The Making of the Chronicles

Holinshed's Chronicles and the men behind them

N.B. The names of the contributors to the Chronicles in the following section link to the appropriate entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These links will only work if you, or the computer you are using (such as those that are part of an Athens network), have subscribed to the ODNB.

Although the Chronicles bear the name of Raphael Holinshed, they were in fact a corporate achievement, produced by men of varying origins and upbringings. Eight men were principally involved in the huge enterprise of writing them, in collaboration with a number of printers and publishers. The idea for the Chronicles originated with Reyner Wolfe (d. in or before 1574), who was born in the Low Countries but settled in London, where he prospered under successive monarchs as a printer and bookseller. Wolfe planned a massive universal history, but died before it came to fruition. His assistant Raphael Holinshed (c. 1525-?1580), a native of Cheshire who was probably a graduate of Cambridge, took over Wolfe's project as it applied to the British Isles alone. The first edition of the Chronicles, published in 1577, was still highly ambitious, its two volumes containing 2835 small folio pages. In the task of producing them, Holinshed had two principal assistants. Richard Stanihurst (1547-1618) was born into a wealthy Dublin family. Educated at Oxford, he became a friend of the scholar and future Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion (1540-1581), who wrote a history of Ireland with the help of Stanihurst. The latter subsequently reworked it, in highly individual prose, for Holinshed's book, and added a 'Description of Ireland'. Stanihurst later became a militant Catholic refugee. By contrast his colleague in the 1577 edition, William Harrison (1535-1593), was a Londoner who after going to Oxford became a clergyman closely linked to the radical wing of the Church of England. His religious leanings did not, however, at first affect his principal contribution to the Chronicles, a lengthy and fascinating 'Description of Britain' in three books which prefaced the historical narrative. The first edition of the Chronicles, which was illustrated with numerous woodcuts, was printed by Henry Bynneman (b. in or before 1542, d. 1583), an experienced London printer who had probably worked with Wolfe and had obtained a privilege for producing dictionaries and 'all Chronicles and histories whatsoever'.

Bynneman's penchant for publishing very large books eventually ruined him, but the first edition of the Chronicles nevertheless sold well, although its size inevitably made it relatively expensive, costing 26s. bound and 20s. unbound. It attracted attention, praise and criticism alike. Lord Burghley used it as a reference book. Poets like Edmund Spenser found it a source of inspiration. In 1580 Philip Sidney advised a friend to read 'the english Cronicle sett out by Hollinshead', while in the same year the acerbic Gabriel Harvey described Holinshed and chroniclers like him as 'asses' by comparison with classical historians like Tacitus. Harvey was in a minority, and it was soon decided to produce a second edition.

Bynneman's privilege for dictionaries and chronicles had passed to two more London printers Henry Denham (fl. 1556-1590) and Ralph Newbery (b. in or before 1536, d. 1603/4). Each had been active in the capital since around 1560, though Newbery was the more prosperous of the two, serving twice as master of the Stationers' Company and acquiring property in his native county of Berkshire. Both men invested in the new edition that appeared in 1587, Denham being named as printer on the title page. Holinshed's name remained there, although he was dead by then, after apparently retiring to Warwickshire. The work of revision and extension was instead directed by Abraham Fleming (c. 1552-1602), a Cambridge-educated Londoner with wide experience in the book trade. A committed protestant who eventually became a clergyman, Fleming acted as general editor (he performed the massive task of reading the proofs) and himself supplied the continuation of the history of England. Like Holinshed before him, Fleming led a small team of contributors. William Harrison considerably extended his own 'Description of Britain', markedly intensifying its religious tone. Work on Ireland was entrusted to John Hooker (c. 1527-1601), an Exeter man who had studied at both Oxford and continental universities. Hooker knew Ireland well, having spent much time there between 1568 and 1575, and was a good scholar. As chamberlain of Exeter he investigated and rearranged the city's archives, and for the 1587 Chronicles he provided a new translation of the Expugnatio Hibernica of Giraldus Cambrensis, to replace Stanihurst's paraphrase. Like Fleming he was evangelical in religion, and much of his writing on Ireland is passionately anti-Catholic in tone. By contrast John Stow (1524/5-1605) had a reverence for the past so intense that he was wrongly suspected of Catholic sympathies. Another native of London, where he received all his known education, Stow is famous for his Survey of London (1598). But the fact that he was a life-long collector of manuscripts and researcher among public records and civic archives also enabled him to assist in the production of the first edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, and to make a substantial contribution to their revision, where his writings and collections are repeatedly acknowledged in the margins. The last of Fleming's regular assistants, Francis Thynne (1545?-1608), probably came from Kent. Seemingly higher in social rank than his colleagues, he attended Lincoln's Inn rather than a university. Like Stow he collected manuscripts, but also developed an expensive interest in alchemy, precipitating a lifelong financial distress which his becoming a herald did little to reduce. His work on the Chronicles concentrated on augmenting and updating the history of Scotland, and he also supplied several catalogues of office- and title-holders. Fleming and his staff placed their names or initials in the margins to indicate their authorship of additions to the new edition, and so, too, did their temporary colleague William Patten (d. in or after 1598), who made a number of contributions to the history of England under Henry V and Henry VI, and set his name beside the first of them. A Londoner by birth, Patten began his career as an exchequer official, but lost his position for faulty account-keeping, or worse, and thereafter earned a precarious living as a jobbing scholar. His disgrace did not prevent his joining Stow and Thynne as a member of the first Society of Antiquaries.

