Poet, London, 1630
Wikeley, C., ‘Honour Conceal’d; Strangely Reveal’d; The Fool and the Water-Poet, p.189-208, in Samson, A., (ed) The Spanish Match: Prince Charles’s Journey to Madrid, 1623, London 2006
J. Southworth, Fools and jesters at the English court London 1998
Old DNB & DNB John Taylor and Archy Armstrong
Jonathan Green’s Heroes of Slang


There are no non copyright copies of the woodcut accessible to me.
If you want to see it, and I recommend you do, it is available for sale here (beware – the quality of some reproductions of this are poor).
There is another example of the woodcut from The Bodleian Library available in:
A.L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640, London, 1985 (Cover)
G. Salgado, The Elizabethan Underworld, London, 1977
See Mercurius Politicus for an example and discussion of Taylor re-using a woodcut in different pamphlets.


John Chandler, Bernard Capp, Nick Poyntz

Posted: March 19th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers, The Play | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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