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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

§ 6. William Camden

With William Camden, the chronicle reached its zenith. His Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Annales, regnante Elizabetha is by far the best example of its kind. Though it is “digested into annals,” according to the practice of the time, though its author bundles marriages, deaths, embassies and successions together, like the common “stitchers of history,” though he does not disdain strange stars and frozen rivers, it is informed throughout with a sense of history and with a keen perception of conflicting policies. Old-fashioned in design alone, the work is a genuine piece of modern history, in which events are set in a proper perspective, and a wise proportion is kept of great and small. Its faults are the faults inherent in the chronicle: no sure plan of selection, a rigid division into years, an interspersion of the text with documents. Its virtues are its own: clearness of expression, catholicity of interest, a proud consciousness of the great events, whereof Camden was at once the partaker and the historian.

He declares in his preface that William Cecil, baron Burghley, “opened unto him first some memorials of state of his own,” and that afterwards he

  • sought all manner of help on every side … for most of which (as I ought) I hold myself chiefly bound to Sir R. Cotton, who with great expense and happy labour hath gathered most choice variety of Histories and antiquity; for at his torch he willingly suffered me to light my taper.
  • He learned much, also, by his own observation and by converse with those who had played their part in affairs, and, heedless of himself, he made no sacrifice save to truth. Nor does he vaunt his achievement in any lofty terms. He will be content, he says, with professional modesty, to be “ranked amongst the lowest writers of great things.” He would have been placed far higher in the general esteem, if he had not, by an unhappy accident, composed his book in Latin. This misfortune, the greater because he was one of the last to inflict so grave an injustice upon himself, was mitigated by the skill and loyalty of his translators. The first part of his Annales, the substance of which had already been communicated to Thuanus, was published in 1615, and, ten years later, translated out of the French into English by Abraham Darcie, who gave his own flourishing title to the book: The True and Royall History of the famous Empresse Elizabeth, Queene of England France and Ireland & c. True Faith’s defendresse of Divine renowne and happy Memory. The second part, which describes the affairs of the kingdom from 1589 to the queen’s death, was printed posthumously in 1627, and translated into English by Thomas Browne, student of Christ Church, under the title of Tomus Idem et Alter (1629).

    Such is the history of the book. Its purpose and motive are apparent upon every page: to applaud the virtues of the queen and to uphold the protestant faith. In devising fitting titles for Elizabeth, Camden exhausts his ingenuity. She is the Queen of the Sea, the North Star, the restorer of our naval glory. He defends her actions with the quiet subtlety which suggests that defence is seldom necessary. His comment upon the death of Mary of Scotland is characteristic. Thus were achieved, he thinks, the two things which Mary and Elizabeth always kept nearest their hearts: the union of England and Scotland was assured in Mary’s son, and the true religion, together with the safety of the English people, was effectively maintained. But Camden was not wholly engrossed in the glory and wisdom of the queen. He looked beyond her excellences to the larger movements of the time. None understood better than he the spirit of enterprise which was founding a new England across the sea. He pays a just tribute of honour to Drake and Hawkins, he celebrates the prowess of John Davis and William Sanderson and he hails the rising colony of Virginia. Of Shakespeare and the drama he has not a word to say. The peculiar glory of his age escaped him. The death of Ascham, it is true, tempts him to a digression, and persuades him to deplore that so fine a scholar should have lived and died a poor man through love of dicing and cock-fighting. And he fires a salute over the grave of Edmund Spenser, who surpassed all English poets, not excepting Chaucer, and into whose tomb the other poets cast mournful elegies and the pens wherewith they wrote them. But, in the end, he returns to his starting-place, and concludes, as he began, on a note of panegyric. “No oblivion,” he says,

