Camden’s Britannia: The Sonnet-worthy Guide to Britain

Chris Rouse and Rosie Pugh look at the achievements of Camden in his Britannia.

Worcestershire map, William Camden, Britannia, 1695.

Map of Worcestershire in William Camden’s Britannia, 1695. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

In Britannia, a book written in Latin by the antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623), later translated into English by Philemon Holland, the first words of praise come from the author, for the author. Camden is enamoured with himself, particularly his “skill of the most ancient British and English-Saxon Tongues”, and is proud of the work he put into writing his book, for “I have travelled all over England” to do so.

This is truly a lengthy and extensive work, so is deserving of praise, even if a writer extolling his own virtues so much grates a little. It is the first book I’ve seen where the contents were apparently wonderful enough to move twenty contemporaries to poetry in order to give Camden and Holland the praise they deserved. Among the poems are two sonnets in English. Thomas Meriell, for instance, sets the tone with some riotous punning (of which he was so proud he actually highlighted the word-play in question):

“Camden unto the learned did discover/ What Holland to the Whol-Land doth recite/ Who can but read an English Author over/ May thereby reape much profit with delight…”

The majority of verses are in Latin, but a certain H. Cuffius clearly felt he had to go that bit further, offering up a poem in Greek. Not to be outdone in this game of poetical panegyrics, John Davers’ 120 line poem (albeit, written in English) surpasses H. Cuffius in quantity if not quite in pretentiousness.

Laudatory verses, William Camden, Britannia, 1695.

Laudatory verses in Camden’s Britannia, 1695. Image copywright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The secret to creating a book where people literally waxed lyrical is over a thousand pages of extensive scholarship and gushing patriotism. Britain is “the most famous Island, without comparison of the whole world’ and therefore, to Camden, warrants a detailed overview of its geography (explained with regards to the effects of “Noah’s flood” on world geography, including Britain’s various mountains, valleys and bodies of water) and its history.

Of the latter, Camden seeks to begin from as early as possible, but he admits ignorance –and argues it is nigh-on impossible to relieve this ignorance– over “the most ancient and the very first Inhabitants of this Isle”. They were too busy “to deliver their beginnings unto posteritie”, namely due to life being “so uncivil, so rude, so full of warres”, and because knowledge was not written down but stored in the heads of druids and spread by the mouths of bards. Before archaeology became a rigorous academic discipline, this largely reduced scholars to conjecture and occasionally, as a treat, to the conjecture of earlier writers. This is clearly not conducive to serious history, so Camden often cuts his losses. For instance, when considering Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Britain’s beginnings (in brief, the first Britons were Trojans fleeing the capture of their city by the Greeks; their leader, Brutus, gave the island its name), Camden effectively shrugs and says it is not for him to weigh in either way when it is an “opinion commonly and long since received”. He leaves it to future generations to debate.

Over linguistics, he is more certain. He affirms the role of language in noting historical links between nations, arguing that in the event of all histories and written sources disappearing, language would confirm the ancestral links between, for example, the English and Germans, the Scots and the Irish, and Bretons and Britons.

Worcestershire, map, William Camden, Britannia

Map of Worcestershire in Camden’s Britannia, 1637. Image copywright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Camden then delivers the narrative of Britain from this misty prehistory to his present day, after which he offers a thorough study of the counties of Britain and Ireland. Since he began with a display of patriotism, it seems only appropriate now to exercise a touch of local pride and dwell on what he had to say about Worcestershire, which he places as a region of “the ancient Cornavii”. These were a Celtic people who Camden says covered Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire, whose name is obscure in etymology and of which “there remaineth no footing at this day”: not least in Worcestershire because it seems they never actually lived here.

Probable error aside, Camden is glowing with praise for the county, which “hath so temperate an ayre and soile so favourable” that it abounds with “healthfulnesse and plenty”. Of particular note are the unrivalled “deinty cheese” and the large amount of pears which “are not so pleasing to these deinty and delicate mouthes, yet out of their winish juice, they make a bastard kinde of wine called Pyrry, which they drink very much”. Camden’s verdict on Worcestershire perry? “Cold and full of winde”.

