Women and Girls in Science: Mary Anne Atwood, alchemical thinker and spiritualist

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To commemorate this occasion, we’re going to delve back into our Maddison collection to see how women have been involved in sciences from the very beginning. Today let’s take a look at Mary Anne Atwood, who was afraid she had revealed one scientific secret too many…

Photograph of alchemical researcher Mary Anne Atwood, undated.

Photograph of alchemical researcher Mary Anne Atwood, undated.

Who was she? Born in Dieppe in 1817, Mary Anne Atwood (nee South) grew up surrounded by her father’s books in Gosport, Hampshire. Like many women of the era Mary Anne received no formal education but learnt Latin, Greek, and the classics at home. Encouraged by her father Thomas South she joined a circle of theosophists; a religious group who believed that spiritual knowledge was held in a group of individuals known as the Masters. It was this circle that sparked her research in alchemy.

What did she write? In 1846 Mary Anne and her father released a book detailing their thoughts and research so far: Early Magnetism in its Higher Relations to Humanity as Veiled in the Poets and the Prophets, under the pseudonym Thuos Mathos. The work was well received and the praise encouraged the Souths to begin a much bigger project: a full explanation of the purpose and methods of the alchemical process.

What is alchemy anyway? Today, we know alchemy as the discipline of trying to turn lead into gold, practised between the 16th and 18th centuries. However during the 19th century, as it became more widely recognised that this was not possible, alchemy as a discipline took on a more spiritual slant. Researchers began to examine the relationship of mankind – and the soul – to the wider cosmos, exploring if it was possible to refine the soul away from the influences of the external world and society back to a state it would have been in when God created it. This branch of alchemy is known as Hermetism (or Hermetic writings) and it is this that Mary Anne Atwood and her father were interested in, rather than the Philosopher’s Stone story we know from J.K. Rowling’s world today.

Contents page of Atwood's work ' A suggestive inquiry into the hermetic mystery : with a dissertation on the more celebratedof the alchemical philosophers, being an attempt towards the recovery of the ancient experiment of nature'

Contents page of Atwood’s work ‘ A suggestive inquiry into the hermetic mystery : with a dissertation on the more celebratedof the alchemical philosophers, being an attempt towards the recovery of the ancient experiment of nature’. Long title, fascinating book.

Why has she not become more famous? In 1850, Mary Anne published A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery which was the culmination of years of research into spiritual alchemy. The work was supposed to be published alongside a poem written by her father, The Enigma of Alchemy. When A Suggestive Inquiry… was published it had not been read (or edited) by Thomas South, and shortly after its release to the world the Souths decided it was not fit for sale and withdrew the book along with most existing copies (to the ire of their publisher). The reasons for this withdrawal are twofold. Firstly (and most importantly) Mary Anne and her father believed that they had explicitly written about secrets that should have stayed hidden within allegorical texts, and that this knowledge could be dangerous if in the wrong hands. Secondly there is a suggestion that Thomas South became more devoutly religious between the writing of the texts and that this prompted a change of heart about the matter.

Following A Suggestive Inquiry…‘s withdrawal, Mary Anne retreated from alchemical society. In 1859 she married Reverend Alban Thomas Atwood and lived a very quiet life in Yorkshire. After her husband’s death in 1883, there is some evidence that Mary Anne was approached about a possible reprint of A Suggestive Inquiry… and whilst she did not wish to see it in print again – for fear of it being reproduced and sold without her consent – she gave a few copies to friends and made some minor amendments to the text itself before her death in 1910.

Why is she important? A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery is the first work that gives a comprehensive insight into alchemy as a discipline, and consequently Mary Anne’s work is vital for establishing this particular area of historical scientific research. In 1918 it was republished by Mary Anne’s friend, the painter and thinker Isabelle de Steiger, for the first time since it was withdrawn from sale in 1850.

Title page of the new 1918 edition of Atwood's work 'A Suggestive Inquiry...'

