1. Polidoro Virgilio of Urbino [1470? - 1555], known to the English-speaking world as Polydore Vergil, came from an academic and clerical background. His paternal grandfather had taught medicine and astrology at Paris, his younger brother taught philosophy at Ferrara and Padua, an uncle wrote a book on vagabonds with a preface by Martin Luther, mentioned by Erasmus, and he was a kinsman of Adrian de Castello Cardinal Sancti Chrysogoni. NOTE 1 Educated at Padua, and perhaps also Bologna, he soon became a writer himself, publishing the Proverbiorum Libellus in 1498, two years before Erasmus’ Adagia, and the first edition of a collection of accounts of the inventions and origins of many things, a kind of proto-encyclopedia, entitled De Inventoribus Rerum, in 1499. NOTE 2 This work, repeatedly expanded, and the subject of a number of reprintings and translations into vernacular languages, went far towards procuring him a literary reputation. He came to England in 1502, being sent by Pope Alexander VI as an assistant collector of Peter’s Pence, and his way was clearly made smooth by the fact that Cardinal Sancti Chrysogoni had been recently been appointed Bishop of Hereford, and was translated to the see of Bath and Wells in 1504. He acquired several church livings and was made a deacon of that diocese, and was naturalized as an English subject in 1510. No doubt it was the income from these ecclesiastical sources that allowed him to become a familiar figure on the contemporary English intellectual scene. He knew Erasmus, and from Erasmus’ letters we know he was on good terms with Sir Thomas More, Richard Pace, Thomas Linacre, Cuthbert Tunstall, and William Linacre. NOTE 3 It is also likely that he was a familiar of John Colet, the founder of St. Paul’s School, and the first Master of that school, William Lilly; he writes very warmly of both of them at XXVI.51.
2. While he published other works once he moved to England (most memorably, further enlarged editions of De Inventoribus Rerum, the editio princeps of De Excidio Britanniae by the sixth-century historian Gildas in 1525, a Dialogus de Prodigiis, evidently written in 1526 or 1527, and an expanded version of his proverbs book), the lion’s share of his energies were devoted to researching and writing the present work. It would not seem unlikely that he was brought to the attention of Henry VII by his friend Richard Pace, the king’s private secretary. In the address to his brother, dated 1517, that prefaces the 1521 Basel edition of De Inventoribus Rerum he writes:
Veni post haec, missu Alexandri sexti Romani pontificis in Britanniam, quae nunc Anglia est, ut quaesturam pontificiam apud Anglos gererem. Ubi ne bonum ocium tererem, rogatu Henrici eius appellationis septimi regis praestantissimi res eius populi gestas scripsi, in historiaeque stilum redegi. Quod hercule opus duodecim annos sub literatoria incude laboratum, obstante fato, nondum absolvere licuit.
[“I was afterwards sent by Pope Alexander VI to Britain, now called England, to serve as a papal tax-gatherer among the English. So as not to make bad use of my leisure, at the request of that most excellent king Henry VII I have been writing the achievements of that people and reducing them to the style of a history. And indeed by fate’s hindrance I have not yet been permitted to complete this work.”]
The reason for Henry’s request is not difficult to divine. Polydore was one of a number of continental Humanists, mostly Italians, the king had assembled at his court, and their principal function was transparently to function as a propaganda team. (if any reader imagines the use of the word “propaganda” represents too harsh an appraisal, that reaction will not survive a reading of Tanya Reimer’s brilliant 2008 monograph “This Realm of England is an Empire: The Tudors’ Justification of Imperial Rule Through Legend by Propaganda and Pageantry,” originally unpublished but now available on the Academia website. The frequent use of Neo-Latin literature to speed this effort is only a small fraction of the use of literature, pageantry, iconography and — at least commencing with the start of the Church of England — the pulpit, greatly enhanced by reliance on the printing press, for essentially propagandistic purposes. It was aimed at a limited segment of the population but one whose support was crucial for the success of the Tudor dynasty , Mary was the one Tudor sovereign who seems to have been unaware of its value and her failure to publicize her side of the story has probably damaged her reputation down to this very day.) As Polydore’s biographer Denis Hay has observed, NOTE 4 “Henry VII had more reasons than many other sovereigns for welcoming a defense of his dynasty which would circulate among the courts of Europe.” While other Humanists at his court managed to offer such defenses in their poetry, what was really needed was a justification suitable for the historical record. He had already tried and failed to elicit such a history from his Poet Laureate (regius poeta) Bernard André, but André’s De Vita atque Gestis Henrici Septimi Historia and surviving annalistic writings definitively go to show that he was incapable of producing anything fit to print. We may suppose that it was for this reason that Henry turned to Polydore.
