Raphael Holinshed

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

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.”

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Principal Works