Holinshed’s Holistic Histories of Britain

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

The Templeman Library’s Special Collections & Archives Department holds a rare 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles; a book that collates the works of some of the most influential pre-seventeenth-century writers of early English, Scottish and Irish history in a single place. Printed in gothic English font, the book’s characteristics imply a lot about its intended use as an object, which will be explored in this blog. This blog will also demonstrate that the book was the product of a growing late sixteenth-century belief that Scotland and England were becoming a shared space and that Holinshed believed it was important for the national histories of both nations to be understood within a single book.

Holinshed’s Chronicles were collated by Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580) with the first edition published in 1577, and this particular book at the Templeman Library published as the second edition in 1587 under the supervision of Holinshed’s successor, Abraham Fleming. Holinshed and his successor brought together works by authors that dominated the contemporary understanding of England’s and Scotland’s respective histories, such as Hector Boece whose ‘Scotorum Historiae’ was translated and used in the ‘Historie of Scotland’ section for Holinshed’s book along with works by other authors on Scotland’s history.

External view of the 1587 Holinshed Chronicles Volume II in the Templeman Library’s Special Collections & Archives

The first obvious feature of the book is that it is very large, measuring 36cm x 23cm x 8cm. The size suggests that this book was not designed to be an easily portable book but was most likely intended for personal educational use as part of someone’s collection. The use of English translations instead of Latin suggests that the intent of the book was primarily educational, bringing about greater awareness of the ancient origins and histories of the British Isles by using a more widely understood language. Furthermore, as paper was an expensive material to use in the sixteenth-century, the impressive size of the book and its pages also implies that the book was materially valuable to its owner as well as an important educational resource. Evidence of intricate gold-leaf patterns on the cover reinforces this argument that this book was produced with expense to impress.

Evidence of elaborate gold-leaf decoration on the cover and binding of the book.

Conversely, a surprising observation of this book is the lack of internal decoration with very few woodcuts used. The same few woodcuts are repetitively used, suggesting that although this book was impressive externally the expense was spared internally. This contrasts with the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles at the British Library which has many elaborate woodcuts depicting important monarchs and historical events that are not evident in the Templeman Library’s edition. The reason for this could be the lack of financial support behind the 1587 edition. After Holinshed’s death in 1580, his successors had difficulty establishing financial support for continuing with the new edition. Woodcuts were expensive additions to a book and were often reused instead of new ones being commissioned to keep costs down. This lack of financial means may explain the sparse use and recycling of a few styles of woodcuts in this copy of The Chronicles.

Example of the recycling and inconsistent use of letter woodcuts in the 1587 edition of The Holinshed Chronicles

Example of the recycling and inconsistent use of letter woodcuts in the 1587 edition of The Holinshed Chronicles.


Example of the intricate woodcuts present in the 1577 edition of The Holinshed Chronicles which are absent in the 1587 edition (British Library)

From studying the ‘Historie of Scotland’ section, it is interesting that the story of Gathelus and Scota is present followed by detailed descriptions of the early Scottish kings. This mythical tale of the origins of Scotland contrasts with the section on England’s history, where the tale of Brutus explains the ancient history of the British Isles by stating Brutus’ son Albanactus was the first king of Scotland. However, the Albanactus and Brutus tale does not appear in the Scottish history section, demonstrating one of the many contradictions which exist within the book.

There is a general lack of public awareness of the Holinshed’s Chronicles despite its importance in detailing the history and mythology of the British Isles. However, the book remains a significant example of the emergence of a shared ‘British’ history and identity at the end of the sixteenth-century. The sixteenth century was a time of ‘British’ mythological history being used as propaganda in both England and Scotland, with competing national claims on ‘owning’ historical heroes. The inclusion of aspects of this mythological history in the collection suggests the importance of these stories in Scottish and English national identities and that Holinshed’s Chronicles allowed readers to explore these ‘histories’ in combination.

