INTRODUCTION

1. Given that he was so lionized in his own lifetime, and throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is a surprising thing that William Camden has to a remarkable extent eluded the relentless machinery of scholarly investigation that has been brought to bear on the English literature of the Shakespearian age for well over two hundred years. This is in large part because he elected to write his most important works in Latin, and because some of his enthusiasms (such as genealogy and the other pursuits connected with his professional occupation) have a chilling effect for moderns. It may also be because the word “antiquarian” all too easily conjures up images of a fusty municipal museum displaying a couple of aboriginal baskets and pots, a few rusty agricultural implements and license plates, and maybe a souvenir steel helmet some forgotten local son brought home from the foreign wars. Possibly it even stems in part from a kind of reverse snobbery distorting the outlook of contemporary scholars by inducing them to focus their attention on the English Renaissance equivalent of “popular” culture, literature and society at the expense of the high end of the scale, particularly when this involves writers who were outspokenly loyal in their affections for Crown and Established Church.
2. Such neglect manages to ignore a few massively obvious facts. First, it is impossible to read very much written by educated Englishmen of the time without gaining the firm conviction that Camden’s educated contemporaries revered him and ranked him very near the pinnacle of their writers: only Sidney and Spenser occupied a similar place in their respect and affections. Second, in very much the way that the border between genuine genuine and bogus science was very blurry, so was that between the kind of researches we would nowadays identify as narrowly “antiquarian” and those which are genuinely historical in their import. Camden’s Britannia has traditionally been described as a work of antiquarianism, but in it he managed to take a giant step forward in the systematic and scientific study of early British history, based on physical as well as textual evidence. No similar ambiguity attaches to his subsequent Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnante Elizabetha. This is quite simply the best history written by an Englishman prior to the Earl of Clarendon’s account of the Civil Wars, and, based as it is on such an astonishing wealth of source materials, laid down a rock-solid foundation for all subsequent historical research into the reign of Elizabeth. NOTE 1 And, to return to the Britannia, Camden’s work performed another great service: it was written against the background of a growing national self-awareness and craving to acquire something like a national sense of collective selfhood. Lest this claim be thought extravagant, it is apposite to quote a very telling epigram by Thomas Campion:

Legi operosum iamdudum, Camdene, volumen,
Quo gens descripta et terra Brittana tibi est,
Ingenii foelicis opus solidique laboris:
Verborum et rerum splendor utrinque nitet.
Lectorem utque pium decet, hoc tibi reddo merenti,
Per te quod patriam tam bene nosco meam.

[“Long ago, Camden, I have read your laborious tome, in which you described the British people and their land, a work of happy talent and solid industry. The splendor of your subject and of your writing shines equally. As befits a devoted reader, I express my gratitude, since thanks to you I know my nation so well.”]

