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Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer, Felicity Heal, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed's Chronicles
by William J. Humphries

Kewes, Paulina, Ian. W. Archer, and Felicity Heal, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. xxxvii + 772 pp. ISBN 978-0199565757. $142.50 cloth.


In the preface to his English edition of the Britannia (1610), William Camden described those who neglect the study of antiquity as “strangers in their owne soile, and forrainers in their own City.” It is, according to Camden, through retrospective vision—through an understanding of the past—that one is able to grasp one’s present identity. Even as Abraham Ortelius was encouraging Camden to begin this project in 1577, the first volume of what has come to be called Holinshed’s Chronicles—the longest printed work in the English language at its publication—was already emerging from Henry Bynneman’s press. With Camden’s warning in mind, it is perhaps appropriate that The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles examines the past with such scrutiny, moving between six broad categories of essay: The Making of Holinshed; Historiography; Form, Style, and Reception; Politics, Society, and Religion; Literary Appropriations; and Archipelagic Holinshed. Where the Chronicles are today most often footnoted as a source-text to Shakespeare, this new volume, which comprises the scholarship of forty-three contributors across forty essays, not only examines the Chronicles’ past but also the past that the Chronicles examine. Indeed, the Handbook celebrates the text in and of itself, and not solely the future literary creations that the work engendered.

The print publication of the Handbook falls in conjunction with the online, parallel-text publication of the 1577 and 1587 editions of the Chronicles, edited meticulously by Henry Summerson and surely to become the standard scholarly text for future readers. Summerson himself provides two essays for the Handbook, examining the sources that underlie each edition of the Chronicles, and co-authors a third with editor Felicity Heal on “The Genesis of the Two Editions.” In this opening essay, the authors are quick to note the various hands that have touched the Chronicles, impressing upon the reader the evolving nature of the work—a polyglossia of competing and complementary voices, some modern, others ancient, all striving to be heard. Indeed, Raphael Holinshed, who has become the figure most associated with the Chronicles in the mind of the casual reader, was neither the progenitor of the work nor its most significant voice; however, his decision to reduce the “universall Cosmographie of the whole worlde” that Reyner Wolfe had envisaged into a chronicle of the British Isles marked a significant editorial direction for the work.

What is constantly emphasized by the Handbook’s contributors is the “multivocality” of the text, a term first proposed by Annabel Patterson in Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (1994). Patterson looms large in the Handbook as a point of departure for many of the contributors. Some, such as Peter Marshall, have built on her assessment of competing editorial policies and voices, noting in his essay on “Religious Ideology” the “at times schizophrenic” (426) nature of the work; while others have offered dissenting voices, seeking to re-evaluate Patterson’s judgments. Amongst this number, Cyndia Susan Clegg questions the print history elaborated in Patterson’s book, posing alternative solutions to the syndicated publication of the first edition (46-7), while John Watts’s contradicts the “proto-liberalism” noted by Patterson in the Chronicles’ evaluation of monarchy (376). Watts makes an admirable attempt to overturn the orthodox assessment of the Chronicles’ “hostility to royal arbitrariness and a strong enthusiasm for Parliament” (376) by offering examples of monarchical assent, suggesting ultimately that the Chronicles are “a political and monarchical history, not an ethnic or geographical one” (377); however, far from sidelining the geographical contours of the nation, the Chronicles thrust land to the fore as the one eternal element in the history of Britain. Whilst the chronology may follow the lives of monarchs, the vast temporal sweep of the Chronicles ultimately highlights their transience—and Watts’s over-emphasis on the monarchical-centric telos of the work proposes a far more coherent and purposeful narrative than the sixteenth-century Chronicles present. Ultimately, it is the stage and not the players that emerges triumphant—and the work confirms the prerogatives of all those who, through land and title, are the inheritors of that native soil.