The Chronicles was also published in the context of growing awareness in England that a Scottish king may inherit the English throne. This possibility first appeared with the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor in 1503 and persisted throughout the sixteenth-century, especially during Elizabeth I’s reign, possibly explaining why Holinshed decided to collate works on England and Scotland together in his first edition in 1577. By 1587, it was believed that James VI would inherit the English throne after Elizabeth, and so both kingdoms and their histories would become one. Perhaps the inclusion of both England and Scotland in this collection is therefore significant in showing the growing belief in the late sixteenth-century that the island of Britain as we know it today was becoming a shared space and that therefore a single collation of their histories was necessary. If so, this book is important in showing how these ideas of Britain were viewed at the time.

To conclude, Holinshed’s Chronicles is an important book in illustrating how national histories and identities were perceived in the sixteenth-century. The decision to include both Scottish and English histories in one book demonstrates a broader thematic emergence of a shared British history and identity in the sixteenth-century which arose from the possibility of both realms falling under a single monarch. Therefore, this book as an object has wider significance for early British history than just what is written inside. Further analysis of this book should consider the reason why the elaborate woodcuts of 1577 do not appear in this edition; was it due to cost efficiencies or instead a consequence of the censorship which occurred in the late 1580s? Regardless of the lack of woodcuts, this copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles is a beautiful example of sixteenth-century literature which deserves wider awareness amongst the British public.

The copies of Holinshed’s Chronicles held in Special Collections & Archives are on loan to us via the Marlowe Society.


2018 Highlights from the SC&A Team

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but the end of the year has crept up on us remarkably stealthily! (Although all the Christmas decorations and festive events around campus may argue otherwise…) With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look back at 2018 and share with you our particular highlights – work you may know about, projects you may not, or collections that are waiting for you to explore them.

In no particular order…

Karen (Special Collections & Archives Manager): “2018 has been a fantastic year for Special Collections and Archives. In February we welcomed our new University Archivist, Tom, who began work almost immediately on the fabulous “Our Templeman” Exhibition. The exhibition was created to celebrate the completion of the library extension and refurbishment as well as 50 years since the Templeman Library first opened its doors.

We are Archive Accredited and therefore Awesome

In March we had a party! We were very excited and proud to receive the National Archives Accreditation Award – and of course like all good parties we had a cake. In the summer we were lucky to be able to recruit two Bursary funded Interns. Janee and Philip spent the summer working on the Maddison collection and revealed some interesting discoveries from this science collection through a series of blog posts and pop-up sessions.

Interning at SCA: far more fun than making endless cups of tea and photocopying

Interning at SC&A: far more fun than making endless cups of tea and photocopying

Tom Ritchie needed a venue to demonstrate a Meccano based reconstruction. SC&A were happy to play host to Tom and the Meccano Men (they are real people!). We eagerly watched as the Differential Analyser was constructed and then opened the doors to a whole host of diverse people who were interested to see how meccano played an important role in the development of computers.

What do you get when you cross archives and toys?

What do you get when you cross archives and toys?

And just to whet your appetite about what is to come next year – in the summer we received a new collection, which focuses on the history of Music Hall – in the New Year we will reveal more about it but here is a taster of what is to come…”

Your Christmas starter for ten: what links all these items?

Your Christmas starter for ten: what links all these items?


Helen (Library Assistant, Curation & Metadata): “The ‘Prescriptions’ exhibition of artists’ books, on wellbeing and medicine, took place at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in 2016. Books by 82 artists, from 15 countries exhibited their work and many of them subsequently donated or deposited their works at the University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives. The books deal with topics including “cancer, chronic illness, disability, mental health, surgery, medicine and wellbeing” (Bolaki & Ciricaite, 2017).

A rare sighting of the endangered cotton glove (Karen Apps, 'Losing Touch', 2016)

A rare sighting of the endangered cotton glove (Karen Apps, ‘Losing Touch’, 2016)

Working with these poignant, and sometimes harrowing, books proved to be a rewarding challenge. It was very moving to handle a succession of very personal artworks, created with care and documenting painful experiences. The collection as a whole captures a great breadth of different experiences. Many of the artists faced an initial shock and disruption around a diagnosis but came to terms with their illness and made peace with the impact it had on their lives. My experience cataloguing the collection took a similar trajectory, from a sense of intrusion and uncertainty to acceptance and even comfort.”

