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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 1. Edward Hall

THE CHRONICLERS and antiquaries of the Tudor period, various as they were in style and talent, shared the same sentiment, the same ambition. There breathed in each one of them the spirit of nationality. They recognised that the most brilliant discovery of a brilliant age was the discovery of their own country. With a full voice and a fervent heart they sang the praise of England. They celebrated with what eloquence they possessed her gracious climate, her fruitful soil, her brave men and her beautiful women. Both by precept and by example they did honour to their native tongue. “Our English tongue,” said Camden, “is as fluent as the Latin, as courteous as the Spanish, as Court-like as the French, and as amorous as the Italian.” Camden praised by precept alone, and composed all his works, save one, in Latin. The other chroniclers, discarding Latin and writing in their own English, paid the language a far higher tribute—the tribute of example. All agreed with Plutarch that “a part of the Elisian Fields is to be found in Britain.” And, as they regarded these fair fields with enthusiasm, so they looked back with pride upon Britain’s legendary history and the exploits of her kings. Steadfast in observation, tireless in panegyric, they thought no toil, no paean, outran the desert of England. Topographers, such as Camden and Leland, travelled the length and breadth of England, marking highroad, village and township, collecting antiquities, copying inscriptions and painting with what fidelity they might the face of the country. The ingenuity of Norden and Speed designed the maps which have acquired with time an unexpected value and importance. The popular historians, gentle and simple, gathered the truth and falsehood of the past with indiscriminate hand, content if they might restore to the world the forgotten splendour of England, and add a new lustre to England’s ancient fame.

Their good will and patriotism were limited only by their talent. Zealous in intention, they were not always equal to the task they set themselves. The most of them had but a vague sense of history. They were as little able to sift and weigh evidence as to discern the true sequence and meaning of events. Few of them were even dimly interested in the conflict of policies or in the science of government. What they best understood were the plain facts of battle and death, of plague and famine, of sudden comets and strange monsters. The most of their works are the anecdotage of history, and not to be wholly despised on that account, since an anecdote false in itself is often the symbol of the truth, and since, in defiance of research, it is from the anecdotes of the Tudor chroniclers that we derive our knowledge of English history. For that which had been said by others they professed an exaggerated respect. They accepted the bare word of their predecessors with a touching credulity. In patient submission and without criticism they followed the same authorities. There is no chronicler that did not use such poor light as Matthew Paris and Roger Hoveden, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gildas, Giraldus Cambrensis and Polydore Vergil could afford. Each one of them borrowed his description of Agincourt from Titus Livius, and, with a wisdom which deserves the highest applause, they all adapted to their purpose the account of Richard III’s reign attributed to Sir Thomas More. With one or two exceptions, then, the Chronicles are not so much separate works as variations of the same legend. Their authors pillaged from one another with a light heart and an unsparing hand, and, at times, did what they could to belittle their robberies by abusing the victims.

If their sense of history was small, small also was their tact of selection. They looked upon the world with the eye of the modern reporter. They were hot upon the discovery of strange “stories.” They loved freaks of nature and were never so happy as when a new star flashed into their ken. Their works, indeed, hold a place midway between history and what we should now call journalism. Stow, for instance, tells us that, in 1505, on “S. Thomas Day at night, afore Christmas was a bakers house in Warwike Lane brent, with the Mistres of the House, ii women servants, and iii others”; and he brings his Chronicle to an end, not upon the praise of England or of queen Elizabeth but upon a monstrous birth. “The XVII day of June last past,” he writes, in the year 1580, “in the parish of Blamsdon, in Yorkshire, after a great tempest of lightning and thunder, a woman of foure score years old named Ales Perin, was delivered of a straunge and hideous Monster, whose heade was like unto a sallet or heade-peece.… Which Monster,” adds Stow, devoutly, “brought into the world no other news, but an admiration of the devine works of God.” Not even Camden, scholar though he was, rose always superior to the prevailing habit of gossip. “I know not,” he writes, under the year 1572, “whether it be materiall or no, here to make mention, as all the Historiographers of our time have done, how in the moneth of November was seene a strange starre.” And, presently, he interrupts his account of a mission to Russia, in 1583, with this comment upon Sir Hierome Bowes, the ambassador:

  • Hee was the first that brought into England, where the like was never seene (if an Historian may with good leave make mention of so small a thing) a beast called Maclis, which is a creature likest to an Alçe, very swift, and without joynts.
  • Camden at least apologised for his amiable irrelevancy, and it is not for modern readers to regret a practice which has preserved for them the foolish trivial excitements of the moment. But it is a truth not without significance that the chroniclers, who might have kept before their eyes the example of the classics, and who might have studied the two masters of what was then modern history—Macchiavelli and Commines—should have preferred to follow in the footsteps of the medieval gossips and of the ambling Fabyan. And, as they thought no facts too light to be recorded, so they considered no age too dark for their investigation. They penetrated, with a simple faith, “the backward and abysm of time.” The most of them begin their histories with Brute, who, they say, was born 1108 B.C., and thus prove that, for all their large interests and their love of life, they were not without a spice of that pedantry which delights to be thought encyclopaedic.