Campion, no doubt, managed to put into words the sense of gratitude felt by many: the Britannia satisfied a deeply-felt need of the times.
3. One hopes that someday a book-length study will appear, making Camden an object of serious, sustained investigation. One portion of this book, of course, will have to be biographical, for at this point we have no more recent or comprehensive biography of Camden than that of Wallace T. MacCaffrey in the Dictionary of National Biography, largely based not only on Camden’s own diary and correspondence, but also on three biographies written in the seventeenth century. These are 1.) Digory Wheare’s Parentatio historica manibus Camdenianis oblata (Oxford, 1628 - not 1624 as stated by MacCaffrey); 2.) the biographical article in Anthony à Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses (1691, best read in the expanded edition by Philip Bliss, London 1813 - 20, repr. Hildesheim, 1969, II.339f), and the V. C. Gulielmi Camdeni Vita appearing at the front of Dr. Thomas Smith, V. Cl. Gulielmi Camdeni, et illustrium virorum ad G. Camdenum Epistolae. Of these three, Smith’s is the longest and most comprehensive, and since the author was the editor of Camden’s correspondence — indeed, his Vita was in part meant to serve as the introduction to this edition — it is considerably enriched by information gleaned from Camden’s letters.
4. Dr. Thomas Smith [1657 - 1710] was also the subject of a biographical article by Anthony à Wood. NOTE 2 Having taken his B. A. from Queen’s College, Oxon., in 1661 and his M. A. two years later, he was appointed Master of the free school attached to Magdalene College, and in 1666 was elected a perpetual Fellow of the College. A specialist in Semitic languages (he was sometimes called “Rabbi Smith” or “Tor
gai Smith”), from 1668 - 1671 he served as chaplain to Sir Daniel Harvey, ambassador to Constantinople. Later, having turned to divinity, he was sometimes rector of the parish of Stanlake in Oxfordshire (a living at the disposal of his college), and subsequently enjoyed a prebendship of the church of Heyghtbury, Wilts. In 1688 he was deprived of his Fellowship when Magdalene College (of which he was then Senior Bursar) because he could not get along with the Catholic faction that dominated the college, but was soon restored. He lost the Fellowship permanently in 1692, for refusing to take the oath of supremacy to William and Mary, and died in 1710. His credentials as a writer were impressive, for he wrote on a large number of subjects. Besides Semitic philology, on the strength of his Constantinople period he wrote a good deal on the Turks and the Eastern Orthodox Church. British antiquarianism was also on his agenda: in 1664 he published Syntagma de Druidum Moribus ac Institutis.
5. In the present volume, Smith performed a significant service for humane letters. Until they were published by Thomas Hearne in the eighteenth century, it must be remembered, much of Camden’s writings lay buried in manuscript form in the Cottonian collection, and the letters which occupy the major portion of the volume constitute an important body of Humanistic epistolography (among Camden’s correspondents were such luminaries as Ortelius, Dousa, Gruter, Lipsius, De Thou, Pontanus, Hotman, Piereskius, and Isaac Casaubon, and educated Englishmen such as Henry and Thomas Savile, John Stradling, James Ussher, and Digory Whear). Also included in this volume is what poetry Smith managed to collect and what he wrongly identifies as sketches for a continuation of the Annales to cover the reign of James I (oddly, at one point in the Vita, § 41, he contradicts himself by correctly identifying the document as Camden’s diary). The Vita, together with the biographies of Whear and à Wood, furnish us with much of what we know about Camden’s life, and it perhaps deserves to be pointed out that Smith and à Wood published in the same year, and are, to all appearances, quite independent works. Certainly, neither mentions the other, and each provides plenty of factual detail not supplied by the other.
6. Smith, as I say, partially wrote for the purpose of providing a chronological and biographical framework to assist the reader of the subsequent letters. But he had other points on his agenda. Probably in his mind, fed on certain Classical precedents, a biography was supposed to be a eulogistic rhetorical exercise as much or more than it was viewed as a subdivision of history. His hero can do no wrong, and with sometimes tedious energy Smith springs to Camden’s defense against accusations of wrongdoing: I say tedious because this enthusiasm occasionally involves him in lengthy side-excursions. Camden, no doubt, did much to deserve the degree of adulation Smith exhibits, but it is clear that Smith’s devotion has a couple of special incentives. First, Camden himself was an Oxford man, and Smith is never behindhand in stressing his Oxonian associations. Second, Smith never tires of reminding the reader of Camden’s devoted loyalty to the Crown and to the Church of England. Occasionally these passages acquire a kind of tendentious quality insofar as Smith was very much a Stuart loyalist (indeed, his experience of being turned out of Magdalene by a Catholic President of his college must have made him particularly sympathetic to Camden’s similar rebuff at All Souls’). So at times the Vita, and perhaps of his appraisal of Camden, is colored by the fact that Smith was very much a son of the Restoration.
7. Obviously, Smith was of the opinion that the proper way to memorialize a Great Man was to construct a verbal monument more enduring than brass or marble, employing the Grand Style, and his Vita is accordingly written with a generous helping of lengthy Ciceronian periods. These are often effective, but a few are so torturous that they nearly baffle comprehension, and the poor translator cannot help recalling the passage in Nabokov’s novel Ada in which a pornographic Japanese print is described, showing a writhing mass of sexual athletes:

Uncle Dan…had penciled a note that gave the price of the picture and identified it as “Giesha with 13 lovers.” Van located, however, a fifteenth navel thrown in by the generous artist but impossible to account for anatomically.

Then too, he occasionally strives for a kind of lyrical effect (perhaps most memorably in an effusion inspired by the foundation of the Savilian Professorship of Mathematics at Oxford, in § 52). At one point (§ 45) Smith praises Camden’s Annales for the straightforward and unaffected manner of their writing: stylo facili et historiae gravitati maxime congruo, omne affectatione elegantiarum aut intricate subtilitatis, quae rerum maiestatem aut minuunt aut obscurant, posthabita. Far better, at least a modern reader might care to think, if in choosing a style appropriate for his subject Smith had listened more carefully to his own words. Then too, perhaps, one might think a more straightforward style would have done more to honor Camden’s simple and unassuming nature, which Smith never tires of praising. But, as I say, Smith was as intent on writing rhetorical panegyric as biographical history, and, judged by the standards of that form, his stylistic strivings are more readily understood.
8. Smith’s Vita was printed in V. Cl. Gulielmi Camdeni, et illustrium virorum ad G. Camdenum Epistolae. Cum appendice varii argumenti. Accesserunt annalium regni Regis Jacobi I. apparatus, et commentarius de antiquitate, dignitate, & officio comitis marescalli Angliae. Praemittitur G. Camdeni vita. Scriptore Thoma Smitho S.T.D. ecclesiae Anglicanae presbytero. Londini : impensis Richardi Chiswelli ad insigne Rosae Coronatae in Coemeterio D. Pauli, MDCXCI [Electronic Short Title Catalogue nr. 6901, but notice that the Catalogue has the author’s dates wrong and therefore probably labors from some misapprehension about his identity; Early English Books microfilm series reel 448:7). I have corrected a handful of printer’s errors, modernized the punctuation, and numbered the paragraphs for ease of citation.

 

Notes

NOTE 1 See the appreciation by H. R. Trevor-Roper in his Neale Lecture, Queen Elizabeth’s first historian: William Camden and the beginnings of English “civil history” (London, 1971). About a third of Camden’s Annales were printed in English translation by Wallace T. MacCaffrey under the title The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England (Chicago, 1970), and the Introduction to this work is also worth reading. These are rare attempts to come to grips with Camden and measure his accomplishment.

NOTE 2 IV.597ff. of the Bliss edition. See also Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses (London, 1891 - 2, repr. Nendeln, 1968) IV.1382 with references cited).