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"My speech is plaine" - Holinshed's Chronicles Part 1

Jo Wilding explores the historian Holinshed's Chronicles in memory of Marian Pringle. The Project's website describes it as "once the crowning achievement of Tudor historiography and the most important single source for contemporary playwrights and poets, above all Shakespeare".

Jo Wilding

This is the first of a two-part post on Holinshed’s Chronicles – it is in memory of Marian Pringle 1947–2010. Marian was Head of Library at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust from 1973-2000, and Special Collections Librarian up until her retirement in 2009. Marian passed on to me her love of, and some of her encyclopaedic knowledge of, our early printed books.

A recent visitor to the Library and Archive was a researcher from the inspiring Holinshed Project who came to see our copies of Holinshed’s Chronicles (we have both the first edition of 1577 and the second revised edition of 1587). The Holinshed Project hopes to produce a new 15-volume edition of the Chronicles to be published by Oxford University Press. In the meantime, it has created an online parallel text of the two editions.

The work is known as Holinshed’s Chronicles, but it was written by a number of contributors. The Project’s website describes the Chronicles as “once the crowning achievement of Tudor historiography and the most important single source for contemporary playwrights and poets, above all Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel, and Drayton". Among the authors and revisers were moderate Protestants (Raphael Holinshed, John Hooker), militant Protestants (William Harrison, Abraham Fleming), crypto-Catholics (John Stow), and Catholics (Richard Stanihurst, Edmund Campion). The upshot was a remarkably multi-vocal view of British history, not only because of the contrasting choices of style and source material but also because the contributors responded very differently to the politics and religion of their own age. The importance of Holinshed's Chronicles for the understanding of Elizabethan literature, history, and politics cannot be overestimated. 

Little is known about the historian Raphael Holinshed’s life (c.1525-1580?). Born in Cheshire, he was probably educated at Cambridge, and he has a Warwickshire connection – in his will he is described as being steward to Thomas Burdet of Bramcote, Warwickshire. In the Chronicles’ "Preface to the Reader", Holinshed wrote “My speech is plaine without any rhetoricall shew of eloquence, having rather a regard to simple truth, than to decking words”. As Marian Pringle said, this was a fitting qualification for an historian!

Holinshed 1587
One of the volumes of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's copy of the 1587 edition.

The Chronicles were a commercial success despite being expensive. Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1577 taking his copy with him which cost him £16. Essex of course went on to become Elizabeth I’s favourite; but perhaps he had paid too much attention to Holinshed’s account of the deposition of Richard II for he would later commission a performance of Shakespeare’s play about that king, immediately before rebelling against the Queen, for which he lost his head.

The second edition of the Chronicles appeared after Holinshed’s death and is the edition used by Shakespeare for King LearMacbeth, Cymbeline, and of course for the Histories.

The first edition was illustrated with many woodcuts. The second omits the woodcuts but is both longer and larger in size – both are printed in black letter (or Gothic) type – making it difficult to read but beautiful to look at.

The Chronicles are in my list of top 5 favourite books in our entire collection. If anyone had told me when I was a history undergraduate (more years ago than I care to admit) that I would one day have the privilege and pleasure of handling these books, I wouldn’t have believed them. I love our 1587 edition in particular – it has a handsome eighteenth century red leather binding and does not suffer from the margin trimming that happened to our 1577 edition during rebinding.