    The chroniclers, then, share the same faults and the same virtues. But beyond these similarities of character there is room enough for the display of different temperaments and personal talents. Each one will be found to possess a quality or an interest which the others lack, and it is by their differences rather than by their resemblances that they must be judged. The first of them, Edward Hall, holds a place apart. Of the man himself we know little. Of gentle parentage, he was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. He entered Gray’s Inn in due course, was appointed serjeant of the city of London in 1532 and was afterwards a judge in the sheriff’s court. The first edition of his Chronicle was printed by Berthelet, in 1542, and was so effectively burnt by the orders of queen Mary that it exists only in fragments. Reprinted by Grafton, in 1548 and 1550, it won and deserved esteem and is now commonly regarded, for one reign at least, as an authority at first hand. The truth is, Hall wrote as an eye-witness as well as a chronicler, and his work is naturally divided into two parts, far distant from one another both in style and substance. The title of the book gives an instant clue to this natural division. “The Union of the two noble and illustrate famelies of Lancastre and Yorke,” thus Hall describes it in his grandiloquent language,

  • beeyng long in continual discension for the croune of this noble realme, with all the actes done in bothe the tymes of the Princes, both of the one linage, and of the other, beginnyng at the tyme of Kyng Henry the Fowerth, the first aucthor of this devision, and so successively proceadyng to the reigne of the high and prudent prince, King Henry the Eight, the indubitate flower and very heire of both the sayd linages.
  • So far as the death of Henry VII, Hall is a chronicler after the fashion of Holinshed and Stow. He accepted the common authorities, and translated them into his own ornate English, or embellished them with new words and strange images. With the accession of Henry VIII he began a fresh and original work. Henceforth, he wrote only of what he saw and thought from day to day. And, in thus writing, he revealed most clearly what manner of man he was. His patriotism equalled his loyal worship of king Henry VIII, the greatest monarch, in Hall’s eyes, who had sat upon the English throne. The reformation had his full sympathy, and he looked upon the see of Rome with protestant suspicion. When the king was proclaimed supreme head of the church, Hall’s enthusiasm was unbounded. Hereafter, he says, “the Pope with all his college of Cardinalles with all their Pardons and Indulgences was utterly abolished out of this realme. God be everlastyngly praysed therefore.” And, if he was a patriotic Englishman first, he was, in the second place, a proud and faithful Londoner. He championed the interests of his fellow-citizens with a watchful eloquence. When, in 1513, the fields about Islington, Hoxton and Shoreditch were enclosed by hedges and ditches, that youth might not shoot nor old age walk abroad for its pleasure, Hall triumphantly records that a mob of citizens, armed with shovels and spades, levelled the hedges and filled the ditches with so diligent a speed that the mayor bowed in submission, and that the hateful restraints were never afterwards set in the way of young or old. He was, moreover, the first to raise the cry of “London for the Londoners.” He hated the alien with a constant heart, and in the many quarrels which arose between the citizens and the French artificers, Hall was always on the side of the citizens. And it was this feeling for London which intensified Hall’s dislike of the proud cardinal. A student rather of the world than of politics, he could not appreciate at their proper worth the grandeur of Wolsey’s schemes. He knew only that Wolsey was extortionate, that, whenever he was in need of money, he came to the city, and he echoed the cry of the aldermen: “For Goddes sake, remembre this, that riche merchauntes in ware be bare of money.”

    It has been thrown at Hall for a reproach by some of his critics that he was too keenly interested in the pomp of the court, in the shows and sights of the streets. One of his editors has gone so far in misunderstanding as to expunge or curtail many of his characteristic descriptions. This perversity seems the stranger, because a love of display was in Hall’s blood. He lived in an age, and a city, of pageants. King and cardinal vied with one another in splendour and ingenuity. They found a daily excuse for some piece of well-ordered magnificence. May Day, Christmas and Twelfth Night each had its appointed festival. The king and his friends lived in a perpetual masquerade, and Hall found the right words for their every extravagance. No writer ever employed a more variously coloured vocabulary. Turn his pages where you will, and you will find brave pictures of banquets and disguises. And his style rises with the occasion. The Field of the Cloth of Gold inspires his masterpiece. The pages dedicated to this royal meeting-place are brilliant with jewels and the precious metals. Gold and the cloth of gold, tissue and hangings of cramosyn, sackbuts and clarions flash and re-echo like the refrain of a ballade, and everywhere “Bacchus birls the wine,” which “by the conduyctes in therth ranne, to all people plentiously with red, white, and claret wyne, over whose hedde was writen in letters of Romayn in gold, faicte bonne chere quy vouldra.”

    I have said that Hall’s Chronicle is made up of two separate works. With a wise sense of propriety he employs two separate styles. If this distinction be not made, it is not easy to admit the justice of Ascham’s famous criticism. Now, Ascham, in urging the use of epitomes, illustrates his argument thus from Hall’s Chronicle:

  • As if a wise man would take Halles Cronicle, where moch good matter is quite marde with Indenture Englishe, and first change strange and inkhorne tearmes into proper, and commonlie used wordes: next, specially to wede out that, that is superfluous and idle, not onelie where wordes be vainlie heaped one upon another, but also where many sentences, of one meaning, be so clowted up together, as though M. Hall had bene, not writing the storie of England, but varying a sentence in Hitching schole.
  • The censure implied in this passage is amply justified by the first part of Hall’s Chronicle. Where he is adapting the words of other writers, he does not check his love of “Indenture Englishe”; he exults in “inkhorne tearmes”; and he “clowtes” up his sentences with superfluous variations. But no sooner does he describe what he sees, no sooner do his brain and hand respond to his eye, than he forgets the lessons of “Hitching schole,” and writes with a direct simplicity which in no sense deserves the reproach of Ascham. Though it is true that the simplicity of his time was not the simplicity of ours, Hall employs with excellent effect the words of familiar discourse, and records that of which he was an eye witness with an intimate sincerity, which separates him, on the one hand, from journeymen like Stow, and, on the other, from scholars like Camden and Hayward, whose ambition it was to give a classic shape and form to their prose.