William Camden Essay - Critical Essays

Camden, William


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.

Principal Works

Britannia sive florentissimorum regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, chorographica descriptio (history) 1586; revised editions, 1587, 1590, 1607; translated as Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1610

Institutio graecae grammatices compendiaria in usum regiae scholae Westmonasteriensis (grammar book) 1595

Reges, reginae, nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterii sepulti, usque ad annum 1600 (history) 1600; revised as Reges, reginae, nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterii sepulti, usque ad annum 1603, 1603; and as Reges, reginae, nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterii sepulti, usque ad annum 1606, 1606

Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta (history) 1603

Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine (history) 1604; revised edition, 1614

Actio in Henricum Garnetum, Societatis Jesuiticae in Anglia Superiorem (history) 1607

Annales rerum Anglicarum, et Hibernicarum, regnante Elizabetha, ad annum M.D.LXXXIX (history) 1615; revised as Tomus alter annalium rerum Anglicarum, et Hibernicarum, sive pars quarta, 1625; translated as Annales. The True and Royal History of Elizabeth, Queene of England, 1625; and as Annales. Tomus alter & idem, 1629

Poems by William Camden (poetry) 1975

William Camden: Remains Concerning Britain (history) 1984


Rudolf B. Gottfried (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: Gottfried, Rudolf B. “The Early Development of the Section on Ireland in Camden's Britannia.ELH 10, no. 2 (June 1943): 117-30.

[In the following essay, Gottfried detects an anti-Irish bias in the Britannia, but emphasizes Camden's attention to detail, his thoroughness, and his desire to ensure that each new edition would be more scrupulously accurate than the last.]

The almost universal reverence with which William Camden was regarded by his contemporaries needs hardly to be mentioned among students of his period. The praises of Spenser and Ben Jonson are well known; the commendatory verses of his fellow antiquarians, written for the most...

(The entire section is 5167 words.)

Stuart Piggott (lecture date 1951)

SOURCE: Piggott, Stuart. “William Camden and the Britannia.Proceedings of the British Academy 37 (1951): 199-217.

[In the following essay, a transcription of the first Reckitt Archaeological Lecture, Piggott emphasizes Camden's efforts to construct a particularly Roman history for Britain. Piggott also surveys antiquarian history after Camden, including later editions of his Britannia, arguing that by the mid-eighteenth century the field of historiography was in sharp decline.]

The choice of the year 1951 for the inauguration of a series of archaeological lectures is a singularly happy one. The story of antiquarian studies in Britain may fairly be...

(The entire section is 7722 words.)

F. J. Levy (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Levy, F. J. “The Making of Camden's Britannia.Bibliotheque ‘d Humanisme et Renaissance 26 (1964): 70-97.

[In the following essay, Levy details Camden's antiquarian methods in compiling the Britannia, considering Camden's work as an attempt to reconstruct the history of Roman Britain as well as an effort to bring a Continental European mode of scholarship to bear on British history.]

In 1586, a thirty-five-year-old schoolmaster named William Camden published an historical and geographical description of the British Isles entitled Britannia. The book was to be immensely successful: six editions in Latin, each one larger than the...

(The entire section is 13839 words.)

Jack B. Oruch (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Oruch, Jack B. “Spenser, Camden, and the Poetic Marriages of Rivers.” Studies in Philology 69, no. 4 (July 1967): 606-24.

[In the following essay, Oruch argues that Camden's De Connubio Tamae et Isis likely influenced Spenser's plans to write Epithalamion Thamesis, a poem about mythological river marriages.]

In 1590 the poet William Vallans published his Tale of Two Swannes partly, he said, to “animate, or encourage those worthy Poets, who haue written Epithalamion Thamesis, to publish the same: I haue seen it in Latine verse (in my iudgment) wel done, but the Author I know not for what reason doth suppresse it: That which is...

(The entire section is 7300 words.)

William Huse Dunham, Jr. (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Dunham, William Huse, Jr. “William Camden's Commonplace Book.Yale University Library Gazette 43, no. 3 (January 1969): 139-56.

[In the following essay, Dunham describes the discovery of Camden's Commonplace Book, noting that the book offers proof for the existence of Journals of the House of Lords prior to the reign of Henry VIII and documents important trials, including the contest for the barony of Abergavenny.]

The romance of research often lies in finding the unexpected, the unsought-after, and the commonplace book is one of the more provocative avenues of discovery. Such a miscellany of memoranda transcribed in the seventeenth or...

(The entire section is 7808 words.)

W. H. Herendeen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Herendeen, W. H. “Like a Circle Bounded in Itself: Jonson, Camden, and the Strategies of Praise.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 11, no. 2 (fall 1981): 137-67.

[In the following essay, Herendeen examines the relationship between Camden and Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson, noting Jonson's frequent claims of literary and personal indebtedness to his friend and mentor in his literary works.]


William Camden assumed a place of unique importance not only in Jonson's life, but in his writing. His friendship, instruction, and the example he set were highly esteemed by the poet, and Jonson's expressions of gratitude were...

(The entire section is 13846 words.)

Wyman H. Herendeen (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Herendeen, Wyman H. “Geography and the Myth of History: Camden and the Rivers of Concord.” In From Landscape to Literature: The River and the Myth of Geography, pp. 196-211. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Herendeen discusses the relationship between landscape and moral history in Camden's Britannia. Herendeen explicates Camden's poem De Connubio Tamae et Isis as a part of Camden's historiography, observing the themes of unity and renewal.]

harmonie is on all sides so great among the elements, that it is no marvell if in their proper places … they maintaine and repose themselves with...

(The entire section is 6719 words.)

William Rockett (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Rockett, William. “Historical Topography and British History in Camden's Britannia.Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 26, no. 1 (winter 1990): 71-80.

[In the following essay, Rockett discusses Camden's method in documenting and narrating Britain's Roman past, acknowledging the author's debt to continental European sources and positing that Camden's efforts established continuity, solidarity, and historical inevitability for the British nation.]

Britain acquired a national history only after its coherence as a territorial entity had been established, and these two components of the national identity—territorial and historical...

(The entire section is 4038 words.)

William Rockett (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Rockett, William. “The Structural Plan of Camden's Britannia.Sixteenth Century Journal 26, no. 4 (winter 1995): 829-41.

[In the following essay, Rockett proposes that the tripartite structure of the Britannia disproves the common assumption that Camden's history was meant to focus on Roman Britain. Rockett instead finds the Britannia to be a history of social organization, detailing the unification of diverse peoples into a common nation.]

Assessments of William Camden's Britannia have been almost entirely uniform in the twentieth century. To this day, Britannia is ordinarily seen, for better or worse, as one of the...

(The entire section is 6781 words.)

Further Reading


Fussner, F. Smith. “William Camden and Territorial History.” In The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought, 1580-1640, pp. 230-52. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Credits Camden with inventing a method of historiography which sought to explain events from empirical evidence rather than from providential interpretation.

Herendeen, Wyman H. “Spenserian Specifics: Spenser's Appropriation of a Renaissance Topos.” In Medievalia et Humanistica: Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Culture, edited by Paul Maurice Clogan, pp. 159-88. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.


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