Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters

Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters

Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters

Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters

Excerpt

This is the first book devoted to a study of the works of Polydore Vergil, surely a matter calling for surprise rather than apology. His importance in the development of English historiography has been evident since C. L. Kingsford's English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century was published in 1913. The basic authority of the Anglica Historia for the events of Henry VII's reign was established by W. Busch in the first (and only) volume of his history of England under the Tudors, which appeared in German in 1892 and in English three years later. A very little investigation shows that the Anglica Historia not only determined to a great extent the form which later histories of the Tudor period were to take, but influenced the treatment of the English past as a whole for many generations. Nor was this influence merely formal. The substance of Vergil's analysis, as well as the structure of his work, informed nearly all later histories. It is true that in his own day Englishmen were anxious to condemn his sceptical attitude to Brutus and Arthur and that by the seventeenth century more precise scholarship was replacing his account of Dark Age and early medieval history. But his picture of England in the fifteenth century remained undisturbed until a century ago, and his evaluation of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII has had an even longer currency.

To explain the remarkable persistence of his interpretation of the political evolution of England from the deposition of Richard II to the birth of Edward VI we must look beyond the inherent rightness or wrongness of his views and beyond the value of the Anglica Historia as a primary source for the period. The explanation unquestionably lies in the adoption of his notions by Hall, whose Chronicle virtually translates the fifteenth-century portion of Vergil's book, and by later historians such as Holinshed. Equally important, the poets and dramatists turned their attention to the history of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The reasons for the literary importance of the Wars of the Roses in Elizabethan England are not far to seek. The dynastic disunity which characterizes the earlier period was a recurrent . . .

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