The publication of the second edition in 1587 was bedevilled with problems from censorship, and a number of passages – mostly relating to contemporary politics – were excised. Thynne's contributions were particularly hard hit. The task of filling the resulting gaps was undertaken by Fleming. But despite such difficulties, the revised edition of the Chronicles, published in three substantial folio volumes gathered into two, constituted a decidedly superior exercise in Elizabethan book-production. Like the first edition, the second was expensive, the more so because it was larger; Andrew Perne in Cambridge owned a copy valued at 33s. 4d. in 1589. But again it appears to have circulated widely – no later than 1630 there was a copy in the library of David Wedderburn of Dundee. It provided the basis for Marlowe's Edward II and for such plays as the anonymous Tragedie of Arden of Feversham, which dramatised material that appeared for the first time in the 1587 edition, while William Shakespeare's use of it, in history plays written in the 1590s and later masterpieces like Macbeth and King Lear, is well known. Sir Edward Coke possessed a copy, and it was also read by such authors as Samuel Daniel, Robert Burton and John Milton. Though they went out of fashion as the seventeenth century progressed, Holinshed's Chronicles had first expressed the historical understanding of one generation and then done much to shape that of another.

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The two editions of Holinshed, 1577 and 1587

The fact that the two Elizabethan editions of Holinshed's Chronicles together contain a total of around five and a half million words inevitably creates difficulties when making comparisons. Nevertheless, it is possible to see significant differences between the texts of 1577 and 1587, which may be defined as presentational and substantive. In physical appearance, as well as content, changes were made between the two editions. That of 1587 was printed in a larger folio format, using a greatly superior font, and without the woodcuts that had ornamented its predecessor, but using elegant ornamental initial letters. Perhaps the often lengthy résumés which preface each chapter of the pre-1066 history of England were also intended to compensate for the disappearance of the woodcuts.

A comparison of the two editions shows differences in spelling throughout; for instance 'parlement' replaced 'Parliament', 'suretie' became 'suertie', and 'Northren' was altered to 'northerne'. Substitutions of individual words, which are very numerous, seem usually to have been made for stylistic rather than historiographical reasons, but can be interesting all the same; for instance, the appearance of the weird sisters who greeted Macbeth and Banquo, 'straunge & ferly'in 1577, became 'strange and wild' ten years later. Suspension marks, numerous in the first edition, are very rare in the second. The length of paragraphs, sometimes inordinately long in 1577 (in extreme cases extending over several pages) but more often very short, frequently consisting of only one or two sentences, was regularised in 1587, particularly by the consolidation of short paragraphs into longer ones. The outcome is not in fact always happy, since editorial work seems on many occasions to have been influenced more by considerations of appearance than of meaning, with the result that the new paragraphs frequently break up hitherto coherent passages in a manner detrimental to their narrative content and flow. Fortunately, the retention of marginalia from 1577 usually still makes it possible for the reader to find the matter of the original subdivisions. However, marginal notes from 1577 were also sometimes brought into the 1587 text to act as subheadings.