While the Chronicles themselves may emphases the entitlements of the native inheritors of Britain, the Handbook is understandably keen to examine the literary inheritances that not only reside within the work but also emerged from it. Laura Ashe explores “Holinshed and Mythical History,” noting the important blurring between the medieval concepts of fabula and historia when chronicling the pre-history of Britain (153). This condition of the Chronicles, with its largely unquestioned acceptance of the Brute myth and the Arthurian legends, ultimately consigned the work to the fringes of the historical tradition by the seventeenth century, when it was superseded by William Camden’s Latin Britannia (1586) and John Speed’s Historie of Great Britaine (1611) and The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1610/11). Nevertheless, the Chronicles enjoyed preeminence during a thirty-year period around the turn of the seventeenth century, which saw the creation of some of the Jacobethan era’s most influential literary works. Unsurprisingly, two essays in the Handbook are devoted to Shakespeare, with Igor Djordjevic looking at “Shakespeare and Medieval History” and Richard Dutton exploring “Shakespeare and British History”—some new insights are offered, but both essays ultimately tread familiar ground, with their contributors providing a useful overview of present scholarly debate.

Richard A. McCabe offers perhaps the most exciting critical examination of literary appropriations of the Chronicles in his essay on “Spenser and Holinshed.” While the Matter of Britain sequence described in Eumnestes’s library in Book II of The Faerie Queene has already received lengthy attention in Carrie Anna Harper’s The Sources of the British Chronicle History in Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1910), McCabe proposes a more expansive vision of influence. He suggests that “when Spenser began work on The Faerie Queene only Holinshed offered a vision of English history that both culminated in Elizabeth, and contextualized that outcome,” noting further that the poem “echoes [the Chronicles’] concern with maintaining a hard-won national identity in the face of religious dissention, regionalization, and colonial expansion” (544). Spenser’s anxiety of exile can certainly be felt throughout The Faerie Queene as well as in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, and his distrust for the Irish home in which he settled for the majority of his life is evidenced in A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande. Spenser’s time spent in Ireland certainly informs much of his writing—an area of critical study that has justly received attention in recent years—and McCabe notes that the topography of Spenser’s epic poem draws extensively from the Irish Chronicle (556). Back in England, Spenser’s proposed, but ultimately unrealized, poem “Epithalamion Thamesis” likewise draws from the Chronicles in their description of England’s rivers, with the poet describing how “Master Holinshed hath muche furthered and advantaged me.”[1]

This topographical element to the Chronicles is undeniably one of its key features; and yet, it is also one that has received little critical focus. In his essay on “Mapping England and Wales,” Alfred Hiatt makes it clear that despite the total absence of maps from the Chronicles, “the concept of mapping remained very important to the project” (609). This is undeniably the case, with the Chronicles offering a geographical survey of the terrain before delving into the historical narrative for each major location. Reyner Wolfe’s initial vision for the work had prescribed the inclusion of maps, and one can only conjecture the exact reason for their absence. One that seems plausible, however, is that the extensive cartographical survey carried out by Christopher Saxton, initiated in 1570, was nearing completion and would have made any attempt to include specific county maps within the Chronicles superfluous. Nevertheless, Hiatt is keen to point out that “William Harrison’s Historicall Description of the Islande of Britayne is particularly notable for is connections with Christopher Saxton’s mapping” (609). Whilst the codependency of these two works may have been obvious to the Chronicles’ compilers, there is also evidence that readers understood the intrinsic connection between them. In her essay on “Readership and Reception” Felicity Heal includes an image taken from Edward Ollerenshaw’s 1577 copy of the Chronicles, in which he had hand-drawn a map of Cheshire and the tributaries of the Mersey (371). Though Heal provides this as evidence that readers were happy to personalize their texts with marginal additions, a quick comparison with the county maps of Christopher Saxton would have revealed the source of Ollerenshaw’s drawing, which employs, amongst other specific details, an identical map-key to that used by the renowned cartographer. The extent of Ollerenshaw’s simultaneous reading of these texts and his willingness to engage actively with them can be seen in the nature of the map he has reproduced in his copy of the Chronicles. In his drawing of the river and its tributaries, Ollerenshaw recombined waterways that in Saxton’s work had been divided between the maps of Cheshire and Lancashire. The collapsing of artificially imposed, politically-minded boundaries in order to allow the reader’s own sense of local identity to emerge, in Ollerenshaw’s case the Mersey area, is surely at the heart of Holinshed’s, if not always Saxton’s, work.