Rachel (Library Assistant, Curation & Metadata): “It’s been great to be part of a project to catalogue and digitise material from the Queen’s Own Buffs The Royal Kent Regiment Collection. It contains material from the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) and the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent regiment who merged in the 1960s. There’s a variety of material in the collection, ranging from prisoner of war accounts to the Buffs Golfing Society records, as well as plenty of books surrounding the history of the Buffs, who are one of the oldest regiments of the British Army, tracing their roots back to the 16th century. As part of my work I spent a lot of time with the Dragon and the Queen’s Own Gazette, the regimental journals of the two regiments. They’re full of information on the history of the regiments, as well as plenty of reports of their leisure time, giving a fantastically detailed picture of life in these regiments from the late 19th century onwards.

The Buffs are for life, not just for Christmas

The Buffs are for life, not just for Christmas

My personal highlight was finding Pte. A. Baker listed as missing in an issue of The Queen’s Own Gazette from 1916. Arthur Percy Baker was my great great uncle who worked as a train conductor before the First World War. He died at the Somme in July 1916 and is one of the 72,000 men listed on the Thiepval Memorial.”

Who Do You Think You are in action

Archives have all the answers (sometimes)


Jo (Senior Library Assistant, Special Collections & Archives): “This year we’ve been full steam ahead with our education and engagement offering, welcoming over 900 visitors through group sessions in the Autumn Term alone! It’s always brilliant to see people who’ve never looked at or touched historic material before engage with our collections, but two particular sessions stand out:

No books were harmed in the making of this photo, apart from the one which is art

No books were harmed in the making of this photo, apart from the one which is art

In the Spring Term, we revamped our sessions to support a final year English course where students write and self-publish their own book. In previous years, groups have come in to look at modern poetry exclusively – but this year we pushed things a bit beyond that. One Reading Room table focused on a history of print from the early modern period to the present day – spanning everything from rare books to playbills and zines. The other table was split into modern poetry on one section and artists books on the other. By looking at the history of print material first, students were then able to see how contemporary works play on printing traditions – and it worked so well, we could barely get them to leave after three hours!

We were very glad to have more responses than 'old dusty things'

We were very glad to have more responses than ‘old dusty things’

In the Autumn Term, we undertook the obviously-very-small challenge of welcoming every single first year History student into Special Collections & Archives through their mandatory ‘Making History’ course. Using some of the reading I’ve inhaled through my MA, we planned a detailed 50 minute session that was split into parts – and included hiding the archive material in boxes so students couldn’t get distracted from the first activity about physical and digital archives. We’re looking forward to working with the School of History further to improve our support next year, but it really was wonderful to meet the very enthusiastic first years.”

Tom (University Archivist): “My highlight of 2018 was working on the exhibition the “Our Templeman” celebrations in March, marking the completion of the Templeman extension and refurbishment and the 50th anniversary of the library first opening. This was one of the first tasks given to me after starting work here in February and it allowed me to totally immerse myself in the University Archive in digging out a pictorial history of the library. It also allowed us to showcase some of our amazing other collections. We brought it out again for the start of the new academic year and it was great seeing how many staff, students and alumni engaged with it.”

Templeman Time-machine: spot the difference!

Templeman Time-machine: spot the difference!


Elspeth (Digital Archivist): “I’ve loved having the opportunity to explore two oral history collections from Special Collections & Archives through digitisation and cataloguing. The collections comprise unique, original oral history recordings, which are not archived in any other institution or heritage centre. They were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, now an obsolete format, in the late 1960s and 1970s, so it is fantastic that we were able to have these digitised to ensure that the testimonies included on them are preserved and able to be made accessible.

The first of the two oral history collections, The Barker Oral History Tapes collection, comprises interviews with c. 100 people in Kent recorded in the late 1960s. The interviews were part of an oral history project, funded by the ESRC, directed by Professor Theo Barker (founding professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Kent in 1964) and John Whyman (Lecturer in Economic and Social History and Master of Rutherford 1996-1997), who were interviewing older respondents for their memories of life in Kent before 1900. Barker was an early supporter of oral history as a research methodology, and he became the Oral History Society’s first Chairman in 1973. The second collection is the Winstanley Oral History Collection.  This collection comprises interviews with over 160 people in Kent (mainly east Kent), recorded between 1974 and 1976. The recordings were undertaken as part of an SSRC-funded oral history project (called ‘Everyday Life in Kent before 1914’), looking at life in Kent at the turn of the 20th century.