Of the substantive changes, by far the most important lies in the second edition's greater length, arising in the first place from the extension of the Chronicles in every section, to bring them up to, or close to, the date of publication. Large-scale additions and alterations were also made within the existing text, signalled with varying degrees of thoroughness. William Harrison provided almost no guidance to his substantial enlargement of the 'Description of Britain' which he had contributed to the 1577 edition, making significant additions to almost every existing chapter as well as writing several entirely new ones. Chapters in 1587 on rivers and on the church were amplified with passages taken from equivalent chapters of his 1577 text, and then further enlarged with completely new material, in the process creating a substantial editorial problem for posterity. The original section dealing with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, which was loosely based on the Expugnatio Hibernica of Giraldus Cambrensis, was entirely replaced by John Hooker's footnoted translation of Giraldus's text, in itself a considerable achievement of scholarship. Hooker also appears to have set out to provide an amended version of the Irish History's account of the reign of Henry VIII, only to be thwarted by censorship – editorial scrutiny, here as at many other points, will doubtless shed more light on the fortunes of this passage of text.

Francis Thynne, who used marginal notes to alert his readers to almost every amendment he made, however trivial, made conscientious use of the writings of Mair, Lesley and Buchanan to revise the history of Scotland from the late thirteenth century onwards, though his amendments inevitably became more extensive as he approached his own time. For instance, his account of the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, was amplified through the use of Buchanan's history of Scotland (published in 1582), to contain such details as the improperly short skirt that Mary wore when she fell into the hands of her adversaries. Thynne also supplied thirteen annotated catalogues of office- and title-holders, while Harrison compiled a catalogue of the rulers of England from mythical times up to Queen Elizabeth; perhaps the provision of such lists is best seen as an extension of a feature of the 1577 edition, which already contained extended lists of past authors, rather than as a completely new development.

The history of England was also considerably augmented, mainly under the direction of Abraham Fleming. Thus the Chronicles' coverage of sixteenth-century domestic affairs was amplified in particular by reference to the writings of John Foxe and Edward Hall, the latter being heavily used, inter alia, to provide detailed accounts of festivities at Henry VIII's court. For continental history the recent translation (1579) of Guicciardini's history of Italy was similarly exploited. A more locally-focussed sort of addition was made by John Hooker when he provided a lengthy description of Exeter to accompany the account of the 1549 western rising.

Except in Harrison's Description, the reader's attention is usually drawn to the addition of new material by marginal notes and by sigla and brackets in the text. These make it possible to see both what new sources were used by the compilers of the 1587 edition, and how often the latter drew upon their own collections of manuscripts – those of John Stow and Francis Thynne are both cited – and also the collections of friends and well-wishers like the Canterbury antiquary John Twyne, who lent a copy of the 'pseudo-Elmham' life of Henry V. It seems clear that the already impressively wide range of sources used for the 1577 edition was further expanded during preparations for the publication of its successor. In all the extension of the Chronicles in 1587 added about a million words to their length, a total not significantly reduced either by cuts demanded by the censors or by excisions occasionally made by the compilers. Further investigation will certainly reveal many more examples of differences between the two editions, and of advances in depth and detail from the one to the other.

Holinshed's sources

Dr Summerson has been working on the sources underlying the Chronicles. One of the features of the preliminary matter in the 1577 edition is a list of 'The Names of the Authors from whome this Historie of England is collected'. In the first of what will be four treatments of the sources in this section of the website, we offer Dr Summerson's indentifications of these authors. A few have eluded identification, and we welcome suggestions. Please send relevant information to

It is intended that the second list will cover named authors who are incidentally referred to, and that the third will contain, and as far as possible identify, the anonymous sources cited, while the fourth (and shortest) will provide references to information originating in personal contacts. 

Catalogue of principal sources used in the 1577 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles [pdf file]

Catalogue of additional sources mentioned in passing in Holinshed's Chronicles [pdf file]

Catalogue of anonymous sources mentioned in Holinshed's Chronicles [pdf file]

List of personal sources used by the compilers of Holinshed's Chronicles [pdf file]

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