Raphael Holinshed

Start Your Free Trial

Download Raphael Holinshed Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 1,014 words.)