Of the geography, he records Bewdley’s wealth of fine, tall trees; the huge amount of salt and salt-works in the county (particularly in Droitwich, giving it its other name, due to its “durty situation”, of “Durt-wich”); and the Salwarpe. As this river flows through Worcester, it “seemeth to passe with a slower streame… admiring and wondering thereat all the while he passeth by, and worthy it is I assure you of admiration” due to its beauty and antiquity.

Large amounts of poetry dedicated to his works can’t have helped Camden’s ego, gushing as he is with admiration for himself, but with kind words like the ones above, it gives locals a warm glow of pride (unless that’s just the copious perry consumption) to see him praise the county and its urban and natural features.

Other than Durt-wich, of course.

Chris Rouse

Title page, William Camden, Britannia, 1607.

Title page of Camden’s Britannia, 1607. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Chris makes a telling point when he says that he has never come across a book that accrued so much praise poetry from its contemporaries as did Camden’s Britannia. This impressive tome, the product of almost a decade of careful academic research, was an instant success when it was first published in Latin in 1586. A further five editions, increasing in content and pictures, followed over the next 30 years, before its English translation became available in 1610 and brought the work to a whole new audience. The fact that Worcester Cathedral library has three copies of the Britannia (from 1607, 1637 and 1695) is testament to its immense popularity and importance in the Early Modern period.

After wading through the cloying laudatory verses in the prefatory material, it is easy to feel an antagonistic need for Camden to prove himself from the outset as the outstanding historian that his admirers have made him out to be. If we use our modern measuring stick – forged to an inflexible strength by rigorous academic practice and undeniable scientific fact – then perhaps Camden comes up a bit short. However, before dismissing the Britannia as a patriotic breeze through Britain, it is important to set him in his context.

William Camden, Britain, Britannia, map, 1607

Frontispiece of Camden’s Britannia, 1607. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

We live in a world where knowledge is available at the click of a button. If we want to find out about Worcestershire, all we have to do is Google it and find the relevant page on Wikipedia, which has been verified by a number of trusted sources; we could zoom in on Google Maps and see a satellite photograph of its exact geographical terrain. Camden, of course, could not even have conceived such a direct route to “true” knowledge. When he was first encouraged to write his great work in 1573, the printing press had not yet even been established in England (it would be set up in 1576 by William Caxton). Knowledge had to be sought from hulking manuscripts in libraries, which were mostly only found in ecclesiastical institutions and universities, and even then the collection might be severely limited. If it wasn’t written down, it had to be collected; Camden travelled widely across Britain gleaning information for his work from various local sources. The challenge that he faced in compiling a topographical and historical survey of the British Isles was immense.

However, it is not just the scale of his project that so impressed his contemporaries. Camden was a game changer. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written in the early twelfth century, had provided a foundation myth for Britain: his work is a fanciful narrative that gives an account of the kings of Britain from Brutus down to Cadwallader in the mid-seventh century. It was a mythical history – and a form of historiography – that had endured for four hundred years. Although Camden refrains from discrediting Geoffrey’s work outright, he makes it clear that his methodology in studying the history of Britain is markedly different from what had gone before. Rather than relying on myth, Camden prefers to use analytical tools in his study of places, such as archaeology, etymology of names, and the accounts of more reliable Roman historians. He marks a new movement in historiography, one based on the practice of factual accuracy, wherever possible, and material proof. Not only did he take pains to collect as much information as possible, but he compared and tested his material against existing sources, etymological theories, and archaeological finds to provide the fullest picture possible for his reader.

So, if you want a fibre-optic-fast account of Worcestershire, fact-checked and formatted for ease of use, you probably shouldn’t go rustling through the Britannia’s pages. As technologies have improved, some of Camden’s suggestions about place-names and origins have been proved unfeasible. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves from laughing at his ignorance, or his egotistical aspirations. It is not so much his text as his ground-breaking methodology that makes Camden’s magnus opus truly sonnet-worthy.

Rosie Pugh


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