Title page of the new 1918 edition of Atwood’s work ‘A Suggestive Inquiry…’

Freemason Walter Leslie Wilmshurst, who wrote an extensive introduction in the new edition, suggested that the societal and spiritual impact of the First World War led to increased interest in alchemy and Hermetic writings: 

“It was not, I think, the destiny of such a treatise as this to perish at its birth, but rather, when the time should be more ripe for it, to re-emerge from its obscurity and assert that influence which its great merits are capable of exercising. With that clear, sure prophetic vision with which its writer…penetrated the tendencies of modern world movements and conditions, she discerned the impending catastrophe to human society and institutions through which we are now passing.” (p.64)

The copy of Mary Anne’s work we hold is the 1918 edition, which contains additional quotes by the writer. It was collected by the writer and librarian R.E.W. Maddison for his ongoing collection of books relating to the history of chemistry and physics, within which there are many books about alchemy. Whilst the language of Hermetism appears somewhat obtuse by today’s standards, Atwood’s work is a fascinating summary of alchemical studies – and a solid testimony that there are many ways to discover the world beyond traditional education.

Bibliography and further reading:

Mary Anne Atwood, A suggestive inquiry into the hermetic mystery : with a dissertation on the more celebrated of the alchemical philosophers, being an attempt towards the recovery of the ancient experiment of nature. William Tait, 1918. University of Kent Special Collections & Archives: Maddison Collection 19A15.

R.A. Gilbert,  ‘Atwood [née South], Mary Anne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004. DOI: https://doi-org.chain.kent.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/53866

Robert P. Multhauf and R.A. Gilbert, ‘Alchemy’, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019: https://www.britannica.com/topic/alchemy.

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island holds the majority of material by Mary Anne Atwood in its Special Collections department.

As ever, more information about the Maddison collection and visiting us can be found on our website.

SC&A Highlights: 2019 edition

As once again we enter the season of festive goodwill and sparkling lights, the SC&A team are preparing for the winter break and the new decade – but not without a good look back at our favourite memories of the year. As ever, we’ve asked everyone across our team for their highlights and they’re curated for you below:

Karen (Special Collections & Archives Manager): “It’s hard to believe we have reached the end of 2019 already. This year has been a whirlwind of exciting activity in Special Collections & Archives (SC&A).  In March we welcomed our new project archivist Beth, who has joined the team to help develop our latest archive. See Beth’s post below to read more about it. We said to goodbye to Elspeth, our Digital Archivist, in September and welcomed Clair to the team soon after.

Pantomime, music hall and stand-up comedy all in one blog!

Pantomime, music hall and stand-up comedy all in one blog!

The Templeman Gallery space has hosted some amazing exhibitions throughout the year. In May we worked with Olly Double to mount ‘Alternative Comedy Now’, an exhibition celebrating 40 years since the arrival of alternative comedy. We displayed some fabulous items from the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive. ‘Keep Smiling Through: Humour and the Second World War’ was an exhibition showcasing items from the British Cartoon Archive. It certainly kept visitors entertained. We are ending the year with a double exhibition showcasing material created from projects we were involved with. Firstly ‘Diaries of the Here and Now’ in which people were asked to create a diary of the 11th November 2018, 100 years after the end of the First World War. Secondly we have’ Radical Roots and Dangerous Ideas’ created as part of the 50th anniversary since Gulbenkian was opened – see Tom’s post below. They will be up until the end of January 2020 so do pop in and have a look if you are passing.

We’ve made lots of new friends this year – including our four bursary interns and a whole host of new volunteers. The involvement of all these people really does help us to progress the work on our collections and enables us to make even more of our material available to our users. Clair and I attended the Comic Forum in Leeds, taking items from our cartoon collection to their market place event. This has led to some new links with other Universities and we hope to share more about this next year.

Clair (Digital Archivist): “2019 has been the year that I had the fantastic opportunity and privilege of joining the Special Collections & Archives team on a permanent basis.

Personally it’s been a bit of a whirlwind year, with lots of professional development alongside new challenges and exciting opportunities. One particular highlight for me was our Hands-on History event in June. This event saw us welcoming ten volunteers in to special Collections for a two week period to learn some archives and cataloguing skills, and to work on the Max Tyler Music Hall collection.

