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William Camden - Civil Historian or Gloriana's Propagandist?

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To many people the name William Camden means little more than that of the author of the Britannia, an antiquarian and topographical treatise of the sixteenth century, more honourably mentioned than read, and its author's tablet in Westminster Abbey of simply passing tourist curiosity. In our own age, so acutely conscious of anniversaries, the fourth centenary of Camden's influential publication passed, however, with little notice in 1986. In this year of national commemorations on Elizabeth I's Armada victory Camden's other and more influential work, the Annales, or to give it its full and original title, Annales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante EIizabetha, itself deserves notice and commemoration; for it is after all the 'Camden version' which predominated Elizabeth historiography during the last century.

Camden's laudatory tones of Elizabeth's reign have been echoed time and again in most of the seventy or so biographies of the Queen published since 1890 and certainly down to Sir John Neale's now standard biography in which, strangely enough, Camden does not appear to have warranted a mention! But Neale was no slave to Camden. Indeed, as one of those who sat at his feet in his celebrated seminars in the Institute of Historical Research one could still heed his warning that the less this writer (Camden) is regarded as an original authority and the more as a historian whose sources can and ought to be discovered the safer a student will be. Nevertheless, Neale and others down to the 1960s put substantial and scholarly foundations to the romantic and patriotic interpretation begun by Camden at the promptings of his patron Lord Burghley in 1596. Christopher Haigh's view that Neale's and Conyers Read's work on Elizabethan history is 'essentially the Camden version with footnotes' does less than justice to the elegant prose and creative labours of these two giants of the period; but of course revisionism has challenged every aspect of the Camden version since the 1960s.

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