3, The fate of which Polydore complained would not relent for some time to come. The first edition of his Anglica Historia, consisting of twenty-six Books and concluding with the death of Henry VII, was printed at Basel in 1534, and an enlarged version was printed there in 1546. In 1555 there appeared a posthumous third edition, also printed at Basel, adding a twenty-seventh Book covering the reign of Henry VIII down to the birth of Edward VII in 1538. This last version was subject to a number of reprints (Basle 1556, Ghent 1556/7, Basle 1570/1, and Leiden, 1651).
3. It is easy to appreciate that the reason Polydore’s history was so long in the writing was not only fate’s hindrance (this phrase is likely to be a veiled reference to the fact that Cardinal Wolsey, who became his enemy, created an international scandal by imprisoning him in the Tower in 1515). In the form the Anglica Historia finally assumed it occupies 691 folio pages, and Polydore’s ambition was nothing less than to write a comprehensive history of Britain, and more specifically of the English after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, from the earliest pre-Roman times down to his own day. As he proudly states in his dedication to Henry VIII, the closest thing that he had to a predecessor was Bede, who only wrote a history of England from the coming of Julius Caesar to his own seventh century, and in terms of scope, ambition, and sheer size Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum pales by comparison. In the epistle to his brother quoted above, Polydore states that he wrote this history at the behest of Henry VII. Presumably what Henry wanted was a history justifying his replacement of Richard III and emphasizing the spurious nature of the claims of Perkin Warbeck, and he wanted one written in Latin for consumption by overseas readers. What he got instead (no doubt to his frustration, because of the time it took to write) was a soup-to-nuts history of England very likely inspired by the similar history of Scotland recently published by Herctor Boece, “the Livy of Scotland.”
4. William J. Connell, the author of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Polydore, recently observed that “Surprisingly, the Anglica Historia still awaits a complete critical edition and modern translation.” Besides the printed editions itemized above, Polydore’s history is represented by the following significant published and unpublished materials: NOTE 5
1. Vatican ms. Codices Urbinates Latini 497/498, containing an early draft of the history down to the year 1513.
2. A facsimile reproduction of the 1555 Basel edition (Menston, 1972) A digitized photographic reproduction of the 1556 Basel edition, identical in all respects, made available on the Web site “Bizkaiko Foru Aldunia,” is available here. The reader should be aware that a couple of pages are only partially preserved, and quite a few are omitted altogether.
3. An anonymous English translation of the mid-sixteenth century, evidently based on the 1546 edition, preserved by British Library MS. Royal 18 C VIII/IX.
4. A transcription of Books I - VIII of that translation, published by Sir Henry Ellis under the title Polydore Vergil’s English History From an Early Translation, vol. i, printed for the Camden Society, London, 1846. A facsimile reproduction is available (Felinfarch, 1996).
5. A transcription of Books XXIII - XXV of the same translation, published by Sir Henry Ellis under the title Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History Comprising the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, printed for the Camden Society, 1844.
6. A transcription of in the text of Polydore’s account of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII in the Vatican MS., together with an English translation (for the period after 1513 the 1555 Latin text is employed), edited by Denis Hay under the title The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil A. D. 1485 - 1537, printed for the Royal Historical Society (Camden Series LXXIV), London, 1950. In the MS. these are identified as Books XXIV and XXV rather than XXVI and XXVII.
The reader will therefore appreciate that no modern edition of the Latin text is available, and printed English translations are only available for thirteen of the twenty-seven Books (the portion from the beginning to the Norman Conquest, and that covering the reigns of Henry VI through Henry VIII).