Volunteers are examining documents from the Max Tyler Music Hall collection in the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room

Volunteers working on our Music Hall collection

The first week focussed on the team sharing expertise and experiences with the volunteers in the form of presentations and workshops, whilst the second week was very much hands-on with the volunteers cleaning, repackaging and describing materials from the collection. This included music hall ephemera such as posters and programmes, Max’s research notes, photographs, musical and lyrical songsheets, audio cassettes and even Max’s suit and straw hat!

It was a really positive and productive week with the volunteers producing a total of 291 catalogue records, which is a testament to how dedicated and proactive the group was. It was an absolute pleasure to have them working with us, and we’re lucky enough to still have some of the group volunteering with us on an ongoing basis.

Another exciting project that I’ve been involved with this year is the return of the Beaverbrook Cartoon Collection to the University of Kent.

The Beaverbrook Foundation logo

This cartoon collection holds what is widely regarded as some of the most important British political cartoons from the twentieth century. It features work by artists David Low, Victor Weisz (‘Vicky’), Michael Cummings and Sidney Strube.

Selection of political cartoons found in the Beaverbrook Collection

Selection of cartoons found in the Beaverbrook Collection

The collection has been beautifully repackaged by the Beaverbrook Foundation and they have now loaned the artworks back to us so that they can be made available for teaching and research. Although the artwork can already be found on our British Cartoon Archive catalogue, we will be re-digitising the entire collection during 2020 to a high archival standard.

It’s a really exciting time for the Special Collections team with lots of exciting projects in the pipeline… I can’t wait to get stuck in in 2020!!!”

Jennie (Library Assistant, Digital Curation & Metadata): “This year I’ve really enjoyed working to add two collections to our catalogue – the Max Tyler Collection and the Peter Baldwin Collection.

One of the toy theatres in the Peter Baldwin collection undergoing preservation

One of the toy theatres in the Peter Baldwin collection undergoing preservation

Both archives are related to theatre, albeit toy theatres in the case of Peter Baldwin! I’m looking forward to our first request for these items to be brought up to the reading room for consultation – especially some of the scenery and figures for Peter Baldwin’s toy theatres. Describing them for the catalogue has been a bit of a challenge, but it is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy and I’m sure that 2020 will bring even more of it!”

Jo (Senior Library Assistant, Special Collections & Archives): “Since September 2018 we’ve been working regularly with sixth form students at Simon Langton Boys School. Under the supervision of their History teachers they’ve been coming up weekly to research the life of Hewlett Johnson, better known as the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral due to his socialist views. As Hewlett was Dean from 1931 – 1963 he was well connected with hugely influential political figures and thus his archive is a fantastic snapshot of 20th century society.

Dean Hewlett Johnson smiling whilst holding a telephone; one of his published books is beside him.

Dean Hewlett Johnson

It’s been a real joy to see students develop their archival research skills across the year – many of the 2018/2019 cohort are now applying to read History at university which has in part been decided by their visiting us. The 2019/2020 cohort, having completed a training day about how to use archives, are now fully immersing themselves in the collection and are asking so many great questions along the way.

Artwork by Carl Giles for the Ministry of Information film 'The Grenade'

Artwork by Carl Giles for the Ministry of Information film ‘The Grenade’

My other highlight of the year was working with our two wonderful interns, Thomas and Nicola, to develop an exhibition exploring humour and the Second World War. This was a great chance to explore our British Cartoon Archive in a lot of depth; Thomas and Nicola established some great themes which allowed the exhibition to discuss political cartooning trends from 1914 to the present day. My favourite part of the exhibition was how Alex, our Digitisation Assistant, transferred two animations from VHS onto DVD: the films were created by cartoonist Carl Giles for the Ministry of Information during the war. They’re really funny sequences and added a lot of atmosphere to the exhibition.”

