William Camden

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William Camden
William Camden by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.jpg
William Camden
Born 2 May 1551
London, England
Died 9 November 1623(1623-11-09)
Chislehurst, England
Occupation Antiquarian, historian, topographer
Nationality English

William Camden (2 May 1551 – 9 November 1623) was an English antiquarian, historian, topographer, and officer of arms. He wrote the first chorographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and the first detailed historical account of the reign of Elizabeth I of England.

Early years[edit]

Camden was born in London. His father, Sampson Camden, was a member of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. He attended Christ's Hospital and St Paul's School, and in 1566 entered Oxford (Magdalen College, Broadgates Hall, and finally Christ Church). At Christ Church, he became acquainted with Philip Sidney, who encouraged Camden's antiquarian interests. He returned to London in 1571 without a degree. In 1575, he became Usher of Westminster School, a position that gave him the freedom to travel and pursue his antiquarian researches during school vacations.


In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. His stated intention was "to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity." The first edition was published in 1586. The work, which was written in Latin, was very popular, going into seven editions by 1607, each considerably enlarged from its predecessor. The 1607 edition included for the first time a full set of English county maps, based on the surveys of Christopher Saxton and John Norden, and engraved by William Kip and William Hole (who also engraved the fine title page). The first English language edition, again expanded, translated by Philemon Holland (probably in collaboration with Camden), appeared in 1610.

Britannia is a county-by-county description of Great Britain and Ireland. It is a work of chorography: a study that relates landscape, geography, antiquarianism, and history. Rather than write a history, Camden wanted to describe in detail the Great Britain of the present, and to show how the traces of the past could be discerned in the existing landscape. By this method, he produced the first coherent picture of Roman Britain.

Camden as Clarenceux King of Arms in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I, 1603.

He continued to collect materials and to revise and expand Britannia throughout his life. He drew on the published and unpublished work of John Leland and William Lambarde, among others, and received the assistance of a large network of correspondents with similar interests. He also travelled throughout Great Britain to view documents, sites, and artefacts for himself: he is known to have visited East Anglia in 1578, Yorkshire and Lancashire in 1582, Devon in 1589, Wales in 1590, Salisbury, Wells and Oxford in 1596, and Carlisle and Hadrian's Wall in 1599.[1] His fieldwork and firsthand research set new standards for the time. He even learned Welsh and Old English for the task. (Camden's tutor in Old English was Laurence Nowell.) The resulting work is one of the great achievements of sixteenth century scholarship.

In 1593, Camden became Headmaster of Westminster School. He held the post for four years, but left when he was appointed Clarenceux King of Arms. By this time, he was a well-known and revered figure, and the appointment was meant to free him from the labour of teaching and to facilitate his research. The College of Arms at that time was not only a centre of genealogical and heraldic study, but a centre of antiquarian study as well. The appointment, however, roused the jealousy of the herald Ralph Brooke, who, in retaliation, published an attack on Britannia, charging Camden with inaccuracy and plagiarism. Camden successfully defended himself against the charges in subsequent editions of the work.


Frontispiece from a 1675 edition of the Annales

In 1597, Lord Burghley suggested that Camden write a history of Queen Elizabeth's reign. The degree of Burghley's influence on the work is unclear, though; Camden only specifically mentions Sir John Fortescue, Elizabeth's last Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Henry Cuffe, the Earl of Essex's secretary, as sources.[2] Camden began his work in 1607. The first part of the Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnate Elizabetha, covering the reign up to 1597, appeared in 1615. The second part was completed in 1617, but was not published until 1625 (Leiden), and 1627 (London), following Camden's death. The first translation into English appeared in 1625.[3]

The Annales were not written in a continuous narrative, but in the style of earlier annals, giving the events of each year in a separate entry. Sometimes criticised as being too favourably disposed towards Elizabeth and James I, the Annales are one of the great works of English historiography and had a great impact on the later image of the Elizabethan age. Hugh Trevor-Roper said about them: "It is thanks to Camden that we ascribe to Queen Elizabeth a consistent policy of via media rather than an inconsequent series of unresolved conflicts and paralysed indecisions."[3]

Final years[edit]

In 1609, Camden moved to Chislehurst in Kent (Now south-east London). Though often in ill health, he continued to work diligently. In 1622, he founded an endowed lectureship in History at Oxford - the first in the world - which continues to this day as the Camden Chair in Ancient History. That same year, he was struck with paralysis. He died in Chislehurst on 9 November 1623, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Camden left his library to his closest friend, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. His circle of friends and acquaintances included Lord Burghley, Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Stow, John Dee, Jacques de Thou and Ben Jonson, who was Camden's student at Westminster and who dedicated an early edition of Every Man in His Humour to him.

Among Camden's other works are a Greek grammar, which remained a standard school textbook for many years; Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (1605), a more popular English-language companion to Britannia, comprising a collection of themed historical essays; the official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters; and a catalogue of the epitaphs at Westminster Abbey.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dates of excursions based on DeMolen 1984, p. 328; the date of the northern trip corrected from 1600 to 1599 based on Hepple 1999.
  2. ^ Adams pp. 53, 64
  3. ^ a b Kenyon p. 10


  • Adams, Simon (2002). Leicester and the Court: Essays on Elizabethan Politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719053242. 
  • Boon, G.C. (1987). "Camden and the Britannia". Archaeologia Cambrensis 136: 1–19. 
  • Collinson, Patrick (1998). "One of us? William Camden and the making of history". Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 6th ser. 8: 139–63. 
  • Copley, Gordon J. (1977). "Introduction". Camden's Britannia: Surrey and Sussex. London: Hutchinson & Co. ISBN 0091220009. 
  • DeMolen, R.L. (1984). "The Library of William Camden". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 128: 326–409. 
  • Hepple, Leslie W. (1999). "Sir Robert Cotton, Camden’s Britannia, and the early history of Roman Wall studies". Archaeologia Aeliana. 5th ser. 27: 1–19. 
  • Herendeen, Wyman H. (2007). William Camden: a life in context. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 9781843831266. 
  • Jones, H. Stuart (1943). "The Foundation and History of the Camden Chair". Oxoniensa 8–9: 169–92. 
  • Kenyon, John (1983). The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-78254-1. 
  • Kunst, Christiane (1995). "William Camden’s Britannia: history and historiography". In Crawford, M.H.; Ligota, C.R. Ancient History and the Antiquarian: essays in memory of Arnaldo Momigliano. Warburg Institute Colloquia 2. London: Warburg Institute. pp. 117–31. ISBN 0854810951. 
  • Levy, F.J. (1964). "The Making of Camden’s Britannia". Bibliothèque d’humanisme et Renaissance 26: 70–97. 
  • Levy, F.J. (1967). Tudor Historical Thought. San Marino: Huntington Library. 
  • Parry, Graham (1995). The Trophies of Time: English antiquarians of the seventeenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198129629. 
  • Piggott, Stuart (1976). "William Camden and the Britannia". Ruins in a Landscape: essays in antiquarianism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 33–53. ISBN 0852243030. 
  • Richardson, R.C. (2004). "William Camden and the Re-Discovery of England". Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 78: 108–23. 
  • Rockett, William (1995). "The Structural Plan of Camden’s Britannia". Sixteenth Century Journal 26: 829–41. 
  • Trevor-Roper, H.R. (1971). Queen Elizabeth's First Historian: William Camden and the beginnings of English "civil history". London. 
  • Woolf, D.R. (1990). The Idea of History in Early Stuart England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802058620. 

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