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William Camden

William Camden (2 May 1551 – 9 November 1623) was an English antiquarian, historian, and officer of arms. He wrote the first topographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and the first detailed historical account of the reign of Elizabeth I of England.


Early years

Camden was born in London. His father, Sampson Camden, was a member of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. He attended Christ's Hospital and St Paul's School, and in 1566 entered Oxford (Magdalen College, Broadgates Hall, and finally Christ Church). At Christ Church, he became acquainted with Philip Sidney, who encouraged Camden's antiquarian interests. He returned to London in 1571 without a degree. In 1575, he became Usher of Westminster School, a position that gave him the freedom to travel and pursue his antiquarian researches during school vacations. Archangels


In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. His stated intention was "to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity." The first edition was published in 1586. The work, which was written in Latin, was very popular, going into seven editions by 1607. The first English language translation, prepared by Philemon Holland (probably under Camden's direction) appeared in 1610.

Britannia is a county-by-county description of Great Britain and Ireland. It is a work of chorography: a study that relates landscape, geography, antiquarianism, and history. Rather than write a history, Camden wanted to describe in detail the Great Britain of the present, and to show how the traces of the past could be discerned in the existing landscape. By this method, he produced the first coherent picture of Roman Britain.

Camden as Clarenceux King of Arms in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I, 1603.

He continued to collect materials and to revise and expand Britannia throughout his life. He drew on the published and unpublished work of John Leland and William Lambarde, among others, and received the assistance of a large network of correspondents with similar interests. He did not simply accept older authorities unquestioningly, but travelled throughout Great Britain and looked at documents, sites, and artifacts for himself, coming to his own conclusions based on first hand inspection and knowledge of the available sources. His firsthand research set new standards for the time. He even learned Welsh and Old English for the task. (Camden's tutor in Old English was Laurence Nowell.) The resulting work is one of the great achievements of sixteenth century scholarship.

In 1593, Camden became Headmaster of Westminster School. He held the post for four years, but left when he was appointed Clarenceux King of Arms. By this time, he was a well-known and revered figure, and the appointment was meant to free him from the labour of teaching and to facilitate his research. The College of Arms at that time was not only a centre of genealogical and heraldic study, but a centre of antiquarian study as well. The appointment, however, roused the jealousy of the herald Ralph Brooke, who, in retaliation, published an attack on Britannia, charging Camden with inaccuracy and plagiarism. Camden successfully defended himself against the charges in subsequent editions of the work.


Frontispiece from a 1675 edition of the Annales

In 1597, Lord Burghley suggested that Camden write a history of Queen Elizabeth's reign. The degree of Burghley's influence on the work is unclear, however; Camden only specifically mentions Sir John Fortescue, Elizabeth's last Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Henry Cuffe, the Earl of Essex's secretary, as sources.[1] Camden began his work in 1607. The first part of the Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnate Elizabetha, covering the reign up to 1597, appeared in 1615. The second part was completed in 1617, but was not published until 1625 (Leiden), and 1627 (London), following Camden's death. The first translation into English appeared in 1625.[2]

The Annales were not written in a continuous narrative, but in the style of earlier annals, giving the events of each year in a separate entry. Sometimes criticised as being too favourably disposed towards Elizabeth and James I, the Annales are one of the great works of English historiography and had a great impact on the later image of the Elizabethan age. Hugh Trevor-Roper said about them: "It is thanks to Camden that we ascribe to Queen Elizabeth a consistent policy of via media rather than an inconsequent series of unresolved conflicts and paralysed indecisions."[2]

Final years

In 1609, Camden moved to Chislehurst in Kent. Though often in ill health, he continued to work diligently. In 1622, he founded an endowed lectureship in History at Oxford--the first in the world--which continues to this day as the Camden Chair in Ancient History. That same year, he was struck with paralysis. He died in Chislehurst on 9 November 1623, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Camden left his library to his closest friend, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. His circle of friends and acquaintances included Lord Burghley, Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Stow, John Dee, Jacques de Thou and Ben Jonson, who was Camden's student at Westminster and who dedicated an early edition of Every Man in His Humour to him.

Among Camden's other works are a Greek grammar, very popular at one time; Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (1605), a collection of material gathered for Britannia but not included; the official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters; and a catalogue of the epitaphs at Westminster Abbey.

See also


  1. ^ Adams pp. 53, 64
  2. ^ a b Kenyon p. 10


  • Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics Manchester UP ISBN 0719053250
  • Copley, Gordon J. (1977): "Introduction" in Camden's Britannia: Surrey and Sussex. London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 ed., s.v. "Camden, William"
  • Jokinen, Anniina (2001): "William Camden."
  • Jones, H. Stuart (1943): "The Foundation and History of the Camden Chair", Oxoniensa, viii, ix p. 175. Available online.
  • Kenyon, John (1983): The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance Weidenfeld & Nicolson ISBN 0297782541
  • Withers, Charles W. J. "A Vision of Scotland: Joan Blaeu and the Atlas novus".