Beth (Project Archivist for the UK Philanthropy Archive): “The UK Philanthropy Archive is a new project to identify, collect and preserve archives that record the activities of philanthropists, philanthropic trusts and foundations, networks and other related organisations. These archives are important and are an essential component in supporting research in the history and current practice of UK philanthropy and charitable giving. Our aim is that the material in the archive will represent the history, experiences and perspectives of philanthropists, trusts and foundations and their impact on the UK and globally, and will form an important and well-used research resource, and a tool for engaging more people in philanthropy.

Beth and Dame Stephanie passing on the first items from the Shirley Foundation Collection

Beth and Dame Stephanie passing on the first items from the Shirley Foundation Collection

We are fortunate to be supported in this project by Dame Stephanie Shirley and the Shirley Foundation – the papers of which also form our founding collection. Dame Stephanie is a tech entrepreneur and philanthropist who focussed her giving on women in tech, IT projects, and autism research and education. One of the highlights of the year was our first trip to meet Dame Stephanie and talk about her collection. This was quickly followed by receiving the first deposit of material including the project files with details of all the projects supported by the Shirley Foundation over its lifetime. This collection is now being catalogued and should be available for research early in 2020. We are also fortunate to have the philanthropic papers of Amanda Sebestyen, a journalist, activist and feminist interested in human rights, women and social justice. This interesting collection is also being catalogued ready for 2020.  In the first year of the project we have been focussing on planning and developing contacts to encourage new donations – and we are delighted that this is now bearing fruit with negotiations underway with several trusts and foundations about their archives. Watch this space for more about this in the new year!

Some of the items in the Shirley Foundation archives

Some of the items in the Shirley Foundation archives

We have planned a seminar event about archives on philanthropy to mark the end of the first year of the project and to officially launch the UK Philanthropy Archive. This will be followed by a wine reception and our inaugural Shirley Lecture – to be delivered by Dame Stephanie Shirley. This will be a fantastic event on Wednesday 11th March and we are really  looking forward to welcoming people to the library to learn more about archives, philanthropy, and the life experiences of Dame Stephanie.

Another highlight for the project has been in developing our approach to collecting to ensure that the UK Philanthropy Archive reflects the variety and diversity of the philanthropy sector as a whole – including both the activities and perspectives of philanthropists and grant-givers, but also the impact that funding has had on grant recipients. We believe that collecting the records of some of the organisations and initiatives that have been supported by philanthropists represented in our collections will provide a more comprehensive picture of grant funding and philanthropic practice in the UK. We are very excited by the possibilities of this approach and we look forward to seeing how the collections develop as a result.

It has been a fantastic experience working in Special Collections & Archives so far – the collections are brilliant and have so much potential, the special collections team are wonderful and supportive – and I can’t wait to see what 2020 brings.”

Rachel (Liaison Librarian for the Arts and Humanities): “I was involved in the Hands on History event in June and talked about finding aids and online resources with a particular focus on the Gale Newsvault.

My daughter came to the library for her school Year 9 Welcome to Work Day in October and gained a valuable insight into the work we do as well as into the world of work. She particularly enjoyed her introduction to Special Collections and Archives.

Special Collections and Archives supported an ‘ArtsBites’ event in the library in November celebrating the academic output of the School of Arts, with a bookpod and accompanying talk by Dr Sophie Quirk, a drama lecturer in School of Arts.

Poster, 1980. Originally a venue, The Comic Strip collective quickly embarked on a national tour, released an LP and produced TV series “The Comic Strip Presents…”

Materials from the Stand-Up Comedy Archive were displayed alongside the bookpod and talk ‘Why Stand-Up Matters: Comedy and its Politics’ .”

Tom (University Archivist): “My highlight of 2019 was working with the Gulbenkian to help celebrate their 50th anniversary with their National Lottery Heritage Fund project ‘Radical Roots and Dangerous Ideas’. This saw us delivering a number of workshops using the University and Gulbenkian archives to help set the context for the establishment of the Gulbenkian and focusing on its place in the new university and the radical student politics of the time. Groups from the various youth groups of the Gulbenkian came to look at architectural plans, production files and posters, photographs, prospectuses and student publications and newspapers amongst other archive items. It was great to have a younger audience using our collections and to see how they responded to the archives. In addition to the workshops, the project generated an exhibition curated by ART31 and displayed Colyer-Fergusson, Beaney House of Art and Knowledge and the Templeman Gallery. We also recruited a team of volunteers and an intern to help repackage and enhance the catalogue records for the production files from the Gulbenkian collection (by the end of the project the first 20 years will be completed), improving the accessibility and ensuring the preservation of this collection.

