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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

§ 2. Raphael Holinshed

Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland are wider in scope and more ambitious in design than the work of Hall. Though they are not more keenly critical, they are, at least, more widely comprehensive than any of their rivals. They begin with Noah and the Flood, and the history of the British Isles descends well-nigh to the day of publication. And, if Richard Stanyhurst may speak for them all, the industrious compilers took a lofty view of their craft. “The learned,” says Stanyhurst,

  • have adjudged an historie to be the marrow of reason, the cream of sapience, the sap of wisdome, the pith of judgment, the librarie of knowledge, the kernell of policie, the unfoldresse of treacherie, the kalendar of time, the lanterne of truth, the life of memorie, the doctresse of behaviour, the register of antiquitie, the trumpet of chivalrie.
  • If Holinshed’s history were all these, it is not surprising that it was fashioned by many hands, and in nothing did the editor prove his wisdom more clearly than in the selection of his staff. Of Holinshed himself little is recorded. He came of a Cheshire family, and is said by Anthony à Wood to have been educated at Cambridge and to have been “a minister of God’s word.” All that is certain is that he took service with Wolfe, the publisher, to whom, says he, he was “singularly beholden,” and under whose auspices he planned the Chronicles which bear his name. The death of Wolfe, in 1573, was no interruption to the work, and in 1578 appeared the first edition, dedicated, in the familiar terms of adulation, to Sir William Cecil, baron of Burghley. Each portion of the Chronicles is assigned to its author with peculiar care. The Description of England is William Harrison’s. It is Holinshed himself who compiled the Historie of England from the accustomed sources. The Description of Scotland is a “simple translation” made by William Harrison. His vocation, he tells us, calls him to a far other kind of study, “and this is the cause,” he writes,
  • wherefore I have chosen rather, onlie with the loss of three or foure daies to translate Hector out of the Scotish (a toong verie like unto ours) than with more expence of time to devise a new, or follow the Latine copie.… How excellentlie if you consider the art, Boetius hath penned it, … the skilfull are not ignorant, but how profitable and compendiouslie John Bellenden Archdeacon of Murrey his interpretor hath turned him from the Latine into the Scotish toong, there are verie few Englishmen that know.
  • From the same Hector Boece, together with Johannes Major and “Jovian Ferreri Piedmontese,” “interlaced sometimes with other authors,” Holinshed digested his Historie of Scotland. The Description of Ireland was the work of two Jesuits, Richard Stanyhurst and Edmund Campion, his “first friend and inward companion,” and Richard Hooker provided the translation of Giraldus Cambrensis, which served Ireland for a chronicle.

    The work, done by many hands, preserves a uniformity of character. Holinshed, it is true, made the apology which his age seems to have demanded. “The histories,” he says, “I have gathered according to my skill … having had more regard to the manner than the apt penning.” Again, declaring that his speech is plain, he disclaimed any rhetorical show of elegance. Thus the Elizabethans deceived themselves. Plainness was the one virtue beyond their reach. They delighted in fine phrases and far-sought images. Even while they proclaimed their devotion to truth unadorned, they were curious in the selection of “decking words,” and Holinshed and his colleagues wrote with the colour and dignity which were then within the reach of all. The history which was of his own compiling is of a better scholarship than we expect of the time. He cites his authorities at first hand, though he still accepts them without question; he avoids the trivialities which tempt too many of the chroniclers; and he concludes the reign of each king with a deftly drawn character. The popularity which the work achieved is not surprising. The simple citizen found in its pages the panegyric of England which was grateful to his patriotism. The poet sought therein, and sought not in vain, a present inspiration. “Master Holinshed,” said Spenser, “hath much furthered and advantaged me.” Shakespeare borrowed from his pages the substance of his historical plays, and, paying him the same compliment which he paid to North, did not disdain to turn his rugged prose into matchless verse—a compliment which, of itself, is sufficient for immortality.