Annabel Patterson’s 1994 Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles is a seminal work that brought the study of Holinshed back into historiographical favour.  For a long time Holinshed was perceived as only worthwhile studying as the base matter for the historical plays written by William Shakespeare.  Its content as far as historians and literary scholars were concerned was of nothing of importance – simply the final who-rah for the dying chronicle tradition.  This belief of course is in struck contrast to its ecclesiastical brother, John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, which has received serious scholarly study for many decades.

Patterson’s thesis is divided into three main sections.  The first is to me the most interesting (although I differ to Patterson in this as she sees these chapters as introductory matter for her more original research).  The first four chapters focus on the intentions behind the Holinshed enterprise, its authors and the protocols involved in a collaborative project such as this, and the revisions made to the text for the second edition.  The first chapter (entitled Intentions) notes the members of the Holinshed ‘syndicate’ both for the first edition and second but talks more about issues of censorship and cohesiveness of narrative (or lack of) between the contributors than about the men themselves.  It is interesting, for example, that each contributor seems to have dedicated their piece to rival patrons.  Patterson also makes the case for Abraham Fleming as holding the role of chief editorial control of the second edition (which differs from some other interpretations).

The second chapter (entitled Authors) is a short biographical account of each author of the Chronicles providing little that cannot be found elsewhere – but nevertheless useful in such a book as this.  The third chapter (entitled Protocols) is much more interesting.  Here Patterson lays out some of the historiographical and contextual protocols that lie beneath the narrative that each author contributed.  Thus elements such as referencing sources, adding a variety of opinions and voices to the arguments, and the use of eye witness accounts and anecdotes are reported as the basis for studying the various narratives.  The final chapter in the first section (entitled Revision) has a more limited focus.  It is about – of course – revisions made between the first and second editions of the Chronicles but more specifically it is about William Harrison’s prologue: Description of England.  This chapter has the feeling of preliminary work with much more to be done at a later date.  The revisions made by Harrison are interesting – they say much about his changing religious views (or at least about what he felt comfortable sending to print) and about his views of the Elizabethan state in general.

Holinshed’s Chronicles – Title page
from the 1587 edition

The second section is used by Patterson to discuss the differing themes in Holinshed’s Chronicles: ‘economics’; ‘government’; ‘religion’; and ‘law’.  Although this section represents a more traditional approach to history research it is also where Patterson sees her conclusions as offering the most important results.  These chapters are, however, not so much about these themes in of themselves but about the perceptions of them in Holinshed.  This is not so much an attempt at institutional history but rather more an intellectual history focused around Holinshed and his collaborators; and thus in turn a study of late sixteenth-century Elizabethan historical scholarship.  Indeed the contributors for the two editions of Holinshed’s Chronicles reads like a ‘who’s who’ of late Elizabethan scholarship: Raphael Holinshed, Reyner Wolfe, Richard Stainihurst, Edmund Campion, William Harrison, Henry Bynneman, Abraham Fleming, John Hooker, John Stow, Francis Thynne, and William Patten.

In the chapter on ‘Economics’Patterson explains how the chroniclers believed that educated citizens should be alerted to price and currency fluctuations.  They achieved this aim chiefly through inserting information about economics in fragmented pieces throughout the text.  ‘Government’is the topic of the sixth chapter.  Here Patterson takes Sir Geoffrey Elton to task over his conceptualisation of Parliament’s role in the sixteenth century showing that study of Holinshed can produce an alternative take.  Patterson argues that Holinshed regarded Parliament as the institution on which a secular history should be focused upon.  As an ‘evolutionary’ account of government, Holinshed shows how Parliament reached its peak in the reign of Richard II and that parliamentary responsibility was not sustained thereafter.

Chapter seven is entitled ‘Religion’ but as Patterson points out this is not about doctrine or practice but ‘the convergence of church and state in the enforcement of religious orthodoxy’.  In particular Patterson focuses on the re-evaluation of the fifteenth century Lollard movement by Hall, Bale, Foxe, and Holinshed.

The trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton which resulted in his acquittal much to the fury of Mary’s government is the subject of chapter eight entitled ‘Law’.  Throckmorton was accused of complicity in a Protestant conspiracy but through extensive knowledge of the law was able to tear apart his accuser’s case.  According to Patterson:

‘in Holinshed’s eyes, Thorockmorton’s trial stood for his own theory of law in relation to the ancient constitution, and Throckmorton himself became the most articulate spokesman for what “indifference” meant in the territory of law’ (Patterson, p. 155).

The final section of Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles moves away from the generalised and onto the tightly focused subjects of censorship and the ‘surprising’ (Patterson’s word) attention of the Chronicles to the underprivileged.  First we are treated to the idea of ‘popular’ history as found in the Chronicles especially where Holinshed and his collaborators focused on the Babington Plot and the phantom pregnancy of Queen Mary.  This chapter looks at the multi-vocal voice of the ordinary people (as far as it could be reconstructed or moulded into the chronicle framework).  Thus the account of the celebration for Mary’s claimedpregnancy includes gossip between ordinary people about whether or not they believed the queen to indeed be with child.

The next chapter looks at gender history – or more specifically the visibility of women in the Chronicles.  Patterson notes that although Holinshed included several tales about women (other than the obvious female monarchs of the period) it was largely Abraham Fleming who, in an uneven form, brought in stories concerning women.

We then move onto the topic of censorship (a thread that has run throughout the book).  Patterson interestingly shows how Holinshed and his successors were not only aware of the issues of censorship but on how they provided a commentary on ‘freedom of information’ through the use of history.  The argument here is that Elizabeth’s government was strong on enforcement of censorship and closely aligned to that of her sister’s policy.  The authors of the second edition of Holinshed, Patterson argues, were deeply aware of this continuity and sought to make their perceptions known to their readership.

Finally, Patterson looks at ‘reception’ – to how the chronicle was transmitted to future generations and how it was received by them.  To my mind there is much more that could be said on this subject such as the use the chronicles were put to by each generation and if elements of Holinshed’s text found their way into other formats or not.

As yet Patterson’s work has not been superseded (although the Holinshed Project promises further reassessment and refreshment of the subject in the near future).  The digitalisation of the Chronicles by the Holinshed Project is a giant leap forward for the study of both editions and will hopefully direct the rigor of historical scholarship in the same way that the Foxe Project has managed over the last twenty years for the Acts and Monuments.  Since Patterson’s monograph was published various articles have discussed Holinshed – most of which have made some sort of reference to Patterson’s research.  However, the only further monograph to have yet appeared was published in 2010 by Igor Djordjevic entitled Holinshed’s Nation: Ideals, Memory, and Practical Policy in the Chronicles.


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