On September 22, 1598, in the Fields of Shoreditch in London, England, two of the kingdom’s small circle of theatre-men met. One was Ben Jonson, a playwright and poet, whose works would be overshadowed by his contemporary, one William Shakespeare, but who was certainly an accomplished master of the theatre. The other man was an actor, Gabriel Spencer, about whom little is known. What we do know is that these two met at the Fields to fight a duel. By the end of that morning, Spencer was dead, run through by Jonson’s blade. The cause of the confrontation was never clearly explained, but Jonson claimed that Spencer started the dispute and then broke the terms of the duel by using a sword 10-inches longer than what was agreed upon. Conveniently, however, we don’t have Spencer’s side.
Jonson was tried for murder at the Old Bailey in London and was found guilty. He escaped hanging by pleading “benefit of clergy,” meaning that he was spared since he was educated in Latin. Ben Jonson did spend about 10 years in prison and was branded on his left thumb as a felon. In addition, all his property was forfeit to the crown. He certainly made the most of his narrow escape from the gallows – writing numerous successful plays until his death in 1637 – so 39 years after that fateful morning.