Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Edmund Gosse
William Camden (15511623)
[William Camden, son of Samson Camden, a paper-stainer, was born in London, 2nd May 1551. He was educated at Christs Hospital and at St. Pauls School; and in 1566 proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford. He successively removed to Broadgate Hall (Pembroke College) and Christ Church, was refused a bachelors degree when he left the university in 1570, but took it on his return to Oxford in 1573. In 1575 he became second master of Westminster School. Soon after this Camden began to collect materials for a great work on the antiquities of England, which resulted, in 1586, in the publication of his Britannia. He became head-master of Westminster in March 1593, an office which he resigned in 1597 on being made Clarenceux King-at-Arms. In 1603 he published at Frankfort a collection of the works of the ancient English historians. In 1607 a fall from his horse invalided him for many months, and in 1609 his health was further impaired by a dangerous indisposition. In spite of these and successive severe illnesses, Camden continued his indefatigable labours. In 1622 he founded the Camden professorship of Ancient History at Oxford. He died in his house at Chiselhurst, in Kent, on 9th November 1623, and was buried with full heraldic honours in Westminster Abbey.]
IT would seem in the highest degree paradoxical to exclude from a historical collection of English prose-writers, the first great antiquary and historian of the Elizabethan age, that
Camden, the nourice of antiquity
And lantern unto late succeeding age,
To see the light of simple verity
Buried in ruins, through the great outrage
Of her own people led with warlike rage.
Camden! though Time all monuments obscure,
Yet thy just labours ever shall endure.
So Spenser wrote in 1591, and the consensus of critical opinion speaks not otherwise after three centuries. Yet although Camden is one of the glories of Oxford, of Westminster, and of all England, it does not appear that he can very safely be claimed as one of the glories of English prose. In a work like the present, which deals rather with the development of English prose style than with anything else, it may indeed be doubtful whether an Englishman who wrote splendidly, but wrote almost exclusively in Latin, has any claim to appear at all. If we give him a small niche here, it is mainly complimentary, and to avoid the apparent solecism of entirely omitting him.
During the first fifty years of his life there is no evidence to show that Camden wrote at all in English. His Britannia of 1586, his Annales finished in 1589, his Reges sepulti of 1600, his Diary, long remained in their original form, in the Latin language, and were at length translated into English by various hands, but never by the author himself. By far the more substantial part of Camdens writings, therefore, cannot be taken into consideration in a work on English prose. The Britannia, for example, as we read it, illustrates the style of Philemon Holland or of Edmund Gibson, as the case may be, but not that of William Camden. Among his correspondence, too, so faithfully edited by Thomas Smith, we find no English letter from Camden earlier than 1618. He who would exchange opinions with Abrahamus Ortelius and Gerardus Mercator, he who would offer help to Paulus Merula and win the enthusiastic commendation of Joseph Scaliger, must not indite in the barbarous lingo of modern England. Elizabeth died, and Camden was still known to the world exclusively as a Latin author.
But in 1605 he entered in his Memorabilia the words [Greek] prodierunt primum. These chips from his workshop, these Remains concerning Britain, issued, half anonymously, as if their author were ashamed of them, were published in English, and the English was probably, though by no means certainly, Camdens own. Nearly one hundred years after the death of the celebrated antiquary, there was published by the industrious Thomas Hearne, a collection of short technical essays, contributed by a number of learned persons to the meetings of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, held between 1600 and 1604. Three of these essays were by Camden, and a later editor, in 1771, unearthed seven more. These were probably written in English, and these ten dry posthumous essays, with the volume of Remains and a few letters, form the slender basis of whatever reputation Camden may possess as a writer of English prose.
Very little can be conjectured from the fragments of Camden as to the manner in which he would have used the English language if he had chosen to make it the habitual instrument for his thought. The passages which we quote will be seen to be lucid and not inelegant, and they possess a simplicity of diction not to be passed by without praise. In the age of Euphuism and fashionable extravagance, Camden sets down his notes, arranges his quotations, and prosecutes his curious inquiries without any wish to astonish us by his manner of writing. He speaks, in the Remains, of many odd and conceited things,of anagrams and coats of arms, of epitaphs and proverbs, of the rebus and the motto, of artillery and of apparel,but he rarely spares himself a sentence for picturesque comment or for play of fancy. The collection of facts is what amuses him; the volume is his common-place book, and he will wait to be magnificent until he writes in Latin. The essay on praise of Britain, which reads like a first draft of an opening chapter to the Britannia, is an exception, and here for a moment we may listen to a writer of stately prose who, had he chosen to do so, might easily have stood with Hooker and with Bacon.