Youth groups exploring the Gulbenkian archive

Youth groups exploring the Gulbenkian archive

One of the most exciting things about the project was that it generated new content for the Gulbenkian Archive, including oral histories with Kent staff and alumni from the late 1960s and early 1970s on their memories of the early years of the Gulbenkian. It also resulted in a zine containing original creative writing inspired by the collections, a copy of which will in turn become part of the archive.”

Zine from the Radical Roots project

Zine from the Radical Roots project

See this blog post for more on the Gulbenkian at 50: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/specialcollections/2019/12/11/radical-roots-and-dangerous-ideas-archives-and-gulbenkians-heritage/

Alex (Digital Imaging Assistant): “The year 2019 began with a rescue mission – a collection of VHS Videotapes donated to the University by the late comedian and activist: Jeremy Hardy. To ensure that the British Stand Up Comedy Archive had digital copies of this material before the magnetic VHS tapes suffered any further deterioration I duplicated the relevant content to digital file.

Jeremy Hardy

Jeremy Hardy

Jeremy Hardy

Jeremy Hardy

Amongst the various sketches and stand up sets was a (possibly unique) American recording of a fresh faced Jeremy at the famous New York comedy club; “Carolines”.

From Spring 2019 I began work on archival digitisation of the more than 800 analogue recordings of Open Lectures given at the University over the past 50 years. These recordings feature many well know speakers and experts in their field. I have already unearthed many highlights in these recordings. Topics have included the truth behind the “Bridge over the river Kwai” myth by a soldier who lived through the experience and “Stonehenge Decoded” by a noted archaeoastronomer.

Our audiovisual digitisation equipment

Our audiovisual digitisation equipment

From the content I’ve digitised so far I’m sure that there will be many more gems as I work my way through this collection in 2020!”

On behalf of the whole SC&A team, we hope you have a lovely Christmas break and we’ll see you in 2020! The Reading Room reopens on Monday 13th January.

Advance notice: SC&A Christmas Closure 2019 – 2020

As the weather turns frosty and deadlines loom, we at Special Collections and Archives are already turning thoughts towards the new decade! With this in mind, the advance planners among you may like to know that our closure dates for the winter break are Thursday 19th December (2019) – Friday 10th January (2020).

Special Collections & Archives Christmas closure dates for 2019/2020 featuring a snow-topped windmill

No windmills were harmed in the making of this graphic.

This period is inclusive, so our last open day before Christmas will be Wednesday 18th December (9.30 – 4.30). We’ll be open again on Monday 13th January from (1 – 4.30) as usual. Just like last year, this closure is a bit longer because we’ll be spending the first week of January working in our basements, looking after our collections and preparing everything for the new year and beyond.

In true SC&A style, a blogpost featuring the team’s highlights will be up before term ends; as ever, if you have any queries do get in touch with us.

We hope you’ve had a wonderful Autumn Term (and 2019) so far and look forward to seeing you all in the new year!

Keep Smiling Through: Humour and the Second World War exhibition

Keen ears might have heard some music echoing through the Templeman Gallery lately! To find out more about our latest exhibition, read on…

KEM: "C'est encore ce sacre Churchill..." published in Le Petit Parisien, May 1940

KEM: “C’est encore ce sacre Churchill…” published in Le Petit Parisien, May 1940

Keep Smiling Through: British Humour and the Second World War explores the use of humour in cartoons, letters, books, ephemera and artefacts from the First and Second World Wars. This exhibition has been curated to support the symposium of the same title held here at the University of Kent on 12–13 September 2019 with the assistance of Special Collections & Archives’ inaugural exhibition interns.

