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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Raphael Holinshed (c. 1515–1573)

CONCERNING the personal history of Raphael Holinshed (or Hollingshead), the Elizabethan chronicler, there are only vague outlines. The day and the year of his birth are unknown; so is his birthplace. It is believed that he was born in Sutton Downes, Cheshire; but this is conjectural. Again, he is said to have been a University man,—probably from Cambridge,—but of this there is no documentary proof. Rumors, too, that he was a clergyman are quite in the air. All that is really known of Holinshed is that early in Elizabeth’s reign he came to London, and procured work as a translator from Reginald Wolfe, King’s Printer. That he liked said Wolfe may be gathered from a dedication in which he describes himself as “singularly beholden” to the former. He made his will October 1st, 1578 (the year of the publication of the ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland’), and therein wrote himself down as a steward by occupation. Wood states that he died in 1580,—another conjecture, of which there is no reliable record.

The story of the preparing of the ‘Chronicles’ is this:—Wolfe inherited valuable notes from Leland (the King’s Antiquary), planned a sort of universal history and cosmography, with maps and illustrations, and spent twenty-five years of labor upon the part relating to Great Britain. He died in 1573; and his successors, frightened at the vast extent of the work as sketched by him, drew in these ideas and devoted their attention to the countries named in the title,—England, Scotland, and Ireland. Holinshed carried this restricted plan through to publication, being assisted therein by a number of scholars, the best known of whom are William Harrison and John Stowe. The three original publishers of the work were George Bishop, John and Luke Harrison. The first edition (1578) was in two folio volumes, which had portraits, battle-pieces, and other cuts in the highest style of the art of that time. The work was dedicated to William Cecil, Lord Burghley. The writing of it was apportioned to the several chroniclers, Holinshed doing parts of the histories of all three countries. The freedom used in the treatment of events almost contemporaneous led to expurgations in the subsequent revised edition, prepared and printed (1586–7) after Holinshed’s death, by his fellow workers; the result being that copies of the unexpurgated edition are very rare, and much coveted by bibliophiles. The British Museum possesses a copy made by inserting in the revised version the canceled pages of the first edition.

Holinshed’s personality is impressed upon the ‘Chronicles’ which bear his name, and of which he is the master spirit. His style is clear rather than warm, and his diligence in collecting historical material is attested by the copious references to authorities. Though honestly striving to present the truth, his Protestant bias is marked, and he is unreliable when dealing with earlier times. But as an indefatigable pioneer delver in historic lore—as one of the chroniclers who paved the way for the modern historian—he is worthy of much praise, especially as he wrote in a way to make enjoyable reading.

His relation to literature is both direct and indirect. In his own work, using the rich, full-mouthed speech of his period, he gives an example of Elizabethan English in many ways admirable: solid, harmonious, dignified. He lacks the picturesque touch and the idiomatic virility of William Harrison, whose famous descriptions in the same work of the social aspects of England rise to a higher plane. But Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ also proved a rich mine for the Elizabethan dramatists to quarry from: the master of them all, Shakespeare, drew most of his historical plays from this source, as well as ‘Macbeth,’ ‘King Lear,’ and parts of ‘Cymbeline’ as has been convincingly shown by W. G. Boswell-Stone in his ‘Shakespeare’s Holinshed’ (1896); in some dramas—both parts of ‘Henry IV.,’ for example—following the chronicler so closely as to use his phrases.

Thus Holinshed forms a link in the chain of history writers, bears a not unimportant relation to the great dramatic poetry of his day, and is himself a writer of vigorous and felicitous English which can still be read with pleasure.