1. As you look into the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, the first monument you will see on the right-hand wall is a bust of William Camden [1551 - 1623], very satisfactorily flanked with a plaque commemorating the nearby burial of another great Humanist of his time, Isaac Casaubon. It is scarcely surprising that Camden’s pen earned him a place in Poets’ Corner, but his effigy clutches a copy of his Britannia, and a modern reader may be puzzled that it is this work rather than his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha that put him there. The Annales, no doubt the best history written by an Englishman prior to the Earl of Clarendon’s history of the Civil War, is both a literary masterpiece and a solid foundation for every subsequent account of Elizabeth’s reign. Britannia, on the other hand, being so greatly devoted to antiquarianism and to the pedigrees of aristocratic and genteel families, is probably considerably less compelling to a great majority of modern readers. And yet nobody familiar with the literature produced by Camden’s educated contemporaries will be unaware of the fact that in his day Britannia was held in profound respect. It is important to understand why, and I submit that there are at least three main reasons.
2. First, an important clue can be found in another work included in The Philological Museum, Richard Eedes’ satiric travelogue of 1583, Iter Boreale. In it, Eedes furnishes a detailed description of his journey from Oxford to Durham by way of York, and although he writes of the uncouthness of the North Country with plenty of comic exaggeration, it is clear that he is describing for the benefit of his Oxonian audience an distant region quite foreign to an average Englishman’s experience: if one of his objects is to make his reader laugh, another is to cater to their curiosity about unfamiliar parts of their own nation. And, as I have noted in introducing Iter Borealis, it to have spawned a number of imitations, further evidence of the appeal of such travel literature. On a much more massive scale, Britannia is calculated to satisfy the same curiosity.
3. A second reason is suggested by some observations by Joanne Woolway of Oriel College, Oxon., in a 1996 paper on “Spenser and the Culture of Place,” which may be read here:
Discussing paintings as icons of national identity in the last three centuries, the historical geographer Stephen Daniels has recently made connections between landscape and a country’s understanding of itself; he suggests that “landscapes, whether focussing on single monuments or framing stretches of scenery, provide visible shape; they picture the nation.” But such approaches may also be profitable in the study of Elizabethan literary history, and especially in the examination of cartography, poetry, and the many texts which chart the connections between culture and place at this time…For Spenser, texts such as Camden’s Britannia seemed to acquire a monumental status and to provide some reassurances that what has since been termed the Elizabethan “project” of charting England’s place within the world would not be forgotten in future generations. Recalling the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he proclaims, in “The Ruines of Time,”
Cambden the nourice of antiquitie,
And lanterne vnto late succeeding age,
To see the light of simple veritie,
Buried in ruines, through the great outrage
Of her owne people, led with warlike rage;
Cambden, though time all moniments obscure,
Yet thy iust labours euer shall endure.
These remarks, I think, may point the way to a proper understanding of Britannia. As Elizabeth’s reign was drawing to an end (or at least might reasonably thought to be so, given the enormous length of time she had occupied the throne), there was a concerted effort to monumentalize the achievements of her reign, and also the English experience more generally, in literature. (It is curious that this movement found no important counterpart in any of the other arts, such as architecture.) John Case’s 1588 Sphaera Civitatis is on one level a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, but on another it is both an apologia for the philosophy of Elizabethan statecraft and a blueprint for an Anglican vision of God’s Kingdom on Earth, and in the beginning of this work Case tells how a suggestion by Lord Burghley occasioned its writing. In precisely the same way, in the introduction to his Annales Camden relates how Burghley had urged him to write a comprehensive account of Elizabeth’s reign; originally he declined, but later warmed to the idea. In Colin Clouts Come Home Again (400ff.) Spenser hailed William Alabaster’s attempt to turn Elizabeth’s career into a Vergilian epic, the Elisais (which has been edited by ed. Michael O’Connell, Studies in Philology monograph 76, 1979) as the Great National Poem of the age. Alabaster’s subsequent failure to complete the project, because of his conversion to Catholicism, may have provided Spenser with the inspiration for satisfying this need with his own Fairie Queene. And surely Shakespeare’s great cycle of Chronicle plays can be seen as another manifestation of this same movement.
4. Read against this background, as Woolway suggests, Britannia can be seen as an attempt to depict the English landscape, monumentalize its topography, and to show how the events of national history are inscribed onto this landscape in painstaking, town-by-town detail. Although Camden was considerably more polite about it than, say, George Buchanan, his Scots equivalent as antiquarian, topographer and historian, clearly he had small use for pseudo-history of the kind purveyed by William of Monmouth. What need for such bogus romance, when a trained eye can examine any tract of English countryside and see the fascinating remains of the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans, and modern English? Real history is interesting enough, and such a trained observer can elevate descriptive topography into a means of celebrating and monumentalizing national experience. Even the feature of Britannia least likely to appeal to modern taste, its tremendous interest in genealogies, can be related to this theme, inasmuch as private family history and public national history are ineluctably intertwined, and both are equally imprinted on the English landscape wherever one cares to look.
