1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Camden

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:261-63.



We now turn to a circle of laborious writers, who exerted themselves in the age of Elizabeth to discover and preserve the remains of antiquity which had come down to their times. Among these, the leading place is unquestionably due to WILLIAM CAMDEN, who, besides being eminent as an antiquary, claims to be considered likewise as one of the best historians of his ago. Camden was born in London in 1551, and received his education first at Christ's hospital and St Paul's school, and afterwards at Oxford. In 1575 he became second master of Westminster school and while performing the duties of this office, devoted his leisure hours to the study of the antiquities of Britain — a subject to which, from his earliest years, he had been strongly inclined. That he might personally examine ancient remains, he travelled, in 1582, through some of the eastern and northern counties of England; and the fruits of his researches appeared in his most celebrated work, written in Latin, with a title signifying. Britain; or a Chorographical Description of the Most Flourishing Kingdom of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Adjacent Islands, from Remote Antiquity. This was published in 1586, and immediately brought him into high repute as an antiquary and man of learning. Anxious to improve and enlarge it, he journied at several times into different parts of the country, examining archives and relics of antiquity, and collecting, with indefatigable industry, whatever information might contribute to render it more complete. The sixth edition, published in 1607, was that which received his finishing touches; and of this an English translation, executed, probably with the author's assistance, by Dr Philemon Holland, appeared in 1610. From the preface to that translation we extract the account which Camden gives of his labours:—

"I hope it shall be no discredit if I now use again, by way of preface, the same words, with a few more, that I used twenty-four years since in the first edition of this work. Abraham Ortelius, the worthy restorer of ancient geography, arriving here in England about thirty-four years past, dealt earnestly with me that I would illustrate this isle of Britain, or, as he said, that I would restore antiquity to Britain, and Britain to antiquity; which was (I understood), that I would renew ancientry, enlighten obscurity, clear doubts, and recall home verity, by way of recovery, which the negligence of writers, and credulity of the common sort, had in a manner proscribed and utterly banished from among us. A painful matter, I assure you, and more than difficult; wherein what toil is to be taken, as no man thinketh, so no man believeth but he who hath made the trial. Nevertheless, how much the difficulty discouraged me from it, so much the glory of my country encouraged me to undertake it. So, while at one and the same time I was fearful to undergo the burden, and yet desirous to do some service to my country, I found two different affections, fear and boldness, I know not how, conjoined in one. Notwithstanding, by the most gracious direction of the Almighty, taking industry for my consort, I adventured upon it; and, with all my study, care, cogitation, continual meditation, pain, and travail, I employed myself thereunto when I had any spare time. I made search after the etymology of Britain and the first inhabitants timorously; neither in so doubtful a matter have I affirmed ought confidently. For I am not ignorant that the first originals of nations are obscure, by reason of their profound antiquity, as things which are seen very deep and far remote; like as the courses, the reaches, the confluences, and the outlets of great rivers are well-known, yet their first fountains and heads lie commonly unknown. I have succinctly run over the Romans' government in Britain, and the inundation of foreign people thereinto, what they were, and from whence they came. I have traced out the ancient divisions of these kingdoms; I have summarily specified the states and judicial courts of the same. In the several counties, I have compendiously set down the limits (and yet not exactly by perch and pole, to breed questions), what is the nature of the soil, which were places of the greatest antiquity, who have been dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons, and some of the most signal and ancient families therein (for who can particulate all?) What I have performed, I leave to men of judgment. But time, the most sound and sincere witness, will give the truest information, when envy (which persecuteth the living) shall have her mouth stopped. Thus much give me leave to say — that I have in no wise neglected such things as are material to search and sift out the truth. I have attained to some skill of the most ancient British and Saxon tongues. I have travelled over all England for the most part; I have conferred with most skilful observers in each country; I have studiously read over our own country writers (old and new), all Greek and Latin authors which have once made mention of Britain; I have had conference with learned men in the other parts of Christendom; I have been diligent in the records of this realm; I have looked into most libraries, registers, and memorials of churches, cities, and corporations; I have pored over many an old roll and evidence, and produced their testimony (as beyond all exception) when the cause required, in their very own words (although barbarous they be), that the honour of verity might in no wise be impeached.

"For all this I may be censured as unadvised, and scant modest, who, being but of the lowest form in the school of antiquity, where I might well have lurked in obscurity, have adventured as a scribbler upon the stage in this learned age, amidst the diversities of relishes both in wit and judgment. But to tell the truth unfeignedly, the love of my country, which compriseth all love in it, and bath endeared me to it, the glory of the British name, the advice of some judicious friends, hath over-mastered my modesty, and (will'd I, nill'd I) hath enforced me, against mine own judgment, to undergo this burden too heavy for me, and so thrust me forth into this world's view. For I see judgments, prejudices, censures, aspersions, obstructions, detractions, affronts, and confronts, as it were, in battle array to environ me on every side; some there are which wholly contemn and avile this study of antiquity as a back-looking curiosity; whose authority, as I do not utterly vilify, so I do not over-prize or admire their judgment. Neither am I destitute of reason whereby I might approve this my purpose to well-bred and well-meaning men, which tender the glory of their native country; and, moreover, could give them to understand that, in the study of antiquity (which is always accompanied with dignity, and hath a certain resemblance with eternity), there is a sweet food of the mind well befitting such as are of honest and noble disposition. If any there be which are desirous to be strangers in their own soil, and foreigners in their own city, they may so continue, and therein flatter themselves. For such like I have not written these lines, nor taken these pains."

The "Britannia" has gone through many subsequent editions, and has proved so useful a repository of antiquarian and topographical knowledge, that it has been styled by Bishop Nicholson "the common sun, whereat our modern writers have all lighted their little torches." The last edition is that of 1759, in two volumes folio, largely augmented by Mr. Gough.

In 1593 Camden became head master of Westminster school, and, for the use of his pupils, published a Greek grammar in 1597. In the same year, however, his connexion with that seminary came to an end, on his receiving the appointment of Clarencieux king-of-arms, an office which allowed him more leisure for his favourite pursuits. The principal works which he subsequently published are, 1. An Account of the Monuments and Inscriptions in Westminster Abbey; 2. A Collection of Ancient English Historians; 3. A Latin Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, drawn up at the desire of James VI., and, 4. Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, also in Latin. The last of these works is praised by Hume as good composition, with respect both to style and matter, and as being "written with simplicity of expression, very rare in that age, and with a regard to truth." It is, however, generally considered as too favourable to Elizabeth; and Dr Robertson characterises the account of Scottish affairs under Queen Mary as less accurate than any other. Camden died unmarried in 1623, at the age of seventy-two, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Not long before his death, he founded and endowed a history lecture at Oxford.