Raphael Holinshed Essay - Critical Essays

Holinshed, Raphael


Raphael Holinshed fl. 1577-

English historian.

Raphael Holinshed was the primary author and editor of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1577; revised edition, 1587), a comprehensive historical record of events which shaped the development of Great Britain from pre-Christian times to the Tudor era. Holinshed's Chronicles have been a rich source of information to historians during the past four centuries, but it is their connection with William Shakespeare which has generated the most scholarly interest. As the principal source for more than a dozen of Shakespeare's plays, the Chronicles have been scrutinized for any clues which might provide some insight into Shakespeare's artistic method and political philosophy. Despite both the work's association with Shakespeare and its wide-ranging popular appeal when it was first published, Holinshed's Chronicles now reside on the verge of obscurity, studied mainly by historians and literary academics.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Holinshed's life and career. The name “Raphael” was common in the area of Cheshire, leading historians to speculate that he was likely from that area, or at least from a family of that region. Many scholars suggest that he was the son of one Ralph Holinshed of Sutton Downes. In 1544 a young man named Holinshed entered Christ's College at Cambridge, where he stayed for a year. The seventeenth-century historian Anthony à Wood wrote that Holinshed became a “minister of God's Word.” Around 1560 Holinshed came to London, where he took employment as a translator for Reginald (or Reyner) Wolfe, royal printer to Elizabeth I. Since 1548 Wolfe had been working on a monumental history of the world. By the time he died some twenty-five years later, most of the materials he had collected were for the English, Irish, and Scottish portions of the project. At the behest of publishers George Bishop, John Harrison, and Lucas Harrison, Holinshed carried on the work of his mentor, but limited the scope of the history to the countries for which material had already been compiled. With the help of collaborators William Harrison and Richard Stanyhurst, Holinshed published the Chronicles in 1577. One year later, Holinshed wrote a will, in which he indicates employment as a steward to Thomas Burdet of Bramcote, Warwickshire. Upon Holinshed's death sometime around 1580, Burdet received all of the historian's papers.

Major Work

Many historians regard Holinshed's Chronicles as the epitome of the Renaissance chronicle genre, whose status had begun to decline in course of the sixteenth century. The chronicle history consisted largely of a compilation of texts written by others with little or no editorial intervention. In fact, the term “chronicle” is derived from “chronology,” which is the main organizing principle of such compilations. Chroniclers often included a variety of events and anecdotes—wars, petty crimes, supernatural phenomena, weather, political intrigues—presented one after the other by the date on which the event occurred, often without any attempt to create a narrative framework or to describe trends or movements. Because chroniclers drew from a wide variety of sources, their works would sometimes present contradictory accounts of the same event; but in the interest of inclusiveness, they would provide all versions of the story. For his 1577 edition of the Chronicles, Holinshed took pains to project a neutral perspective toward his record of historical events. To be sure, he injected some personal opinions into his narrative, but these statements are generally muted by his assertion in his preface that one has a moral obligation to present historical events without biased elaboration. Based on the initial success of the Chronicles, a revised and expanded edition was issued in 1587 and posthumously attributed to Holinshed. Scholars speculate that Abraham Fleming assumed the editorship of this edition, and the historical events are characterized by a more teleological tone which reflected Fleming's Protestant bias. In any case, what are now considered Holinshed's Chronicles were not the product of one man, but of a syndicate of many writers over several decades who each infused his own political and religious ideology both subtly and overtly into his subject matter. Further, the Chronicles underwent censorship—in some cases, severe deletions and revisions—in which the Tudor government deemed some subjects as too controversial for the public or too critical of the current regime's actions.

Critical Reception

The Chronicles met with almost immediate critical censure upon publication. Contemporary accounts indicate that despite its enormous popularity with English middle-class readers, Elizabethan scholars dismissed the work as unacademic. Historians have pointed out that Holinshed's inclusion of historical anecdotes was a technique that had become outmoded by the late sixteenth century. They contend that by the time the Chronicles were published, Renaissance historiography had evolved beyond the simple chronicle history into a more sophisticated analysis of how history is shaped by the actions of nations and governments. While Holinshed's work filled a void for a new market of readers eager to learn first-hand about their history, nevertheless his methodology was archaic. Initially, modern scholars turned to the Chronicles for their value as a source used by prominent Elizabethan authors such as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Robert Adger Law has suggested that examining the difference between Holinshed's and Shakespeare's versions of historical events provides an insight into Shakespeare's creative process. Subsequent critics have emphasized what Shakespeare's inclusions and omissions reveal about Renaissance politics and the playwright's interpretation of them. Arthur Kinney, for example, has found that Shakespeare's rendering of the Macbeth story—which he took from Holinshed's translation from the Latin of Hector Boece's Historia Scotorum—speaks to the legitimacy of James I's rule. In the late twentieth century, the study of cultural history—a history which attempts to expand its viewpoint beyond national politics to how people of many classes and groups lived—has revived interest in the Chronicles as a glimpse into the lives of lower social classes often omitted from historical texts. According to Annabel Patterson, “[in] Holinshed's Chronicles, homely contexts and the local knowledge that is stored there, knowledge that may not have made its way into grander archives, may be more symptomatic of the culture as a whole than the great scenarios of state formation, international diplomacy, and ecclesiastical polity.”