Further Reading

  • Trevor-Roper, H. R.: Queen Elizabeth's first historian: William Camden and the beginnings of English "civil history" Jonathan Cape 1971
  • Woolf, D.R.: The Idea of History in Early Stuart England University of Toronto Press 1990

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

WILLIAM CAMDEN (1551-1623), English antiquary and historian, was born in London on the 2nd of May 1551. His father, Sampson Camden, a native of Lichfield, had settled in London, and, as a painter, had become a member of the company of painter-stainers. His mother, Elizabeth, belonged to the old Cumberland family of Curwen. Young Camden received his early education at Christ's Hospital and St Paul's school, and in 1566 went to Magdalen College, Oxford, probably as a servitor or chorister. Failing to obtain a demyship at Magdalen he removed to Broadgates Hall, afterwards Pembroke College, and later to Christ Church, where he was supported by his friend, Dr Thomas Thornton, canon of Christ Church. As a defender of the established religion he was soon engaged in controversy, and his failure to secure a fellowship at All Souls' College is attributed to the hostility of the Roman Catholics. In 1570 he supplicated in vain for the degree of B.A., and although a renewed application was granted in 1573 it is doubtful if he ever took a degree; and in 1571 he went to London and devoted himself to antiquarian studies, for which he had already acquired a taste.

Camden spent some time in travelling in various parts of England collecting materials for his Britannia, a work which was first published in 1586. Owing to his friendship with Dr Gabriel Goodman, dean of Westminster, Camden was made second master of Westminster school in 1575; and when Dr Edward Grant resigned the headmastership in 1593 he was appointed as his successor. The vacations which he enjoyed as a schoolmaster left him time for study and travel, and during these years he supervised 'the publication of three further editions of the Britannia. Although a layman he was granted the prebend of Ilfracombe in 1589, and in 15 9 7 he resigned his position at Westminster on being made Clarencieux king-at-arms, an appointment which caused some ill-feeling, and the York herald, Ralph Brooke, led an attack on the genealogical accuracy of the Britannia, and accused its author of plagiarism. Camden replied to Brooke in an appendix to the fifth edition of the Britannia, published in 1600, and his reputation came through the ordeal untarnished. Having brought out an enlarged and improved edition of the Britannia in 1607, he began to work on a history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, to which he had been urged by Lord Burghley in 1597. The first part of this history dealing with the reign down to 1588 was published in 1615 under the title Annales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha. With regard to this work some controversy at once arose over the author's treatment of Mary, queen of Scots. It was asserted that Camden altered his original narrative in order to please James I., and, moreover, that the account which he is said to have given to his friend, the French historian, Jacques de Thou, differed substantially from his own. It seems doubtful if there is any truth in either of these charges. The second part of this work, finished in 1617, was published, after the author's death, at Leiden in 1625 and in London in 1627. In 1622 Camden carried out a plan to found a history lectureship at Oxford. He provided an endowment from some lands at Bexley, and appointed as the first lecturer, his friend, Degory Wheare. The present occupant of the position is known as the Camden professor of ancient history. His concluding years were mainly spent at Chislehurst, where he had taken up his residence in 1609, and in spite of recurring illnesses he continued to work at material for the improvement of the Britannia and kindred subjects. He died at Chislehurst on the 9th of November 1623, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument now stands to his memory.

The Britannia, the first edition of which is dedicated to Burghley, is a survey of the British islands written in elegant Latin. It was first translated into English in 1610, probably under the author's direction, and other translations have subsequently appeared, the best of which is an edition edited by Richard Gough and published in three volumes in 1789, and in four volumes in 1806. The Annales has been translated into French, and English translations appeared in 1635, 1675 and 1688. The Latin version was published at Leiden in 1639 and 1677, and under the editorship of T. Hearne at Oxford in 1717. In addition to these works Camden compiled a Greek grammar, Institutio Graecae Grammatices Compendiaria, which became very popular, and he published an edition of the writings of Asser, Giraldus Cambrensis, Thomas Walsingham and others, under the title, Anglica, Hibernica, Normannica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta, published at Frankfort in 1602, and again in 1603. He also drew up a list of the epitaphs in Westminster Abbey, which was issued as Reges, Reginae, Nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata Beati Petri Westmonasterii sepulti. This was enlarged and published again in 1603 and 1606. In 1605 he published his Remains concerning Britain, a book of collections from the Britannia, which quickly passed through seven editions; and he wrote an official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators as Actio in Henricum Garnetum, Societatis Jesuiticae in Anglia superiorem et caeteros. Camden, who refused a knighthood, was a man of enormous industry, and possessed a modest and friendly disposition. He had a large number of influential friends, among whom were Archbishop Ussher, Sir Robert Cotton, John Selden, the French jurist Brisson, and Isaac Casaubon. His correspondence was published in London in 1691 by Dr Thomas Smith under the title, Vita Gulielmi Camdeni et Illustrium virorum ad G. Camdenum Epistolae. This volume also contains his Memorabilia de seipso; his notes of the reign of James I.; and other interesting matter. In 1838 the Camden Society was founded in his honour, and much valuable work has been done under its auspices.

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