5. Many would no doubt respond to Connell’s expression of surprise at the absence of a modern edition or translation of the Anglica Historia by denying the need for one, on the grounds that (as is commonly said) Polydore is an independent source of historical information only beginning with the reign of Henry VI. NOTE 6 This rejoinder would only make sense if the single good reason for editing or translating the work of a Renaissance historian were to provide grist for modern ones. But such a reply would be shortsighted in the extreme. There may be other “instrumental” justifications for producing such a text and translation (for example, to facilitate study of the extent to which Polydore served as a source for the Chronicle writers and for other forms of subsequent English literature, such as the drama). NOTE 7 But the primary one is that, whatever its originality or quality as a history may be, the Anglica Historia is an undeniable milestone in English historiography. In his epistle to his brother quoted above he writes of his compilation of this history, res eius populi gestas scripsi, in historiaeque stilum redegi. By these last four words, he indicates that did not merely set down the historical facts as an undigested mass, but that he was conscious of the need of imposing on them some kind of literary form. The Anglica Historia is usually identified as a Humanistic history, imitative of Greek and Roman histories, and the evidence for this diagnosis that is invariably cited is Polydore’s habit of placing fictitious speeches in the mouths of his characters. This is true enough, but one can add a good deal more, for example the division of the work into Books, Polydore’s concern for elegant Latinity (revealed in his eulogy of his kinsman the Cardinal, obviously a Ciceronian, at XXVI.16, and in the note to the reader that concludes the entire work) and in his frequent striving after rhetorical effect, and his not infrequent quotations from Roman authors as well as Scripture. It is sometimes added (most recently by Connell) that his ability to apply rationalistic critical judgment to his sources is also Humanistic: not just his rejection of the bogus early British history purveyed by Geoffrey of Monmouth at I.19, but also his frequently-demonstrated ability to pick his way through the conflicting testimony of his (usually anonymous) sources by applying the test of probability, a historian’s technique that can be traced back as far as Herodotus.
6. But, most important of all, in his dedication to Henry VIII he writes:
Ea tamen omnia cum temporis curriculo partim corruerent, partim oblivione obscurarentur, deinde homines coeperunt et ipsa opera et facinora celebrare literis, quae usque eo sempiterna reddiderunt omnia ut postea pro se quisque benefacta pariter imitanda atque malafacta multo diligentissime declinanda curarint, quando historia, ut hominum laudes loquitur et patefacit, sic dedecora non tacet, neque operit quae idcirco ad vitae institutionem longe utilissima censetur, quod alios ob immortalem gloriam consequendam, ad virtutem impellat, alios vero infamiae metu a vitiis deterreat.
[“But since all these things have partly been erased by the passage of time and partly cast into oblivion by forgetfulness, men next started to celebrate these works and deeds in literature, which confer immortality on them all so that in after time men could observe what good deeds were to be imitated, and what bad ones were to be avoided.”]
This was the standard Humanistic idea of the purpose of history: that it should reinforce moral philosophy by providing a storehouse of positive and negative moral examples, so that history was regarded as a special branch of moral philosophy. The most thorough explication of this theory is no doubt Digory Wheare’s 1623 De Ratione et Methodo Legendi Historias. But Wheare was no original thinker, just an unusually thoughtful and articulate spokesman for a view generally possessed. In an English context, for example, we find it in Thomas Blundeville’s The True Order and Methode of Wryting and Reading Hystories (1574). In his preface, addressed to Leicester, he states that he knew the Earl:
…to delyte moste in reading of Hystories, the true Image and portrature of Mans lyfe, and that not as many doe, to passe away the tyme, but to gather thereof such iudgement and knowledge as you may thereby be the more able, as well to direct your priuate actions, as to giue Counsell lyke a most prudent Counseller in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace.