Principal Works

The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Ireland. 2 vols. (history) 1577

The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles. (The Third Volume.) Newlie Augmented and Continued by J. Hooker Alias Vowell Gent. And Others. 3 vols. (history) 1587

Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 6 vols. (history) 1807

Shakespeare's Holinshed: An Edition of “Holinshed's Chronicles,” 1587; Source of Shakespeare's History Plays, “King Lear,” “Cymbeline,” and “Macbeth” (history) 1968


Robert Adger Law (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Law, Robert Adger. “Deviations from Holinshed in Richard II.University of Texas Studies in English 29 (1950): 91-101.

[In the following essay, Law contends that Shakespeare deviated from Holinshed's account of Richard II in the Chronicles to create a more sympathetic dramatic portrayal of the monarch.]

In a number of studies concerning the play of Richard II recently made by competent Shakespeare scholars, no one has questioned the statement that its basic source is Holinshed's 1587 Chronicle, although Dover Wilson suggests a lost play based on Holinshed.1 Yet just how closely the drama follows the Chronicle,...

(The entire section is 3605 words.)

R. Mark Benbow (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Benbow, R. Mark. “The Providential Theory of Historical Causation in Holinshed's Chronicles: 1577 and 1587.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 1, No. 2 (Summer 1959): 264-76.

[In the essay below, Benbow compares Holinshed's historiography with that of Abraham Fleming, the editor of the 1587 edition of the Chronicles, noting that Holinshed's sense of providential intervention is implicit whereas Fleming explicitly interprets historical events as foreordained acts of God.]

The reader who makes a comparison of the two editions of Holinshed's Chronicles is struck by certain obvious differences in length and treatment.1...

(The entire section is 5372 words.)

Annabel Patterson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Patterson, Annabel. “Rethinking Tudor Historiography.” South Atlantic Quarterly 92, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 185-208.

[In the essay below, Patterson argues that Holinshed's Chronicles offers a uniquely multi-vocal documentation of Elizabethan history, one which imagined a middle-class readership interested in drawing its own conclusions from the primary sources.]

More then ten Hollensheads, or Halls, or Stowes, Of triviall household trash he knowes.

—John Donne, Satire 4

Vast, vulgar Tomes … recover'd from out of innumerable Ruins.


(The entire section is 8827 words.)

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kinney, Arthur F. “Scottish History, the Union of the Crowns and the Issue of Right Rule: The Case of Shakespeare's Macbeth.” In Renaissance Culture in Context: Theory and Practice, edited by Jean R. Brink and William F. Gentrup, pp. 18-53. Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kinney discusses how Shakespeare manipulated the Macbeth story in Holinshed's Chronicles to comment subtly on the political climate surrounding the succession and reign of James I.]

At only one point in the entire sweep of The Historie of Scotlande, conteyning the beginning, increase, proceedings, continuance, Actes and Gouernemente of the...

(The entire section is 13072 words.)

Annabel Patterson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Patterson, Annabel. “Local Knowledge: ‘Popular’ Representation in Elizabethan Historiography.” In Place and Displacement in the Renaissance, edited by Alvin Vos, pp. 87-106. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines Holinshed's treatment of the lower classes in the Chronicles, suggesting that such interest in “local knowledge” illuminates the importance of displaying the various aspects of an entire culture in order to comprehend the process of forming a society.]

In time of this rebellion, a priest that by a butcher dwelling within five miles of...

(The entire section is 7214 words.)

Sarah A. Kelen (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kelen, Sarah A. “‘It Is Dangerous (Gentle Reader)’: Censorship, Holinshed's Chronicle, and the Politics of Control.” Sixteenth Century Journal 27, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 705-20.

[In the essay below, Kelen explores the dynamics of censorship surrounding the Chronicles, analyzing Holinshed's self-enforced censorship as well as types of external control employed by readers and by the Tudor government.]

Paradoxically, censorship gets a lot of press. Libraries set up displays of banned books, and for those of us who would claim affiliation with any political group to the left of fascism and to the right of Maoism, that a given book has been banned...

(The entire section is 8745 words.)

Alison Taufer (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Taufer, Alison. “The ‘Historie of England’.” In Holinshed's Chronicles, pp. 21-53. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

[In the following essay, Taufer surveys both the 1577 and 1587 editions of the Chronicles, demonstrating how the relatively objective tone of Holinshed's edition shifts to a more polemical and strident tone in Abraham Fleming's edition.]

Tudor historians tended to evaluate the past in terms of its lessons for the present. Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, which related the history of the War of the Roses, was a warning to those who wished to avoid civil chaos and preserve...

(The entire section is 14201 words.)

Further Reading


Booth, Stephen. The Book Called Holinshed's Chronicles: An Account of Its Inception, Purpose, Contributors, Contents, Publication, Revision, and Influence on William Shakespeare. San Francisco: The Book Club, 1968, 83 p.

In-depth, limited-edition bibliographical and critical study of Holinshed's Chronicles.

Boyd, Brian. “‘King John’ and ‘The Troublesome Raigne’: Sources, Structure, Sequence.” Philological Quarterly 74, No. 1 (1995): 37-57.

Argues that the Troublesome Raigne was derived from Shakespeare's King John, noting that the anonymous writer copied Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 469 words.)