restricted access Charles Chester and Ben Jonson
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Charles Chester and Ben Jonson

In his [Walter Raleigh’s] youthful time was one Charles Chester, that often kept company with his acquaintance: he was a bold, impertenent fellowe, and they could never be at quiet for him; a perpetuall talker, and made a noyse like a drumme in a roome. So one time at a taverne, Sir W. R. beates him and seales up his mouth, i.e. his upper and neather beard, with hard wax. From him Ben Jonson takes his Carlo Buffono (i.e. Jester) in Every Man out of his Humour.

—John Aubrey, Brief Lives

As it stands, John Aubrey’s anecdote about the origin of Carlo Buffone appears improbable. Jonson’s imagination seems too fertile to have needed—or wanted—such an obviously external model for the punishment of his braggart, and in recent times Aubrey’s allegation has fallen into critical neglect. 1 The purpose of this article is to argue, however, that there is substance to Aubrey’s story that should not be dismissed so lightly. Although there are no grounds to believe that the original incident ever took place as narrated by Aubrey, it can be shown that Charles Chester did exist; that he was a tavern railer who knew and fell out of favor with Raleigh; that he mixed with the Middle Temple wits whose company Jonson also cultivated; and that many of Jonson’s colleagues vilified him in terms strikingly similar to those in which Jonson attacks Carlo Buffone. Furthermore, this article draws attention to unease expressed by Jasper Mayne as to whether or not Carlo was a representation of an actual person and to numerous passages in Every Man Out in which it is asserted that such “Aristophanic” representation is possible, even desirable. Finally, one must consider how this new evidence changes one’s perception of Jonson’s play. But first, it is necessary to reconstruct the life of a figure on the periphery [End Page 313] of the world of several authors based in the London of the 1590s, a man famed in his day for his abilities as a railer, whose historical existence is attested to mainly by the numerous attempts made to shut him up.

Massive genealogical labors have been expended on the Chester family and its various branches, most notably by R. E. C. Waters, and yet they do not help to locate the Charles Chester in question. Indeed, Waters doesn’t even mention the Aubrey anecdote. One Charles Chester from Bristol went to Oxford University in 1575 and then, according to Waters, left to join one of Frobisher’s expeditions to the Far East, but it seems likely that this man never returned. 2 Another otherwise unidentified Charles Chester attended Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1570, but he has been alleged to be the same individual who later attended Oxford. 3 There is nothing to link either to the Charles Chester under discussion here.

In fact, the first fact that one knows for sure about this Charles Chester relates to his imprisonment. In 1592 Chester alludes to having been imprisoned in the Canary Islands in the past, and in the relevant Spanish records one finds mention of the arrest of one Carlos Sester, Englishman, who was brought into the prison of the Inquisition in the Canary Islands on 7 March 1575. 4 He had been living in Tenerife, apparently, and was on good terms with a Dutchman named Cornelius Vanhenden who later provided him with a mattress, pillow, and blanket. Chester stayed in prison throughout 1575, complaining frequently about the food, requesting a book to read whereby he could learn Spanish (a detail suggesting that he had not been living in the islands long), and asking to be brought a pair of pumps. In December he was moved out of the prison, on the grounds of ill health, and installed probably at the monastery of San Francisco, where one of the monks later recalled how he had been almost perverse in his eagerness to bring into his conversations dangerous theological topics such as the doctrine of justification by faith: “This witness told him that he should not get involved again in this issue...