Academic journal article Albion

King, Commons, and Commonweal in Holinshed's Chronicles

Academic journal article Albion

King, Commons, and Commonweal in Holinshed's Chronicles

Article excerpt

Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles was the most ambitious English historical work of the sixteenth century. It was also the last work in the English chronicle tradition, and as such has remained relatively unappreciated both as an achievement in its own right and by its influence on contemporaries. Yet in its construction of national identity and its parsing of the proper relation between the royal estate and the commonwealth, it has much to say about the assumptions of late Tudor culture.

The reasons for Holinshed's historical neglect are not far to seek. Compared to newer Renaissance models such as Polydore Vergil's Anglicae Historiae that were already replacing it, it lacked the narrative cogency that characterized the best Continental historiography. As the product of several hands--Reyner (or Reginald) Wolfe, the printer-scholar who first conceived it as a universal geography-cum-history; (1) Holinshed himself, Wolfe's former assistant, who produced the histories of England and Scotland; (2) Richard Stanyhurst, whose history of Ireland was based on the work of Edmund Campion; (3) and William Harrison, whose prefatory Description of England has received far more attention from scholars than the work it was meant to introduce (4)--it lacked the unity that a single author could bring to disparate materials. Moreover, it was, like other chronicles, a composite that incorporated the work of earlier authors, a palimpsest that presented as history what was in good part uncritical historiography. These problems were complicated by the fact that the first edition of 1577 was superseded by one revised after Holinshed's death in 1582 by a new consortium including the journalist Abraham Fleming, (5) the jurist John Hooker (alias Vowell), (6) and the antiquarian Francis Thynne or Boteville, (7) who added to the original text considerably but eclectically. Their product, in turn, was subjected to censorship before its printing was authorized in 1587. (8) Finally, "Holinshed," which denotes the outcome of this collective enterprise, has labored under the shadow of Shakespeare, who with Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and virtually every other significant literary figure of the time quarried it for his own work.

It has taken a sympathetic modern reader, Annabel Patterson, to restore Holinshed to its rightful centrality in the cultural discourse of late Elizabethan and early Stuart England. (9) As Patterson points out, even within the chronicle tradition this text is particularly characterized by multivocality. In part this derives from the received texts it incorporates, and in part from the varied perspectives of its author/redactors. At one extreme, William Harrison writes from the perspective of a godly critic of the Elizabethan religious polity, although not one as alienated, perhaps, as Professor Patterson suggests; at the other, Richard Stanyhurst was a Catholic convert and conspirator, and thus at least covertly a foe both of that polity and of the English presence in Ireland. A double tension is consequently inherent in the enterprise: the estrangement of at least some of the authors from core elements of the Elizabethan regime, and, at least ideologically, from each other as well.

Multivocality was also, however, implicit in the structure of the Chronicles themselves. The chronicle form as such involved, notionally, the subordination of author to event within a providential framework. History was perceived as a series of morality plays revolving around stock figures and subjects: just or unjust rulers, loyal or rebellious subjects, wars and tumults, natural and divine visitations, deeds to be praised or reprehended. The chronicler himself was the faithful mirror of the events he recorded, and whatever dialogic or dramatic tension was involved in their telling, their true significance emerged in the end. In this sense, the chronicle was the triumph of truth, but a truth that could only manifest itself in the hearing of all voices and the final, chorus-like assent of the community. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.