It has also been detected in plenty of Continental historians, such as Pontano, Robortello, Bodin, Riccoboni, and Patrizi, and is also visible in Hector Boece’s history of Scotland. NOTE 8 In Polydore, the implementation of this program largely takes the form of interjected moral evaluations of facts just related. To give one out of a large number of possible examples, at XXIV.17 he finishes his account of the battle of Barnet, which spelled doom for the cause of the House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses, by interposing with the suggestion that this was God’s punishment for Queen Margaret’s earlier toleration of, if not downright complicity in, the murder of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Very often Polydore interrupts his narrative to suggest what moral lesson the reader should draw from the facts he is reporting. What is especially “Humanistic” about this habit is the fact that it draws the reader’s attention to Polydore himself. Both by offering such moral guidance and by allowing us to see him critically evaluating his sources, as indicated above, he is creating for himself the persona of a wise, discriminating, and therefore trustworthy guide, NOTE 9 a sincere and dispassionate searcher for the truth who can not only record the facts of English history and shape them into a narrative, but also help the reader make sense of them, and the creation of such an author’s persona is a standard feature of Greek and Roman history. NOTE 10 This striving to give his history literary style, shape, and elegance, and to discover the hidden meanings of the surface flow of historical events, is what distinguishes Humanistic historiography from chronicle-writing. In his dedication to Henry VIII Polydore explicitly draws the contrast: Atque ad extremum nonnulli aliis negocium susceperint de rebus in dies prope singulos gestis scribendi. Ii autem confecerunt annales in quibus tanta cum dispositionis tum orationis omnis ieiunitas inerat ut merito viderentur cibus, sicut aiunt, sine sale. [“And latterly some men undertook to write almost day-by-day accounts. But they compiled annals in which both the arrangement and the style was so threadbare that they justly strike us, as they say, as food without seasoning.”] And there is an unspoken “subtext” to applying Humanistic techniques to the writing of a comprehensive history of England: the implication is that English history deserves such treatment, and can stand its own when compared to Greece, Rome, and the great modern states of Continental Europe. This must have had terrific appeal in the context of the rising sense of national self-worth in the Tudor period.
7. Another way of imparting shape and meaning to your history is to give it some some overarching themes. Polydore introduces at least four. The first is the time-honored notion that great empires, like individual men, have a natural life-cycle of youth, maturity, and senescent decay, expressed, for example, in the Proem to Book IV and the one to Book IX. Thus his entire narrative of Anglo-Saxon history is shaped according to this pattern (cf. particularly the remarks at VI.1). A second has to do with the liberty of the English people. The reader will no doubt find Polydore’s accounts of all the wars fought by the English, particularly on French soil, tedious in the extreme (which may well be the effect he was striving to create, for these wars indeed were tedious and largely pointless and lacking any enduring profit). But, perhaps because of his tax-collecting job, Polydore demonstrates a sensitivity to a key point in English constitutional history: all these wars had to be paid for, and the English people progressively wrested concessions from their kings in exchange for their tax money. It is true that one of Polydore’s great blunders is his misunderstanding of Magna Carta. Although in his account of John’s reign in Book XV he has a lot to say about how the Barons campaigned for the restoration of “the old laws of Edward the Confessor,” in that Book there is no mention of Magna Carta or Runnimede. Rather, in his following account of the reign of Henry III, he writes of the legal reforms instituted in the 1225 parliament of nobles (XVI.13):
Eo in concilio de regis pariter ac principum sententia non parum multa privilegia ordini sacerdotali atque reliquo populo irrogata sunt, multaeque leges latae quas reges qui secuti sunt ita approbarunt ut inde bona pars iuris collecta sit, quemadmodum in eo extat libello qui inscribitur Magna Charta, et altera, vulgo De Foresta, id est de ferarum saltibus.
…in which year a parliament of nobles was held. In it, by the vote of the king and nobles, many privileges were conferred on the clergy and the rest of the people, and many laws were enacted with the following kings so approved that a good part of English law is gathered out of them, as is preserved in that little book called Magna Carta, and in another one commonly called De Foresta, which deals with deer forests.
Clearly, Polydore confused this subsequent reaffirmation and revision of Magna Carta with the original document, and had no idea that it provided the resolution of John’s quarrel with the Barons. Nevertheless, even if he got his facts wrong, he got the spirit of the thing right. A third theme is his mordant reading of human nature. His history is liberally sprinkled with observations like that at III.7, cum omnibus prope mortalibus etiam infimis quibusque natura sit innatum sitire honores et principatus [“since it is innate for all mortals, even those of lowest degree to thirst after honors and principalities”], and very often he supplies as a motivation for a war or other adverse event nothing more than some somebody’s lust for power, anger or craving to gain revenge for a real or imagined wrong. Often such a diagnosis, essentially a form of moralizing, supplies the closest thing he gives us to an analysis of the workings of history. The only viable alternative Polydore acknowledges is Christian piety.
