Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Mary Darmesteter
Raphael Holinshed (c. 15151573)
[Raphael Holinshed appears to have been the son of Ralph Holinshed or Hollingshead of Cophurst in Cheshire. He was born within the first thirty years of the 16th century. He is said to have been educated at Cambridge, but the evidence is incomplete. He came to London early in the reign of Elizabeth and obtained employment as a translator in the printing office of Reginald Wolfe.
Wolfe had inherited Lelands notes, and for many years had projected a universal history with maps. He set Holinshed to this vast piece of work, which he directed until his death in 1573. At that time no part of the undertaking was fit to see the light. But Wolfes successors adopted the plan with limitations, deciding to confine themselves to a Chronicle of Great Britain with descriptions. They desired Holinshed to finish the Chronicle of England and Scotland, which he had already begun, and gave him the assistance of William Harrison in the description; while they engaged Richard Stanihurst to complete the Chronicle of Ireland, compiled by Holinshed up to the year 1509, chiefly from a manuscript by Edmund Campian. The great work was finished in 1578, and met with an immediate popularity.
Holinshed did not long survive its publication. He made his will on 1st October 1578, describing himself as steward to Thomas Burdet of Bramcote, Warwickshire, to whom he bequeathed all his notes, collections, books, and manuscripts. Wood tells us that he died at Bramcote in 1580, and, in fact, we have no further record of him.]
FEW books have enjoyed a more immediate influence than the Chronicles of Holinshed. If we take the dusty volumes from their shelf, and open them at almost any page, we shall easily find the reason for this esteem of his contemporaries: Holinshed was an Elizabethan among the Elizabethans. His style, cumbrous with reflection, spangled with wise saws and modern instances, and curious with grammatical inversions, is of a vivid picturesqueness. If he does not criticise his materials, if he is prone to the marvellous, and unable to resist a telling story, he is capable none the less of the boldest plain-speaking in defence of his convictions, and tells the truth to the Queen and the Privy Council. His conception of accuracy is different from ours: he is at little pains to establish the exact conditions of a given fact, but he bestows endless patience in revealing that state of mind in the actor which made the fact a possibility. Every detail of history is food for his psychology; and his Chronicles are an epitome of the work of conscience in the human soul, and a record of the marvellous ways of God to Man. The very fashion of his wisdom is different from ours; it is often trite if always judicial, it is less original than profound; it is constantly preoccupied with the moral root of the matter. There is little irony in it, for his abuse of analysis never soured in Holinshed the milk of human kindness, and his liberal humanity is backed up by an unshakeable religion. Such as he is, large and slow and solid, he is so sure a guide in the desperate places of the human conscience, that the dramatists of his time, and especially Shakespeare, conveyed from his chronicles whole characters, entire scenes, with scarce an alteration. We may follow step by step in Shakespeares plays, his delineation, not only of Richard II., Henry IV., and Henry VIII., but the construction of the other historical pieces; Macbeth also, with King Lear and part of Cymbeline. Our brief extracts from the Chronicles, if compared with Shakespeare, will show the master fashion in which the poet has condensed Holinsheds portrait of Sir James Tyrrell into his discontented gentleman, and developed on Bosworth field the haunted nights of Richard II.; while the speech of Queen Katharine will show that it was not only facts and indications of character which Shakespeare in an indulgent hour would deign to borrow from the chronicler. The witches scene in the history of Macbeth, with the description of the flight of the Empress from Oxford, are examples of the extraordinarily picturesque impression which Holinshed sometimes produces without departing from his jog-trot style.
With little of the raciness and quaint familiar ease which make his collaborator, William Harrison, so imperishable a gossip, Holinshed is a sound and penetrating, if prejudiced, guide to the history of the sixteenth century. It is scarcely a defect in a man of that time to have believed so honestly that everything Protestant and English is necessarily superior to anything Catholic or foreign. He narrates the truth such as he conceived it, and with a hardihood which more than once brought his works before the Privy Council. He is no respecter of persons, and speaks of desperate men still living with a freedom in his long analysis of their motives, which betrays no fear of a private vengeance. His independence, his honesty, his wise reflections dashed with the vivid brightnesses of a quaint though ever serious spirit, make him a valuable companion to the few who still are careful of his acquaintance.