Using the British Cartoon Archive’s extensive collection of cartoons, ephemera, letters, and artefacts, this exhibition explores how humour was used throughout the Second World War to discuss politics, military campaigns, and improve morale both on the front line and at home. It also explores how the British press portrayed other theatres of war. The exhibition offers an insight into the reactions of the British public and traces responses to the present day as contemporary cartoonists echo the iconography pioneered by 20th century artists. The archives of Carl Giles and KEM, held here at Kent, are showcased extensively – including films made by Giles for the Ministry of Information during the War.

Entry is (as always) free and the gallery is open during the Templeman Library’s opening hours. The exhibition runs until 25 October. We hope to see you soon!

From Conqueror to Gloriana: The Second Volume of Holinshed’s Chronicles

Written by Matthew Crook, student on HI6062: Dynasty, Death and Diplomacy – England, Scotland & France 1503 – 1603

Holinshed’s Chronicles is arguably one of the most important history books to have emerged from the Elizabethan era. Made up of two volumes, Holinshed’s twin books offer a fascinating insight into both early modern history and sixteenth-century printing; they also provide an understanding of how the people of the Tudor period viewed their own national past. The Chronicles were printed many times, and the Templeman Library’s Special Collections and Archives currently holds a copy of the 1587 edition of the second volume—it is this version that that will be discussed here.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Chronicles is that Holinshed was not the man who dreamt them up. Though he would later give his name to the work, Raphael Holinshed was really a secretary hired to help the project’s originator—Reyner Wolfe, a Dutchman who arrived in London in 1533.[1] Wolfe appears to have been an extremely ambitious man, as he originally planned for the Chronicles to cover the histories of ‘every knowne nation’, a desire which would prove to be far more difficult than he had perhaps imagined.[2] It would seem that Wolfe was naïve to the state of printing in sixteenth-century England, and his printers were quick to point out the impossibility of his plan. Even with Holinshed on board to help with the workload, Wolfe was forced to accept that the book would need a very serious scaling back to be feasible. Ultimately, the decision was made to focus the Chronicles on Great Britain alone, telling the histories of ancient England, Scotland and Ireland in the first volume and England’s royal lineage in the second. This, it would seem, was felt to be a far more manageable task than a complete international history.

Surprisingly, Holinshed was very nearly not involved in the Chronicles in the first place. Originally, he had his career trajectory aimed towards the Church, rather than history writing; his biographer, Cyndia Susan Clegg, said that he was involved in the English Protestant movement until the accession of Mary I in 1553.[3] With England’s religious situation changing rapidly, he took up work with Wolfe and, when the Dutchman passed away with the Chronicles still incomplete, he took over as project manager. What this shows is the complicated nature of the book’s production—the originator died before its completion and left it to a man who was not a trained historian. Certainly, the Chronicles was not born out of easy circumstances.

The front cover of the Chronicle—though it does show signs of age, it remains sturdy and protects the pages inside well

The front cover of the Chronicle—though it does show signs of age, it remains sturdy and protects the pages inside well

Nevertheless, the Chronicles remains a fascinating example of sixteenth-century literature; the Templeman’s edition is not only academically striking, however, but is also physically captivating. It’s covers are rebacked calf-over-boards and, though worn by age, it is obvious that the covers once had gilded edges. Whilst showing signs of exhaustion, these covers do show the wealth of the person who purchased the text, since books in this period were not distributed with their own covers. After all, such a book was deliberately designed for an audience that was both literate and educated, and therefore likely to be wealthy too.

The spine for the Templeman’s copy of the Chronicles—though not original, it is undoubtedly fitting for such an impressive text.

The spine for the Templeman’s copy of the Chronicles—though not original, it is undoubtedly fitting for such an impressive text.

It is, however, this volume’s patchwork nature that makes it uniquely attractive; the Templeman’s volume is a mixture of sixteenth-century craftsmanship and various repair jobs of wavering quality. For instance, the book’s spine has been very well restored, giving the text a sturdy support whilst also demonstrating the sort of gilding that is now missing from the covers. Inside the book is a different matter entirely; the first page of the Chronicles’ main body, which covers William the Conqueror, is both badly damaged and poorly repaired. The paper appears to have been torn at one point and crudely stuck back together—the technique employed, however, indicates that it was conducted towards the end of the nineteenth century; whilst this book may have needed repairing upon purchase, it does suggest the possibility that it was used a great deal throughout its lifetime.

