William Camden Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Camden 1551-1623

English historian and poet.

A leading figure in the development of the field of historiography, Camden ascended from a modest middle-class background to a position of significant political and intellectual influence within the highest circles of Renaissance England. Acquainted with such Renaissance luminaries as Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser, Camden, through his writings and teachings, also helped shape the culture of Elizabethan and early Stuart England. His historical works—particularly the Britannia (1586)—were considered revolutionary by his contemporaries; except for scholarly interest, however, these writings have sustained little appeal for modern readers. Nevertheless, academics have recognized Camden's original contributions to the field of historiography, and many have acclaimed him as a founding father of modern historical studies. Indeed, Camden's establishment of antiquarianism as a historical discipline, coupled with his powerful court connections, helped to shape trends in political thought and practice into the seventeenth century and beyond. Above all, Camden provided a model of scholarship that enhanced not only the reputation of British learning but also that of the British nation.

Biographical Information

Camden was born in London on May 2, 1551, in an area called the Old Bailey, which housed many of the city's legal establishments. He was the son of Sampson Camden, a member of the Painter-Stainers guild. One indication of Camden's inauspicious upbringing is that he is thought to have attended school at Christ's Hospital, which was created for the city's orphaned and destitute children. Nonetheless, his family connections probably served him well: his mother came from the prominent Curwen family of Lancastershire, and Camden's association with his father's guilds may have helped him later in life in securing the influential post of Clarenceaux, King of Arms. Camden was stricken with the plague while still young, but recovered and attended school at St. Paul's, where he is thought to have received instruction from John Cook. Cook was also a mentor to William Cecil, who would become the powerful Elizabethan statesman Lord Burghley. Camden dedicated the first editions of his Britannia to Burghley, claiming the lord's early support and encouragement as a catalyst to his work. In 1566 Camden went to Oxford, where he befriended Sidney, as well as Richard and George Carew. However, Camden's time as a student at Oxford was not remarkable, and in 1570 he left without a degree (which was eventually granted to him in 1574). What he did next remains unknown, although at some time in the next four years he made the acquaintance of Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster. In 1575, Camden landed a post as second master at Westminster School; while there, he published the first edition of the Britannia in 1586. The Westminster School had close ties to Lord Burghley, who had reestablished the institution in the humanist tradition. Such a curriculum was well suited to Camden's interests and talents, including his facility with Greek. While at the school, Camden was a favorite teacher of Jonson, who later extolled his mentor in his Epigrams (1616). Through Burghley's influence, Camden joined the College of Arms in 1597. The post of Clarenceaux, King of Arms, oversaw the granting of arms and all matters relating to titles of nobility, making it an influential position in the aristocracy. The post also enabled Camden to pursue his antiquarian interests, given that the College was connected with the Society of Antiquaries (of which Camden was a founding member). These opportunities culminated in the historical tract entitled Reges, reginae, nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterii sepulti, usque ad annum 1600 (1600), a guide to the monuments in Westminster Abbey. Other notable publications during this period included a chronicle history entitled Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta (1603); a compilation of historical anecdotes not included in the Britannia entitled Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine (1604); and a historical account of Queen Elizabeth's reign entitled Annales rerum Anglicarum, et Hibernicarum, regnante Elizabetha, ad annum M.D.LXXXIX (1615). Camden's later years were spent as an venerated academic. In 1610 he was appointed historian of the newly formed Chelsea College. He also donated frequently to Westminster School and to Oxford, where in 1622 he established the Camden Chair of History. As Oxford's first lectureship in the field, the endowment helped to shape the university's curriculum and the future study of history. Camden died on November 9, 1623.

Major Works

Camden's Britannia remains the most important and widely read of all his works. Generally heralded as a milestone in the development of antiquarian history, the work focuses less on major events in British history and more on the topography, people, customs, and laws of the British realm and its various subdivisions. Camden's major influences in writing the Britannia were both British and Continental. His debt to the antiquarian John Leland is substantial; Leland spent much of his life traveling England and Wales collecting materials for a major topographical work, but died before he could see them organized and published. Leland's materials and his vision were crucial to the formation of the Britannia, just as they were to Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Ireland (1577), a popular chronicle history published during the early years of Camden's research on the Britannia. Unlike the straightforward chronicle genre, which was gradually falling out of favor with readers, the Britannia ushered in a new approach to historical documentation. Based on the techniques developed by Flavio Biondo in his Italia illustrata (1481), Camden describes Britain in terms of its ancient territories and tribes, in order to emphasize the unity and integrity of the British nation. Camden continued to innovate the historiographic form in subsequent editions of the Britannia, incorporating archeological discoveries such as coins, monuments, and other ruins as historical data alongside traditional textual sources. Camden's later works similarly include these antiquarian techniques. In both Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta and Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine, Camden stimulated the growing interest in national history and national identity. Particularly with the Remaines, Camden modeled a form of history that drew together disparate sources—including epitaphs, coins, speeches, medieval poetry, and English proverbs—to create a complete and unified portrait of a diverse nation.

Critical Reception

Camden's pioneering approach to documenting history in the Britannia brought him academic renown in England and abroad during his lifetime. Scholars have also identified his influence in such subsequent works as Jonson's plays and poems, Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590), Samuel Daniel's Civil Wars (1595), and Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612). In particular, W. H. Herendeen has discussed Jonson's literary expression of gratitude to his teacher, and both Herendeen and Jack B. Oruch have examined the influence of Camden's poem De Connubio Tamae et Isis on Spencer's The Faerie Queene. Camden's reputation as a founding father of historiography notwithstanding, thorough critical analysis of his works did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century. Rudolf B. Gottfried was among the first to praise Camden for his unprecedented factual accuracy in the Britannia, although he did detect some prejudice against Ireland which was typical of Renaissance England. Historians such as Stuart Piggott have also proffered the opinion that Camden's purpose in the Britannia was to construct a history of Roman Britain, in which Britain assumed its legitimate place among the other great nations of Europe that were influenced by Rome. In recent years, some critics have sought to challenge this perspective. William Rockett has posited that the structure of the Britannia indicates that Camden was not necessarily preoccupied with Britain's Roman heritage, but rather with detailing a history of the social unification of diverse tribes into a common nation. Many modern historians have heralded Camden's innovations in historiography as crucial precursors to twentieth-century cultural history. Both F. Smith Fussner and Herendeen have argued that Camden's inclusive approach to gathering historical information and his scientific approach to classifying data introduced important methodological standards that helped shape history as a scholarly discipline. Further, Herendeen has predicted that as Camden's contributions to history and literature become better understood, his role in the Renaissance project of fashioning a British national identity will be given even greater prominence.