In the Tudor age, myths of national identity became increasingly important to Britain, as the newly confident nation jostled for a place at the forefront of Europe. Few documents represent this aim more clearly than Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles: a towering work intended to elevate the status of the realm, its literature and language. First published in 1577, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland was one of the great achievements of Elizabethan scholarship and printing. The team of contributors scoured libraries to uncover hundreds of sources – some of which have not survived except within these pages. This was history on the grandest of scales, even greater in scope than those of Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Chronicles stretched from Britain’s legendary past, through Boudicca and King Arthur, right up to the age of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I’s coronation and even the troubled reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. To include these events was controversial, even daring: history writing was a political act, and one government official commented that such matter was ‘not … meete to be published in such sorte’.
The pages are alive with gripping stories, heroic and villainous characters, all portrayed in muscular, robust Elizabethan prose. It is no wonder that the Chronicles held such fascination for William Shakespeare. He used it for his early history plays, and came back to this favourite text at the height of his career to write Cymbeline, Macbeth and King Lear. Nor was he the only writer to be inspired by its tales of intrigue, bloodshed and revenge: Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe also mined its pages, and John Milton and John Dryden did the same in later years. As well as being a crucial literary source, the Chronicles are uniquely valuable for the insights they offer into the minds of the Elizabethans: their religious concerns, their political preoccupations and their sense of nationhood.
This Folio Society publication, based on the text of the expanded 1587 edition, contains the most famous and significant passages (the full work is over three million words long), all the source material for Shakespeare (including the ‘doubtful’ Edward III), and passages on the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, including events the writers may have witnessed in person. It is illustrated with woodcuts taken from the 1577 printing – including the image of the three witches predicting the Scottish king’s death, which clearly caught Shakespeare’s attention. This edition is further enhanced with an invaluable commentary and introduction by historian Michael Wood.