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Holinshed, Raphael (c. 1525–1580) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

history patterson english chronicles

Little is known of Holinshed’s life. Born in Cheshire, probably the son of Ralph Holinshed, possibly a landowner in the region, he was educated at Oxford and perhaps, too, at Cambridge. At some time, probably afterward, he was ordained as a minister. By the late 1550s he was working as an editorial assistant and translator for Reginald (or Reynier) Wolfe, a former Rhinelander and printer. Wolfe, using the notes gathered by the “King’s antiquary,” John Leland (1506– 52), and other materials, was engaged in the production of a universal “cosmographie,” an encyclopedia representing the various nations. On Wolfe’s death in 1573, the project was curtailed, limited to a “cosmographie” of the British Isles. Support for the project was assumed by several backers, Holinshed acting as editor and major contributor to the Chronicles , as they came to be called. In 1578, after the purchase of an expensive license, the first edition appeared. License or no license, the authorities were annoyed. At issue were the references to events in Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII. Printing was halted, the offending pages were excised, and publication resumed—with considerable commercial success (Lee, “Holinshed,” 1024–26).

Holinshed died in 1580. Of his views we know little. He has been called “patriotic” (Lee, “Holinshed,” 1024–26), and this is borne out by his work. Although a Protestant, he is said to have been “an old fashioned conservative” who “disliked the Puritans” (Thompson, vol. I, 607). But it has been ably argued by Annabel Patterson that he was a “proto-liberal” (ix–xiii, 7), concerned with justice, freedom of conscience, and, indeed, justice for the underprivileged (xv). To this point we return as we discuss his great work.

After Holinshed’s death the publishers decided to prepare a new edition and enlist John Hooker (1526–1601) and the antiquarian John Stow (1525–1605) as contributors. Hooker, who signed his name “John Hooker, alias Vowell, Gentleman,” uncle of the “judicious” Richard Hooker, author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity , was a son of a mayor of Exeter and educated in Cornwall and at Oxford. A lawyer, a “Marian exile” (a Protestant who lived abroad during the reign of Queen Mary), he was active in city government and in both the English and Irish Parliaments (Cooper, “Hooker,” 1185). Along with Abraham Fleming (1552?–1607) and Francis Thynne (1545?–1608) he completed volume 4 of the English history, translated Giraldus Cambrensis’ portion of the Irish history, and wrote the last portion of that volume. Stow, another Londoner, was of humble origin, a tailor. His religious views brought him under suspicion, his house was searched, and he was interrogated but then released (Lee, “Stow,” 3–6). His contribution was that of writer and assistant editor to volume 4 on England.

Fleming, Londoner, Protestant clergyman, translator, poet, and antiquarian, acted as general editor after Holinshed’s death (Castanien, 131; Patterson, 5, 9) and contributed miscellaneous pieces to the English history. Fleming also seems to be the author of the Latin and Greek epigrams and poems used to decorate the text (Patterson, 50). Another major contributor to both the English and Scottish histories was Francis Thynne, son of William Thynne, one of the editors of Chaucer. Trained in the law but preferring literature and history, he had a penchant for compilation (Cooper, “Hooker,” 843–45). Again and again the narrative is interrupted by a seemingly irrelevant disquisition in the form of a list or catalog of “Constables,” “Protectors,” “Dukes,” “Treasurers,” or “Archbishops,” usually without explanation of their significance.

The second edition appeared in 1586–87 in three volumes. This edition caused ire, not only on the part of their lordships of the Privy Council but on the part of Her Majesty herself. At issue (among other things) was the discussion of high politics, especially as it touched on negotiations with the Scots. (The judicial murder of the Scottish queen made matters more tense, apparently.) Large excisions this time were necessary (Castanien, 127–90). The excisions were restored when the Chronicles were reorganized and reissued about two centuries later, in 1807–8, now in six quarto volumes. This edition, reprinted in 1965, is discussed here.


The Chronicles have received varied comment. They have been called a “compilation,” “crude and naive” (Castanien, 5; Patterson, 3). In the seventeenth century one critic referred to them as “vast vulgar tomes” and “ ex faeces plebis ” (Patterson, 3). One modern critic has said that they are significant only because “Shakespeare read them” (Patterson, 3).

The authors have been praised (faintly?) for their “industry” (Lee, ix, 1024– 26). Yet C. L. Kingsford in 1913 pointed out that they created the first complete history of England of “an authoritative character, composed in English and in a continuous narrative” (271). James Westfall Thompson in his two-volume survey of Western historiography gives them three pages of appreciative discussion (vol. 1, 603–5). Ernst Breisach, writing in the early 1980s, notes the popularity of the Chronicles in their own time and their rapid eclipse afterward. But he is impressed with “their rich and appealing mixture of materials” and considers them “a treasure house of information” “for a long time” (174).

The most recent and most appreciative assessment is that of Annabel Patterson, who along with a resumé of the reception of the Chronicles (from which I have drawn), describes them as a “giant interdisciplinary project” (vii) of “cultural history,” with a “proto-liberal” agenda. There are, as she demonstrates, several examples of protoliberalism, but there are also, as I have shown, summonses to obedience, condemnations of rebellion, and expressions of great reverence for rulers not altogether consistent with liberalism. It is possible that the expressions of reverence for rulers are mostly ritualistic. As for the somewhat contradictory views expressed in the text, it is fairly certain that Holinshed and his collaborators were less concerned with maintaining a consistent political outlook than they were with producing their great “cultural history.”

There is much that is depressing in the Chronicles : battles, rebellions, murders, executions, atrocities, sickening cruelty. There is, from time to time, comic relief in the form of a tall tale, “a marvel,” all told in pungent archaic English with its quaint orthography. But this is probably insufficient for most general readers. These six volumes, today, are for the scholar.

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