8. This brings us to Polydore’s fourth theme, religion, and to the subject of his sectarian alignment. As he tells it, England had always been a bastion of Christian piety and had enjoyed good and loyal relations with Rome, which he traces back as far the mythical British king Lucius, whose negotiations with Pope Eleutherus led to the wholesale conversion of his people in the year 181 (II.11). Throughout his history, the theme of English sanctity dominates: he never tires of telling us, for example, of the foundation of monasteries and other religious institutions (including university colleges) as acts of piety. Therefore, predictably, his account of the martyrdom Thomas à Becket beginning at XIII.6 is wholly supportive of Thomas in his quarrel with Henry II. And, beginning with his description of the reign of Henry I (XI.3) he tends to side with the Pope in the long-running battle over whether English bishops should be appointed at Rome or at London. Likewise, whenever he writes of reformers who challenges established Church authority (most conspicuously in his passages on John Wycliff and Jan Hus at XXII.3 and Martin Luther at XXVII.33, although other examples also exist) he vituperates against them, and often criminalizes their enterprise. One could compile a rather impressive list of passages that suggest that Polydore was a loyal son of Rome. On the other hand, some of what he writes seems to point in a different direction. In Book XV he writes with obvious dislike of Innocent III’s intermeddling in England during the reign of John: his attempt to make the English crown virtually a feudal appanage, his support of John’s attempt to suppress English liberty in the Barons’ war, and his reluctance to accept Stephen Langdon’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury. Particularly remarkable is a passage dripping with sarcasm at XXVI.43:
Interea, defervescente pestilentia, Henricus in Angliam rediit, quo vix pervenerat cum advenit Gaspar Pous homo Hispanus, doctrina partiter atque moribus clarus, missus ab Alexandro Romano pontifice, qui Anglias viam patefaceret qua coelum ipsum adirent. Agebatur iubileus Romae, qui annus salutis humanae erat MD, et ut longinqui populi eo proficiscendi labore leverentur, pius pontifex quaquaversum legatos misit qui eam coelestem gratiam impartierentur Christianis quibus per bella, per itinera, per inimicitias minus Romam petere liceret. Veruntamen non fuit gratuita liberalitas. Alexander enim saluti hominum prospiciendo per honestam causam suis quoque commodis serviendum statuerat, quare pretium suae gratiae constituit, et ut rex id fieri non impediret partem gratiae offerebat, ac <ut> populus libentius iuvaret, praedicabat se primo quoque tempore bellum adversus Turcas suscepturum. Ita pecunia non mediocris confecta est, at bellum nondum inchoatum in Turcas, qui de nobis multa interim oppida ceperunt, sed dii meliora.
[“He had scarcely arrived when Gaspar Pous, a Spaniard distinguished both for his learning and morals, came, sent by Pope Alexander to open a highway whereby the English might travel to heaven itself. A jubilee year was being celebrated at Rome (this was the year of human salvation 1500), and to relieve remote peoples of the exertion of traveling there, this pious pope sent out legates in every direction to impart this celestial grace on Christians who could not go to Rome because of wars, the journey, or grudges. But this gesture of liberality did not have its cost. For Alexander, in his concern for men’s salvation, decided to use this honorable cause as a means of catering to his own advantage as well, and so he put a price on his grace. So that the king would not stand in the way of this, he offered him a share of this grace, and so that the people would help him out more generously, he gave it out that he would soon be waging a war against the Turks. Therefore he amassed no mean sum of money, and no war has yet been undertaken against the Turks (who in the meantime had taken a number of Christian towns), but God grant us better.”]
This passage could easily be penned by an indignant Protestant as an example of the kind of papal abuse which inspired the beginnings of his movement. Then too, we are informed by the seventeenth century ecclesiastical historian Gilbert Burnet that Polydore signed the Articles of 1536 and the 1547 declaration for Communion in both kinds. NOTE 11 These traditions receive confirmation in the fact that he retained his archdeaconry of Wells and a prebendary at St. Paul’s cathedral until his death, which he would not have been able to do if he had not made his accommodation with the reformed Church of England.