  • shall ever dim the glory of her Name: for her happy and renowned memory still lives, and shall for ever live in the Minds of Man to all posterity, as of one who (to use no other than her successor’s expression) in Wisedome and Felicitie of government surpassed (without envy be it spoken) all the Princes since the days of Augustus.
  • Master Camden, as his contemporaries call him with respect, was well fitted for his task by nature and education. He was a man of the world as well as a scholar. Born in 1551, he was brought up at the Blue Coat school, and sent thence, as chorister, or servitor, to Magdalen College, Oxford. Presently, he migrated to Broadgate’s Hostel, now Pembroke College, and, afterwards, to Christ Church. In 1582, he took his famous journey through England, the result of which was his Britannia; ten years later, he was made headmaster of Westminster school; and, in 1597, was appointed, successively, Richmond Herald, and Clarencieux King of Arms. His life was full and varied; his character, as all his biographers testify, candid and amiable. The works he left behind speak eloquently of his learning and industry. To our age, he is best known as the historian of Elizabeth. To his own age, he was eminent as an antiquary, and it was his Britannia, published in 1582, and rescued from Latin by the incomparable Philemon Holland in 1610, which gave him his greatest glory. Anthony à Wood calls him “the Pausanias of the British Isles.” Fuller, not to be outdone in praise, says that “he restored Britain to herself.” Like all the other topographers of his century, he made use of Leland’s notes, but the works of the two men are leagues apart. Camden’s Britannia is, in effect, a real piece of literature. It is not intimate, like Harrison’s England. It is not a thing of shreds and patches, like the celebrated Itinerary. Wisely planned, nobly written and deliberately composed, it is the fruit of deep and diligent research. Camden loved England and loved to embellish her with phrases. He carried his readers along the high-roads, through the towns and cities of his native country, revealing, as he went, her natural scenery, her antiquities, her learning and her strength. And if, to-day, we shared his pride in England, we should still echo, with all sincerity, the praises lavished upon his work by his contemporaries.

    Ralph Brooke, with more malice than discretion, charged Camden with making an unacknowledged use of Leland’s Collectanea. The acknowledgment was generously given, and Leland’s Collections were made but to be used. Camden, in fact, was only following the general practice of his age. There was no topographer who did not take what he wanted from Leland, and there was none who did not improve what he took. If Leland’s inchoate notes were of service to Harrison and Camden, they did all that could be expected of them. The truth is, Leland was a superstition. He received the inordinate praise which is easily given to those of whom it is said that they might achieve wonders if they would. The weight of learning which he carried was thought to be so great that he could not disburden it in books. He aroused great expectations, and never lessened them by performance. His erudition was inarticulate; his powers were paralysed by ambition; he knew so much that he feared to give expression to his knowledge; and he won the greater glory because the masterpiece never achieved was enveloped in an atmosphere of mystery. His career, however, the career of the silent scholar, is not without its interest and tragedy. Born in 1506, he studied both at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and at All Souls, Oxford, and, after some years spent in Paris, where he was the friend of Budé, and may, through his mediation, have encountered Rabelais, he was appointed chaplain and librarian to Henry VIII, and rector of Pepeling in the marches of Calais. In 1533, his great opportunity came, for, in that year, he was given a commission, under the broad seal, to travel in search of England’s antiquities, to examine whatever records were to be found and to read in the libraries of cathedrals, colleges, priories and abbeys. For some six years he gave himself to this toil with tireless diligence, and, in 1546, presented to the king the only finished piece of his writing that exists in English: The laboriouse Journey and Serche of Johan Leylande, for Englandes Antiquities, geven of hym as a newe yeares gyfte to kyng Henry the VIII in the XXXVII yeare of his raigne. In this somewhat ornate pamphlet, Leland extols the reformation, reproves the usurped authority of the bishop of Rome and his complices and sets forth the extent and result of his many journeys. In no spirit of pride, but with a simple truth, he describes his peragration. “I have so traveled in your domynions,” he writes,

  • both by the see coastes and the myddle partes, sparynge neyther labour nor costes by the space of these VI yeares past, that there is almost neyther cape nor baye, haven, creke or pere, ryver or confluence of ryvers, breches, washes, lakes, meres, fenny waters, mountaynes, valleys, mores, hethes, forestes, woodes, cyties, burges, castels, pryncypall manor places, monasterys, and colleges, but I have seane them, and noted in so doynge a whole worlde of thynges verye memorable.
  • It is a formidable list, and we may well believe that this old pedant on the tramp omitted nothing in his survey. Whatever he saw or heard he committed to his note-book, and carried back with him the vast undigested mass of facts from which many wiser heads are said to have pilfered. His ambition was commensurate with his industry. He trusted shortly to see the time when the king should have his “worlde and impery of Englande set forthe in a quadrate table of sylver,” and, knowing that silver or brass is impermanent, he intended, as he told the king,
  • by the leave of God, within the space of XII moneths folowyng, such a descripcion to make of the realme in wryttinge, that it shall be no mastery after, for the graver or painter to make the lyke by a perfect example.
  • Nor would his work end here. He determined to restore the ancient names which Caesar, Tacitus and others employed. In brief, said he,
  • I trust so to open the wyndow, that the lyght shal be seane, so long, that is to say by the space of a whole thousand yeares, stopped up, and the glory of your renoumed Britain to reflorish through the worlde.