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William Camden

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William Camden

William Camden
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

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]

Remains Concerning Britain

This is the only book Camden wrote in English, and, contrary to his own misleading description of it in the first edition (1605) as being merely the "rude rubble and out-cast rubbish" of a greater and more serious work [Britannia], manuscript evidence clearly indicates that Camden conceived of this book early on and quite separately from his Britannia. The only authoritative edition is by Professor R. D. Dunn His scholarly text is based on the surviving manuscript material and the three editions published in Camden's lifetime (1605, 1614, and 1623) and contains copious Commentary, translations, and indices [University of Toronto Press, 1984; ISBN 0-8020-2457-2]. All editions after 1623 are unreliable and contain unauthentic material, especially the bowdlerized edition of John Philipot. Thomas Moule's edition of 1870 (of which many copies survive) might be described as plagiarism and is based on a copy of the 1674 edition of Philipot's. Recent facsimiles are mere reprints and as such merely replicate the blundering intrusions of Philipot and Moule.

Camden and the Oxford English Dictionary

The original compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary drew heavily on Camden's Remains Concerning Britain and it is often the earliest or the sole usage cited for a word. But there was still more to be gleaned. See: R. D. Dunn's "Additions to OED from William Camden's Remains 1605, 1614, 1623" in Notes and Queries, Continuous series, Vol. 231, No. 4 (December 1986). He records 56 Antedatings; 19 Postdatings; 42 New Senses; and 101 New words, word combinations, variant forms (spelling), and phrases. Since, regrettably, to date, none of the OED online Editors has seen fit to absorb and incorporate these findings (nor the findings of hundreds of similar articles over decades of Notes and Queries), this article remains the sole source of the words printed editions of the OED failed to include.

English Proverbs

Camden's REMAINS CONCERNING BRITAIN contains the first-ever alphabetical list of English proverbs and all of them have been listed in at least one of the principal dictionaries of proverbs: Burton Stevenson's STEVENSON'S BOOK OF PROVERBS, MAXIMS AND FAMILIAR PHRASES, 1949 (reprinted as THE MACMILLAN BOOK OF PROVERBS, MAXIMS and FAMOUS PHRASES, 1959); M. P. Tilley's A DICTIONARY of the PROVERBS IN ENGLAND in the SIXTEENTH and SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES (1950); and "ODEP" short for THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH PROVERBS, 3rd edition by F. P. Wilson, 1970. But, scattered throughout the REMAINS, are a good number of proverbs not recorded in any of the dictionaries. These have been gleaned and gathered by R. D. Dunn, "English Proverbs from William Camden's Remains Concerning Britain, in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3,Summer 1986. See also F. P. Wilson's seminal essay, "The Proverbial Wisdom of Shakespeare" (1961), reprinted in Shakespearian and Other Studies, edited by Professor Dame Helen Gardner, 1969. Dame Helen succeeded F. P. Wilson as Merton Professor of English Literature and thus became the first woman to hold a professorial Chair at Oxford University.


POEMS BY WILLIAM CAMDEN, With Notes and Translations from the Latin, edited by George Burke Johnston, in Studies in Philology, Vol. 72, No. 5, December, 1975, University of North Carolina Press, 1975.


“Fragment of an Unpublished Essay on Printing by William Camden,” edited, with facsimile, introduction and full critical apparatus, by R. D. Dunn, from British Library MS Cotton Julius F. xi, folios 306verso to 307recto, in The British Library Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, Autumn 1986. Of particular interest is Camden’s discussion of Cicero’s ''De Officiis''. The earliest surviving printed edition is that of Fust und Schöffer, Mainz, 1466 (the oldest printed book in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge University) but Camden indicates 1463 as the date of his copy, presumably lost when his great collection of printed books and manuscripts was, contrary to the terms of his Will, dispersed after his death in 1623, for it does not appear in Richard DeMolen’s catalogue (1984) of what survives of Camden’s collection, now in the library of Westminster Abbey.

Final years

Camden (by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1609)

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


  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


External links

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