The London Chronicles of the Fifteenth Century: A Revolution in English Writing

By Mary-Rose McLaren | Go to book overview
Save to active project


Something extraordinary happened in London in the early fifteenth century. It had nothing to do with kings and battles, but its effect on the growth and development of London was nonetheless profound. This was when the first attempt was made by ordinary lay people merchants, scriveners, craftsmen to write their own history. They did so by writing what are known as the 'London chronicles'. In order for this to happen a number of changes in perception amongst the citizenry must have taken place. The earliest of these extant chronicles, dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, represents that first generation of historical writing to be undertaken in English since the Anglo-Saxon chronicle some three hundred years earlier. Moreover, the London chroniclers did not generally copy their text from an earlier manuscript, but adjusted and manipulated the skeletal chronicle form and their sources. Most extant chronicles contain unique passages and many are only distantly related to other chronicles. In the London chronicles therefore, we discover, for the first time, the lay Londoners' self-conscious attempts to record events and their meanings.

Despite their importance as a secular and largely vernacular voice, much about the London chronicles remains a mystery. We do not know how the chronicle writing trend started, why, or exactly even when. Nor do we know how widely spread the writing of London chronicles was in its initial stages. There are forty-four manuscripts extant today, dating from between 1430 and 1566. The relationships between these manuscripts, however, suggest that in the mid fifteenth century there were almost certainly hundreds of London chronicles in circulation. Proportionately few of these survive. The nature of these manuscripts, as the product of the citizenry of London, means that many of them were probably kept in private homes. They could have been destroyed by fires, flood, vermin, or careless inheritors. At some time there must also have been a considerable trade in these chronicles. It appears that in the early to mid sixteenth century when they passed to a second or third generation of owners (probably being inherited) they were no longer valued as they had been. Many of the extant texts subsequently survive because they were acquired by John Stow, the sixteenth-century antiquary, or somehow made their way into the Cottonian library. Even here, however, they were not safe. Vitellius F. IX has been partially burnt and we do not know how many, if any, were completely destroyed in the Cottonian fire. Given how many manuscripts survive in the Cotton collection, it would be surprising if none had perished in the flames. Regardless of their poor survival rate, it is evident that as a body of texts, the London chronicles appeared and disappeared with remarkable suddenness.

Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
The London Chronicles of the Fifteenth Century: A Revolution in English Writing


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 294

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?