9. I mention the question of his sectarian orientation because, unlike all that has gone before, Book XXVII is immensely problematic, and in some way (that I am obliged to confess I fail to understand) this orientation conceivably has some bearing on the question. Beginning with Book IX, which deals with William the Conqueror, each Book is conceived as a “life” of a given sovereign, who very properly functions as the center of interest for that Book. But although Book XXVII purports to be a similar “life” of Henry VIII, and although at the end of the Proem that begins the Book Polydore promises to continue his account down to Henry’s death, in point of fact Henry is almost a shadowy figure, and the central character is Cardinal Wolsey. This is true to the point that as soon as he was described Wolsey’s downfall and death, Polydore wraps the entire Book up in a couple of paragraphs and breaks off his narrative with the birth of Edward VI and the death of his mother Jane Seymour. Clearly, once Wolsey disappears from the narrative, Polydore loses any further interest in the project. His portrait of Wolsey is magnificently vitriolic, and his strategy is to blame everything bad that happens during Henry’s reign on him, while reserving for Henry credit for the good things. We have seen that Wolsey was a personal enemy and clearly Polydore is using Book XXVII to retaliate for all that he suffered at the Cardinal’s hands: it may be symptomatic of his own psychology that throughout his history he frequently cites desire for revenge as a motive for human actions. He places full responsibility for Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon on Wolsey, not the king (XXVII.57), specifying as his motive Porro ei in mentem venit mutare dominam, ut unam alteram quaerere, quam aeque vita ut moribus sibi similem esse volebat [“It entered his head to change mistresses, seeking another one whose life and morals would resemble his own”] — in view of this, it is a distinct surprise to be informed a couple of paragraphs below that he was horrified by the prospect of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and tried to prevent it. The issue of Henry’s childlessness is not mentioned in this context, and is acknowledged only obliquely at XXVII.62. Likewise in discussing Henry’s break with Rome, he skids over Henry’s reform of the Church of England in a single paragraph, XXVII.60, in which we are not told that this was done in reaction to the Pope’s refusal to sanction his divorce. Henry’s seizure of the monasteries is only hinted at in a sentence which describes him reducing the wealth of the clergy ne luxuries inde erumperet magis [“as a means of preventing the spread of luxury”] (for once, something that could be blamed on Wolsey is not). In introducing his edition of Books XXVI and XXVII, Denis Hay goes a certain distance towards acknowledging that all of this is problematic, but he certainly fails to do it full justice. NOTE 12 Since he was writing this Book under Edward VI (XXVII.62 to Edoardum Sextum, qui nunc regnat), one can see how Polydore might not have wanted to offend the king’s sense of pietas towards his father by being too candid about Henry’s shortcomings, but one would think that if such political calculations were uppermost in his mind he might have wanted to put a more distinctly Protestant “spin” on his account. Book XXVII is admittedly a good “read” because his Wolsey makes a colorful and entertaining villain, and certainly counts as a memorable literary character. But one must admit that its addition does little to enhance, and much to deface, the effect of the Anglica Historia as a whole. One wonders whether Polydore authorized its printing, or whether it was written as a private exercise in spleen-venting, added by the printer for purely commercial reasons. Or it is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility that advancing old age undermined Polydore’s good judgment.
10. No matter how much one admires the Anglica Historia as a literary feat, as a historian Polydore undeniably displays shortcomings. I have already mentioned his misunderstanding of Magna Carta, and it is not difficult to find other problems, although the first two gross factual mistakes the reader will encounter are in fact not his own fault. The misconception that the Scots are descended from the ancient Scythians is an old one that can be traced as far back as Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica I.i), and is repeated by such later Humanistic British historians as Buchanan and Camden. Polydore inherits another ethnographic blunder, the association of the Danes with the Dacians (an ancient people who inhabited the area bordered by the rivers Tisza, Dnestr, the Balkan Mountains and the Black Sea), and vigorously attacks other historians for rejecting this view at V.3. The equation of the Danes and Dacians can be traced back to early Medieval writers and was strangely persistent (even Jacob Grimm thought it was valid). Other errors, large and small, appear to be Polydore’s own doing (although until his sources have been exhaustively canvassed one cannot be certain about this). Without going out of one’s way to find mistakes, it is easy to point out some that that will probably catch the attention even of many casual readers. Polydore’s English geography is usually sound, but at one point he commits a howler, at V.7, where he absurdly has the defeated Danes retreating from Salisbury to London by way of Bristol (it might be tentatively suggested that this error resulted from a confusion of Chipenham, Wilts., with Chobham in Surrey). At XVI.25 he passes on a silly tradition that English currency is called Sterling because English coins used to carry pictures of starlings (or alternatively of stars). It is not, perhaps, quite clear whether he erred in thinking that the Simon de Montfort who participated in the Albigensian Crusade (XVI.19) was the same individual who subsequently led the Barons’ revolt against Henry III, or whether he was aware that the latter was the son of the former and merely failed to distinguish them in his narrative. Despite what is written at XVII.4, the founder of Merton College, Oxford, was named Walter de Merton, not William Marton. And Edward IV died at age 41, not “about fifty” (XXIV.28): in an age when men tended to age quicker and die sooner than they do today, the difference is all the more striking.