Both collections, and the first-hand testimony within them, is unique. The interviews provide insight into life in the county in the period between 1890 and 1950 (although the focus is on life at the turn of the century), and cover topics such as work, industry, society, war, community, and women’s history. The testimonies will also provide a linguistics resource, providing a rich resource for those studying dialect and the changes in Kent dialect over time. The recordings can be accessed via the Special Collections & Archives reading room (email specialcollections@kent.ac.uk).

What’s been your highlight of 2018? Let us know below!

We’d like to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Our Reading Room is closed from the 19th December 2018 and will reopen on January 14th 2019. This slightly longer-than-normal closure period allows us a week to develop our collections, so we’ll be spending 5 days in January working on exciting projects in our storage areas!

Christmas Closure Dates 2018

The frost-laden mornings and fairy-light filled streets of Canterbury can only mean one thing: Christmas is on its way!

It’s been an exceptionally busy term for us, and we’re looking forward to telling you all about it in our forthcoming highlights of the year blog post. But in the meantime, we thought we’d let you all know about when you can visit us over December – January:

No orchestras to be found in our stores, alas

The Reading Room will be open until 4.30pm on Tuesday, December 18 2018. From then, we’ll be closed until the New Year, when the Reading Room will reopen at 1.00pm on Monday, January 14 2019. As ever, please give us a couple of days notice (if you can) before you’d like to visit so we can get everything ready for you.

We hope you have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! See you all in 2019.

Re-Engineering History: A Playful Demonstration

Here’s a fun fact for you: one of the world’s first computers was constructed out of Meccano! Built in 1934, engineer Douglas Hartree created the Differential Analyser for about £20 (which seems like a bargain to us).

A young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in action. Maybe.

Very excitingly, next week Special Collections & Archives are going to be hosting a reconstruction of this ground-breaking machine in our Reading Room! PhD student Tom Ritchie is the man behind this brave challenge, and he’s going to be hosting a very special event to explore the Differential Analyser next Tuesday (9th October). Intrigued? Why not come along and learn more?

The best thing to happen in Special Collections & Archives since we changed our Reading Room hours

As an added bonus, you’ll be able to view related material from our wonderful collections on the day too. This will include items from our recently-explored Maddison Collection, which charts the history of science from the 16th century to (almost) the present day. What more could you want on a Tuesday evening? Tea, coffee, and wine? Well we’ve got that covered too! (Just not near the books)

Like table football, but more useful

‘Re-Engineering History’ takes place between Monday 8 – Thursday 11 October. The seminar, demonstration and Q&A is being held on Tuesday 9 October at 5.30pm in Special Collections and Archives. 

Because the author of this blog is in no way a scientist, please visit the IS Science Team’s blog here and Tom Ritchie’s excellent explanation here to find out more about this very exciting project.


New (academic) year, new opening hours!

Graphic displaying details of the new opening hours for the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room, set against a background of a book from the Maddison Collection

Special Collections & Archives 2018: now available for you 5 days a week. Windmills at the ready!

Is there anything better than the start of a new term? Everyone is back (and so far, deadline free), the gorgeous campus is turning shades of autumnal yellows and reds, and there’s something pretty awesome about that new-pencil-case start of year fresh-leaf-of-paper type feeling.

In answer to that question: yes, there is something better: new opening hours for Special Collections & Archives! Following on from the extensive Templeman Library refurbishment, we’re delighted to be able to extend our service to five days a week. We are going to be open three full days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 9.30 – 4.30 – and two half days, Monday afternoon and Friday morning.

These opening hours begin next Monday (24th October), and we’ll keep reminding you telepathically (or via social media / our website / normal channels) about the change for the next month or so.

We’re really excited about being able to open more consistently during the week, and hope that the general lack of Wednesday afternoon classes will enable more of you to come and visit us (as well as allowing you a lie-in on Monday – not us, sadly).

Let us know what you think of the new opening hours, and as ever – any questions, do get in touch.

Have a great term, everyone, and we look forward to seeing you soon!