The unprejudiced nature of the Chronicles is perhaps its most unique feature by comparison to contemporaneous works of a similar genre, and means that definitive pronouncements about the purpose of the text are made problematic. Bart van Es sums this up most succinctly in his essay on “Later Appropriations” when he describes how “Holinshed is ideal as a source because it does not pre-determine the particular needs of its readers” (588). Unlike comparable works, such as John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563) with its clear polemical direction, the Chronicles allow readers to extract information without being overburdened by imposed readings. The lack of a clear religious agenda to the main body of the text, for example, is evidenced by the fact that Abraham Fleming’s marginal glosses in the 1587 edition attempt, according to Peter Marshall, to lend the work a “more reliably Protestant direction” (419). The failure of the main text to mark out Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in providential Protestant terms certainly reduces the explicit ideological stance that might otherwise inhabit the work. Instead, the Holinshed contributors attempted to present what they saw as unbiased truths, stripped even of rhetorical device. In her essay on “Genres,” Tricia A. McElory draws our attention to this editorial policy when she quotes Raphael Holinshed’s self-assessed style; “my speech is playne,” he writes, “withouten any Rethoricall shewe of Eloquence, having rather a regarde to simple truth, than to decking wordes” (Chronicles 1577: I, sig. 4v).

Whilst an attempt was made to prevent decorous speech from entering the work with the hope that a “simple truth” might present itself instead, the inclusion of nearly 1,300 illustrations in the 1577 edition offered an alternative aesthetic treat for the sixteenth-century reader. James A. Knapp’s essay on the “Illustrations in the 1577 Edition” offers an insightful examination of this often overlooked aspect of the work, and with the inclusion of several images from the Chronicles in the Handbook, the reader is able to engage fully with his discussion of the visual pieces. The absence of the illustrations from the 1587 edition is a puzzling feature of the work’s print history, and once again Patterson provides the springboard for discussion. Rejecting Patterson’s notion that their omission was “probably practical—space saving and ease of printing,” Knapp argues that “since we know that the largest expense relating to illustration lay in commissioning the woodcut blocks, the possibility that these were no longer available to the printers in 1587 would provide a far more compelling practical reason for omission than financial exigency” (131). Heal and Summerson too offer their own explanation for the omission, suggesting that by 1587 “woodcut images of the kind employed in 1577 were perhaps dated” (14). This latter suggestion seems grounded in little more than conjecture. Although it is true that by 1591 Sir John Harrington was dismissing the outmoded process of woodcutting for copper-plate engraving, it seems more likely that when the 1587 edition was going to print, the original woodcuts that had been held in Henry Bynneman’s print-shop were simply no longer available. Indeed, it would not have been uncommon upon the printer’s death in 1583 for such woodblocks to have been dispersed or sold off to different printers; this is particularly plausible considering that upon Bynneman’s death a £1,000 loan from the London Armorer Richard Hutton had not been fully repaid, and that at the time there would have been no immediate use for the blocks since the second edition of the Chronicles was not conceived until a year later in 1584. Further study into the recycling of woodcut images in the late sixteenth century would perhaps reveal not only from where some of the non-commissioned woodblocks arrived, but also where some of them eventually ended up. Considering that many of the portraits printed into the Chronicles were simply generic images, it would be fascinating to discover under what names the same woodcut-faces appeared in printed works across the sixteenth century.

What editors Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer, and Felicity Heal have assembled in the Handbook is a thorough overview of the competing concerns that surround the Chronicles. Much like the Chronicles themselves, it is not possible to discern a single agenda, and there are times in which the contributors raise differing interpretations of the text and context of the work. However, complete disagreements are uncommon and there is a sense of continuity despite the vast array of scholars assembled, each with their own background and critical approach. Heal and Summerson could be speaking self-referentially about the Handbook when they note of the Chronicles how “not only were the authors of this voluminous history to show that they had acquired the proper skills to present their narrative: readers were actively to engage with the text” (15). At almost eight hundred pages long, the Handbook threatens, upon first appearance, to be an unwieldy account of the Chronicles; and yet, as the reader begins “actively to engage with the text,” it becomes three-dimensional in the composite perspective formed through the many varied angles from which the Chronicles are viewed.


William J. Humphries
University of Oxford


[1] Spenser, Edmund. The Works of Edmund Spenser. Ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al. Variorum Edition. Vol 1. (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1966), 17.  




  • Aurora Auto Glass Repair Centennial 4 months, 1 week ago

    Indeed, the Handbook celebrates the text in and of itself, and not solely the future literary creations that the work engendered.

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Cite as:

William J. Humphries, "Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer, Felicity Heal, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed's Chronicles," Spenser Review 44.1.16 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 19th, 2024.
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