11. But it is only fair to point out that another very conspicuous and pervasive error is susceptible to a reasonable explanation. This has to do with the inaccuracy of his dates. As an illustrative example, according to Polydore (IX.1), Duke William of Normandy was crowned King of England octavo Kalendas Ianuarii, qui fuit annus salutis MLXVII, which is to say, on the eighth day before the Calends of January, 1067. Counting back eight days from January 1, a modern would arrive at December 24, but Polydore is employing the inclusive Roman method of counting backwards whereby January 1 itself is assigned the number 1, December 31 the number 2, and so forth, so that by this method counting backwards brings us to December 25, and William was in fact crowned on Christmas Day. But of course William was crowned in the year 1066. How did Polydore commit such a seemingly monstrous historical blunder as getting the year of the Norman Conquest wrong? And the great majority of the years he cites, including such equally famous ones as that of Bosworth Field, to name one, are likewise too late by one year. I believe Polydore’s chronology is wrong because he was being hyper-pedantic and applying the same inclusive method to his counting of years. But this time the practice is indefensible. An inclusive Roman-style count would only be possible if the year 1 A. D. came after 0 A. D., but no such year existed and according to our Christian scheme of reckoning the year 1 A. D. is immediately preceded by the year 1 B. C. 1 A. D., therefore, was the putative year of Christ’s birth, not the year in which He celebrated His first birthday, and therefore the Roman inclusive count fails to work properly within the context of our Christian scheme. Failing to grasp this, Polydore was misled into adding one incorrect extra year to each of his dates (there are a very few exceptions to his normal practice, such as his identification of 1300 as a Jubilee Year at XIX.30, his statement at XXV.14 that Earl Henry of Richmond’s first, unsuccessful, attempt to return to England occurred in 1484, and his identification of 1509 as the year of Henry VII’s death). Only in the last Book are some of the dates right, but this is scarcely true of them all. The meeting of the kings in France known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold, for example, is wrongly assigned to 1521 at XXVII.31. According to this understanding, in my translation I have silently introduced corrections. The Latin text itself is, of course, left untouched. (It should perhaps be pointed out that neither the anonymous sixteenth century translator, nor Denys Hay in his modern translation of Books XXVI and XXVII, appear to have aware of Polydore’s problematic chronology, since both simply reproduce the dates of his Latin text without comment or alteration). It is also likely that a small number of other seeming chronological problems are introduced for the more usual reason that Polydore adhered to the contemporary custom of beginning years on March 25. Thus, perhaps most conspicuously, he dates the death of Catherine of Aragon to 1535 at XXVII.62 because she died on January 6, 1536 New Style.
12. The 1555 edition is mercifully free of the numerous problems that sometimes characterize posthumous publications. Editing the Anglica Historia proved a simple and straightforward job of correcting a handful of typographical errors, imposing modern punctuation, and numbering the paragraphs for ease of reference (and breaking up some of Polydore’s interminably long ones). Three of Polydore’s linguistic habits tend to bedevil a translator, and probably make it inevitable that any English version will be less than completely accurate. First, his Latinization of English surnames can be so inventive and approximate that it is sometimes difficult to identify the correct English form hiding behind their Latin disguises. Likewise, particularly in his account of England’s campaigns in France, Polydore uses Latin place-names that challenge a translator to identify their modern equivalents. Even with constant reference to the standard handbook on Latin place-names, J. G. Th. Grässe’s 1909 Orbis Latinus, and all other helps I could lay my hands on (including the contemporary sixteenth century English version, in which the anonymous translator has made his own valiant stabs at dealing with this problem), there remain a handful of place-names in Polydore I have not been able to locate to my satisfaction, and I am well aware that some of the identifications I have adopted may be wrong. Third, Polydore indiscriminately uses the word concilium to describe any deliberative body: Parliament, the Privy Council, and less formal gatherings such as impromptu councils of war during military campaigns. Although it is usually possible to tell from the narrative context which kind of meeting is meant, sometimes it is not, and I fear that this too has been a fruitful source of error in my translation. Also, Polydore regularly describes royal coronations as occurring at a concilium. The Peerage and Commons are present at coronation ceremonies, to be sure, but I do not know if according to British law they count as parliamentary sessions. In any event, it would seem that Polydore thought they did, although his promiscuous use of this word makes even this uncertain.
13. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Al Magary for initially suggesting this project to me, and for providing me with a good deal of help and encouragement along the way.
NOTE 1 See the list of books below. For biographical information I have relied primarily on the Introductions to both works by Sir Henry Ellis, and that to the work by Denis Hay cited above, and William J. Connell’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
NOTE 2 De Inventoribus Rerum has been edited and translated by Beno Weiss and Louis C. Pérez (Nieuwkooop, 1997), and also by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge U. S. A., 2002). A digitized photographic reproduction of the 1499 Venice edition is available here, and one of the 1536 Basel edition here. A digitized photographic reproduction of the 1498 Venice edition of the Proverbiorum Libellus is available here.
NOTE 3 So Sir Henry Ellis, op. cit. 1844, vii, citing “Erasmi Epist. fol. 1706” without specifying the edition to which the reference refers (probably the 1706 Leiden one).
NOTE 4 Denys Hay, “The Life of Polydore Vergil of Urbino,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 12 (1949) 139.
NOTE 5 In addition to these, but of lesser importance for our purposes, is the abridged version of the 1546 Latin text preserved in British Library MS. Cottton, Titus D.v.
NOTE 6 Polydore is most usually cited as a source for the reign of Richard III. He is the earliest writer to purvey the official Tudor propagandistic version of that king’s reign, was an important source for Sir Thomas More’s subsequent account, and was employed by Shakespeare as a source for Richard III for that part of the play covering events after More breaks off.
NOTE 7 Polydore is cited as a source not only by the vernacular Chroniclers, but also by such up-market Humanist historians as George Buchanan in his 1582 Rerum Scotarum Historia and William Camden in his Britannia (final version 1607). I am scarcely expert at the history of contemporary antiquarian study of the Roman period in Britain (a subject of keen interest to both Buchanan and Camden), so I cannot calibrate the importance and originality of what Polydore writes on the subject.
NOTE 8 Bernard Weinburg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago, 1961) 40 - 45, and Eckhard Kessler, Theoretiker humanistischer Gechichtsshreibung (Munich, 1971).
NOTE 9 One could perhaps say something similar about the many points where Polydore winds up a digression by saying, in effect, “now I shall return to my main subject.” Such remarks serve the double purpose of calling himself to the reader’s attention and reassuring the reader that he is at all times certain what the main subject actually is.
NOTE 10 For one case study of an ancient historian’s use of interjected personal observations as a means of persona-construction cf. Patrick Sinclair, Tacitus the Sententious Historian (University Park, Pa., 1995).
NOTE 11 Cf. Gilbert Burnet, The History of the Reformation of the Church of England (London, 1681 - 83) I.466, II.1202, III.360.
NOTE 12 Hay, pp. xxixf., who does make the interesting observation that Polydore seems to spend so much time writing about the Continental affairs of the period as a means of avoiding having to discuss domestic English matters. For other discussions of Book XXVII see John Sherren Brewer, The Reign of Henry VIII (London, 1884) and Cespedes, op. cit. infra.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Bacchielli, Rolando (ed.), Polidoro Virgili e la cultura umanistica europea: atti del convegno internazionale di studi e celebrazioni, Urbino, 28 settembre-1 ottobre 2000 (Urbino, 2003.)
Cespides, F. V., “The final book of Polydore Vergil’s Anglica historia: persecution and the art of writing’, Viator, 10 (1979), 375 – 96.
Freeman, T. S. “From Catiline to Richard III: the influence of classical histories on Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia,” Reconsidering the Renaissance, ed. M. Di Cesare (Binghamton, N. Y., 1992), 191 – 214.
Hays, Denys, Polydore Vergil; Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters (Oxford, 1952).
Levy, F. J., Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, California, 1967).
Ruggeri, Romano, Polidoro Virgili: un umanista europeo (Bergamo, 2000).
Trimble, W. R., “Early Tudor historiography, 1485–1548,” Journal of the History of Ideas 11 (1950), 30 – 41.
D. R. Woolf, Reading history in early modern England (Cambridge, U. K., 2000).