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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

§ 3. Harrison’s Description of England

As Hall’s Chronicle is memorable chiefly for the vivid sketch it affords of life as it was lived in the reign of Henry VIII, so it is Harrison’s Description of England which gives a separate distinction to the history of Raphael Holinshed. No work of the time contains so vivid and picturesque a sketch. In his first book, Harrison makes the customary concession to the encyclopaedic habit of the Elizabethans. He begins with a description of the whole earth, accepts with a simple credulity the familiar legends and wonders gravely whether the land was ever inhabited by giants. But no sooner does he leave the province of fairy-stories for the province of fact than he displays a knowledge as wide as his interest is deep. His is a very vigilant treatise. His theme is whatever was done or thought in the England of his day. Nothing comes amiss to him. He is as learned in the history of the church as in the speech and rascality of the Egyptian rogues, his account of whom closely follows Harman’s Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors. He is eloquent concerning either university, as in duty bound, since he belonged to both. For fine and excellent workmanship he praises “the moold of the king’s chapell in Cambridge,” next to which in beauty he sets the divinity school at Oxford. For the rest, he finds perfect equality between them; they are the body of one well ordered commonwealth, divided only by distance; in brief “they are both so deere unto me,” says he, “as that I can not readilie tell unto whether of them I owe the most good will.” Thereafter, he discusses the food and diet of the English, approving “our tables plentifully garnished,” and deploring the cooks of the nobility, who are “for the most part musicall headed Frenchmen and strangers.” Our apparel and attire suggest to him a chapter of fine invective. He is the resolute enemy of foreign fashions. He cannot bear the fantastical folly of our nation more easily than Shakespeare. He is at pains to prove that nothing is more constant in England than inconstancy of attire. “Such is our mutabilitie,” he writes

  • that today there is none to the Spanish guise, to morrow the French toies are most fine and delectable, ere long no such apparell as that which is after the High Almaine fashion, by and by the Turkish maner is generallie best liked of, otherwise the Morisco gounes and the Barbarian sleeves make such a comelie vesture that except it were a dog in a doublet, you shall not see anie so disguised, as are my countrie men of England.
  • In the same spirit he describes the building and furniture of Englishmen, their cities and towns, their fairs and markets, their gardens and orchards, their woods and marishes, their dogs, especially the mastiff or banddog, “stubbourne, ougly, eagre, burthenous of body (and therefore but of little swiftnesse), terrible and feareful to behold, and more fearse and fell than any Archadien curre.” And to all things animate and inanimate he brings the criticism of an active and humorous mind, which not even patriotism can warp to a false judgment.

    And, in describing England, he has half knowingly described himself. It is our own fault if this amiable, shrewd and scholarly parson be not our familiar friend. Born in London, in 1534, he was educated at Westminster school and (as has been said) took his degrees at both universities. Henceforth, he lived the tranquil life of a country clergyman, endowed with forty pounds a year, which, computatis computandis, he thought no great thing. He was household chaplain to Sir William Brooke and rector of Radwinter in Essex, and, wherever he sojourned, he pursued most zealously the calling of scholar and antiquary. He devised the chronology which served as a guide to Holinshed. He collected coins, he examined monuments; in brief, he neglected nothing which could throw a light upon the history of his country. While his wife and her maids brewed his beer with such skill and economy “that for my twentie shillings I have ten score gallons of beere or more,” he boasted of his garden, whose whole area was little above 300 foot of ground, and which yet contained three hundred simples, “no one of them being common or usuallie to be had.” An untravelled man, he wrote often of what he knew only by hearsay. “Untill nowe of late,” he confesses to Sir W. Brooke,

  • except it were from the parish where I dwell, unto your Honour in Kent; or out of London where I was borne, unto Oxford and Cambridge where I have bene brought up, I never travelled 40 miles foorthright and at one journey in all my life.
  • And not only was he something of a recluse, but he wrote his Description when his books and he “were parted by fourtie miles in sunder.” Nevertheless, he managed to consult the best authorities. He was one of the unnumbered scholars who owed a debt to Leland’s famous notes. Stow and Camden were of his friends, and, doubtless, lent him their aid, and he acknowledges a debt to “letters and pamphlets, from sundrie places and shires of England.” Yet, if we leave his first book out of our count, he was far less beholden than the most of his contemporaries. He had the skill of making the facts of others his own. And as the substance, so the style, of the book belongs to him. Though he proffers the same apology as Holinshed, he proffers it with far less excuse. He protests that he never made any choice of words, “thinking it sufficient truelie and plainlie to set foorth such things as I minded to treat of, rather than with vaine affectation of eloquence to paint out a rotten sepulchre.” And then straightway he belies himself by describing his book as “this foule frizeled Treatise of mine,” which single phrase is enough to prove his keen interest, and lively habit, in the use of words.

    In love of country he yielded to no man of his age. Herein, also, he was a true Elizabethan. The situation of the island, its soil, its husbandry (“my time fellows can reape at this present great commoditie in a little roome”), the profusion of its hops, “which industrie God continue,” the stature of its men, the comeliness of its women—all these he celebrates in his dithyrambic prose. He is one of the first to exalt the English navy. “Certes,” says he, “there is no prince in Europe that hath a more beautifull and gallant sort of ships than the queenes majestie of England at this present.” And, like many other patriots, he fears the encroachment of softer manners and of growing luxury. Comfort he holds the foe of hardihood. The times, in his view, were not what they were. When, indeed, have they been? He contemplates the comely houses and the splendid palaces which made a paradise of Tudor England with a kind of regret. He sadly (and unreasonably) recalls the past, when men’s houses were builded of willow, plum, hornbeam and elm, when oak was dedicated to churches, palaces and navigation. “And yet see the change,” says he, in a characteristic passage,

  • for when our houses were builded of willow, then had we oken men; but now that our houses are come to be made of oke, our men are not onlie become willow, but a great manie, through Persian delicacie crept in among us, altogither of straw, which is a sore alteration.
  • Harrison’s lament was ill-founded. In less than a score of years, the men of willow, or of straw, defended their oaken ships with oaken hearts against the armada.

    Withal, Harrison was of an ingenious mind and simple character. When he had wandered, in fancy, the length and breadth of England, he wrote down in all gravity the four marvels of his country. And they were: a strong wind, which issueth out of the hills called the Peak; Stonehenge; Cheddar Hole; and “Westward upon certeine hilles”—this may be cited only in his own words—“a man shall see the clouds gather togither in faire weather unto a certeine thicknesse, and by and by to spread themselves abroad and water their fields about them, as it were upon the sudden.” These wonders surprise by their simplicity. Simple, also, are Harrison’s wishes, yet all save one are still ungratified. “I could wish,” he wrote,

  • that I might live no longer than to see foure things in their land reformed, that is: (1) the want of discipline in the church: (2) the covetous dealing of most of our merchants in the preferment of the commodities of other countries, and hinderence of their own: (3) the holding of faires and markets upon the sundaie to be abolished, and referred to the wednesdaies: (4) and that everie man, in whatsoever part of the champaine soile enjoieth fortie acres of land and upwards, after that rote, either by free deed, copie hold, or fee farme, might plant one acre of wood, or sow the same with oke mast, hasell, beech and sufficient provision be made that it may be cherished and kept.
  • Thus, in his wishes as in his life, Harrison was a wise patriot. He sought nothing else than a knowledge of his country, and her advantage. A scholar and a man of letters, he was master of a style from which the wind of heaven has blown the last grain of pedantry. Best of all, he painted an intimate portrait of himself, in painting also the truest picture that has come down to us of the England that Shakespeare knew and sang.