WILLIAM CAMDEN Biography - Writers


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William Camden (May 2, 1551 - November 9, 1623) was an English antiquarian and historian. He wrote the first topographical survey of Britain and the first detailed historical account of the reign of Elizabeth I.


Camden was born in London. His father, Sampson Camden, was a member of the 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 Britain. 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. The first English translation, prepared by Philemon Holland (probably under Camden’s direction) appeared in 1610.


Britannia is a county-by-county description of Britain. 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 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.


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 He drew on the published and unpublished work of John Leland and William Lambarde, among others, and received the assistance of a large network of correspondents with similar interests.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 did not simply accept older authorities unquestioningly, but traveled through Britain and looked at documents, sites and artifacts for himself. His 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 Lawrence Nowell, who later left Camden his library.) The result 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 labor of teaching and to facilitate his research. (The College of Arms at that time was not only a center of genealogical and heraldic study, but a center 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.


In 1597, Lord Burghley suggested that Camden write a history of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Burghley gave Camden free access to his personal papers as well as a range of state archives. Camden began the 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), after Camden’s death.


The Annales were not written in a continuous narrative, but rather in the style of earlier annals, giving the events of each year in a separate entry. Through sometimes criticized as being too favorably disposed towards Elizabeth and James I, the Annales are one of the great works of English historiography. Camden’s access to source material is unparalleled; the Annales are the basis for later histories of the period and are still consulted by historians today.


In 1609, Camden moved to Chislehurst. Though often in ill health, the 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 November 9, 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 Humor to him.


Among Camden’s other works are a Greek grammar, very popular at one time; Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (1605), a collection of material gathered for Britannia but not included; the official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters; and a catalog of the epitaphs at Westminster Abbey.


The Camden Society was named in his honor in 1838.