On the spine, the title and volume number are written in gold lettering, something which reflects the gilding of the covers.

Aside from the damage and patch-up attempts, the book still maintains much of the Chronicles’ original features; among others, it demonstrates a variety of charming details that can be found in early modern printed texts. Being a book of considerable size and covering every monarch from 1066 through to the late sixteenth-century, its printers were likely aware that ease of navigation was important. Each left page has ‘An. Dom’ in the top right corner, followed by a date—since each chapter covers a different English monarch, this allowed an early modern reader to find a specific year within a king or queen’s reign without difficulty. Another interesting reader aid comes in the margin, as each paragraph has a small summation to its side that briefly describes its contents. Such a tool would be useful for anyone who used the book for research purposes; many writers used the Chronicles in such a manner, and perhaps the most famous of the text’s users was William Shakespeare. Allardyce and Jacqueline Nicholl, in their book Holinshed’s Chronicles as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays, notes that he was known for using Holinshed’s book to inspire many of his most beloved plays, including Richard III and King Lear.[4]

this image shows the inside of the book—specifically, the start of the section about Richard II. Though the book is centuries old, the print is surprisingly legible.

This image shows the inside of the book—specifically, the start of the section about Richard II. Though the book is centuries old, the print is surprisingly legible.

The Chronicles’ function as a history book is relatively straightforward; it details the lives of each English monarch in a linear fashion, with little deviation from such a structure. Curiously, however, the authors appear to have taken the chronology aspect very literally. For example, the chapter on Richard II does not end with the king’s death in 1400, but rather with his deposition the previous year.[5] At the very end, there is an authorial note which declares that, ‘Thus farre Richard of Burdeaux, whole deprivation you have heard; of his lamentable death here—after, to wit, pag. 516, 517’. The death of Richard II is only acknowledged during the section on his successor, Henry IV; whilst one would expect the deposed king’s death to be acknowledged at the end of his own section, it would seem the authors here preferred the history to be uninterrupted by time jumps. Though this does make certain chapters somewhat strange—after all, one would expect it to end with the monarch’s passing—the pathway of logical is sound and adds more to the Chronicles’ identity.

There is no doubt that Holinshed’s Chronicles is an utterly fascinating book. Not only is it contextually and academically marvellous, but its numerous printing quirks and occasional damage makes it a captivating physical object as well. Filled with all manner of oddities and unusual details, it is a treasure-trove of curiosities for any budding bibliophile.


Primary Material:

Holinshed, Raphael, Chronicles (London, 1587) Special Collections & Archives: Pre-1700 Collection, q C 587 HOL

Secondary Material:

Clegg, Cyndia Susan, ‘Raphael Holinshed (1525-1580?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 31 October 2018]

Heal, Felicity and Henry Summerson, ‘The Genesis of the Two Editions’, in The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles, ed. by Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer and Felicity Heal (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013) 3-21

Nicoll, Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll, Holinshed’s Chronicle As Used in Shakespeare’s Plays (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.: London, 1927)

Pettegree, Andrew, ‘Reyner Wolfe (d. in or before 1547)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  [accessed 31 October 2018]

Tuck, Anthony, ‘Richard II (1367-1400)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 31 October 2018]

[1] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Reyner Wolfe (d. in or before 1547)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 31 October 2018]

[2] Felicity Heal and Henry Summerson, ‘The Genesis of the Two Editions’, in The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles, ed. by Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer and Felicity Heal (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013) 3-21, p.3

[3] Cyndia Susan Clegg, ‘Raphael Holinshed (1525-1580?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  [accessed 31 October 2018]

[4] Allardyce Nicholl and Josephine Nicoll, Holinshed’s Chronicle As Used in Shakespeare’s Plays (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.: London, 1927), p.vii.

[5]Anthony Tuck, ‘Richard II (1367-1400)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  [accessed 31 October 2018]