5. The third reason I would suggest for Britannia’s popularity applies at least to the final edition, published in 1607. James’ accession to the throne entailed the merger of England and Scotland into a new and more comprehensive entity called Great Britain. Although this was routinely hailed as a great achievement by flattering loyalists (including Camden in the present book), in fact it must have provoked something of an existential crisis for Englishmen faced with the need to recalibrate their sense of national identity. By reminding his readers how the English themselves are an amalgam of a number of originally disparate, and sometimes warring, ethnic and cultural heritages, Camden pointed the way to the assimilation of this latest development. Britannia, it may not be unreasonable to claim, played a part in the forging of the modern British identity.
6. Since the story of Britannia’s writing has been told by Camden’s biographer Thomas Smith in his 1691 Viri Clarissimi Gulielmi Camdeni Vita (the relevant portion may be read here), I am spared the necessity of repeating it. Suffice it to say that it first appeared in 1586, and was republished in periodically expanded editions in 1587, 1590, 1594, 1600 and 1607. In addition, an English translation was published by Philemon Holland in 1610, and, as is in fact acknowledged on the title page with the words revised, amended, and enlarged with sundry Additions by the said Author, Camden had a hand with this version. The English contains a great deal of material having no equivalent in the Latin, that are clearly written by Camden himself. A number of these additions, which are reproduced here enclosed with the mark ‡.
7. The present edition reproduces the 1607 edition [Short Title Catalogue 4508, Early English Books reel 878:1], coupled with Philemon Holland’s 1610 translation [STC 4509, EEB reel 911:1]. A transcription of a later, 1722, edition cen be obrtained here.
I have tried, within the scope of the resources available to me, to identify quotations, but several authors are cited so regularly that blanket remarks here may substitute for a spate of additional footnotes. First, Ptolemy. One of Camden’s persistent enthusiasms is to identify places in Britain described by that geographer. With very rare exceptions, these are found in the first two chapters of Book II of the Geography. The reader may find this site useful, and also this one.
Second, Alexander of Neckam [1157 - 1217)] Camden is fond of quoting from his poem De laudibus divinae sapientiae (which has been edited by Thomas Wright in the Rolls Series, London, 1863).
Third, Camden’s friend and contemporary John Jonston, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, who wrote a series of epigrams written on various cities in England and Scotland, evidently under the collective title Britanniae Urbes (cf. Northumbria 15), that he personally sent to Camden, presumably in manuscript (cf. Kyle 1). I do not know the subsequent fate of this work; evidently it remains unpublished.
8. Finally, and most interestingly, John Leland. In view of his importance, it is truly remarkable how little Camden scholarship exists. One of the things must be worked out in detail is his relation to this earlier English topographer. In 1594 Camden’s colleague in the College of Arms, Ralph Brooke, who loathed him, published A Discovery of Certaine Errours published in the Much Commended Britannia, in which he accused Camden of large-scale appropriations from Leland. In his chapter on Camden in Volume III of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907 - 21), which may be read here, Charles Whilby discussed this possibility, but did not dismiss it with the asperity it in all likelihood deserves (Camden’s seventeenth century biography Thomas Smith displayed no such reluctance in his discussion of the subject). Under Henry VIII Leland had a similar aspiration to produce a detailed topographical description of Britain, but the project proved too great for him, he went mad before completing it, and even his inchoate notes were not published prior to the eighteenth century (when they were edited by Thomas Hearne, there is a modern edition of his Itinerary by Lucy Toulmin Smith, published at London in 1907 - 10).
9. For Camden, Leland is “the topographical poet,” and he frequently cites snatches of poems by Leland, some of which, at least, had already appeared in print (in the 1545 ΚΥΚΝΕΙΟΝ ΑΣΜΑ, accompanied by lengthy historical and topographic notes that in fact constitute the bulk of the book). It is likely enough that Camden had read that volume carefully and that it provided him with a certain impetus both for writing Britannia and also his own youthful topographic poem, Connubium Tamae et Isis, snatches of which are reproduced in the present work. But this inspiration may have been of limited importance. There is only one prose quote from Leland in Britannia (at Suffolk 3) and the source for this as well as some of the poetic quotes needs to be tracked down, topographical descriptions must be compared in detail, and it may prove illuminating to see what is said about Leland in Camden’s letters (edited by Smith in the same volume in which his biography appears). “Camden and Leland” would make an excellent research topic, and while it is dangerous to predict the results of an investigation before it has been undertaken, I strongly suspect that Ralph Brooke’s malicious accusations would be exploded definitively: the proper conclusion would most likely be that Camden, otherwise utterly scrupulous in acknowledging his debts, owed only a restricted amount to Leland. Surely it needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed that in undertaking the huge labor of personal inquiry, reading, and collecting information from fellow antiquarians which produced Britannia, he was to any appreciable degree consciously continuing a project begun by his Tudor predecessor, much less tacitly passing that man’s work off as his own.
10. I am no Medievalist, and in tracking down Camden’s sources (to the extent I have been able to do this, for he was an omnivorous reader) I have taken advice from two of my Irvine colleagues, Professors Stephen Barney and Linda Georgianna. I take this opportunity to offer my heartfelt thanks.