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]


‘A Dialogue between Experience and a Courtier, of the miserable state of the worlde’ by David Lindsay.

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

‘Musing and marveling on the miserie that doth on earth from day to day increase’. This is a serious and lengthy didactic poem titled; A Dialogue between Experience and a Courtier, of the miserable state of the worlde (1581) by the Scottish herald and court poet, Sir David Lindsay of the Mount (1490-1555).

Inserted title page dating from 18th/19th century for this 1581 edition.

Inserted title page dating from 18th/19th century for this 1581 edition

Most commonly known as The Monarche, Lindsay’s Dialogue between Experience and a Courtier has been regarded by many historians, as his ‘magnus opus’. This is because he writes a world history in 6338 lines, beginning with Adam and Eve and concluding with the Last Judgement. He uses the classical literature technique of dialogue between the two characters called Courtier who is ‘tyred with travailing’ and ‘an aged man’ who is Experience, together with a narrative history of the world to answer questions presented by the Courtier about the fulfilment of life and salvation.

Lindsay’s Monarche reflects the knowledge that he would have had as herald about the religious and political issues in Scotland during the time. In ‘The first booke of the Monarche’, Lindsay introduces the Courtier and Experience. The Courtier asks where he can live a ‘quiet life’ away from his unpleasant life at court. Experience replies that the life he wants does not exist as the misery in this world developed from sin, he recounts the story of Adam and Eve to support his case. ‘The second booke of the Monarche’ is formed of Lindsay’s attack on idolatry of saints images, pilgrimages and finishing with a call for reform to the Church. The third ‘booke’ condemns the Church for profiting from the creation of Purgatory and temporal lands, the clergy for living wealthily and unable to fulfil their roles of office, and Rome having control over secular rulers. In the last book, Lindsay discusses ‘Death and the Antechrist, and of the generall judgment’ with the Courtier asking Experience when the day will be. Experience dates the year ‘Two thousand till the worldes ende’ but before then, fifteen signs will appear as warning. Lindsay uses the Apocalypse as the reason for the early modern world being dismal but also as another plea for reform and repentance. By raising these problems within the context of the Biblical history of the world, the push for reform is presented as an integral part of God’s scheme and the urgency to be ready for Jesus’ coming.

Quarter leather binding, impressed with gold.

Quarter leather binding, impressed with gold.

This particular book was originally ‘Compiled in the Scottish tung’ by David Lindsay in 1554, then ‘first turned and made perfect English : And now the seconde time corrected and amended according to the first Copie’ in 1581. The 1580s in Elizabethan England was briefly threatened by radical puritanism in response to a Catholic resurgence. Therefore, this timely publication (1581) could imply that there needed to be a revival of Protestant literature to communicate the original causes for condemning the Catholic Church and maintaining reform. The date also implies that the popularity of Lindsay’s book had spread to England for it to be translated out of Scots into the English vernacular, many of his previous works had already been published in England before. This also coincides with Lindsay’s opinion on vernacular which is seen in ‘The first booke of the Monarche’ where he criticises the Roman Church for not speaking in vulgar tongue during Mass as it would allow people to understand and learn what is being said. To support his argument, he uses the example of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses not in Latin or Greek but in the ‘language of the Hebrew’ so that every man, woman and child would know the law. Lindsay is upholding his argument and deliberately writing in Scots so that his Scottish audience can clearly learn from his writing, it is easily accessible.

Front cover of book recovered in marble paper. The measurements of the book are 191(l)x138(w)x127(d)mm which indicates that it would have been an easily portable book.

Front cover of book recovered in marble paper. The measurements of the book are 191(l)x138(w)x127(d)mm which indicates that it would have been an easily portable book.

In the Templeman Library’s copy, the cover is recovered in marble paper which dates to around the late eighteenth and nineteenth century and would have been a cheap covering. The original binding of the book from 1581 has been replaced by a quarter leather binding, impressed with a simple gold design and lettering. This could indicate that The Monarche was a sought after book and in need of repair or possibly the owner wanted a uniform look for their bindings when displayed on a bookshelf. Furthermore, it is clear to see that the book has been amended as the pastedown and flyleaf are at the front and back of the book are on different paper which is intact and only slightly discoloured, indicating that it is newer addition to the original text. The most fragile pages of the book have been stuck down onto a new sheet of paper. The book lacks  any decorative element to it as there are no woodcuts or ornate patterns, only a decorative border around the first letter of each book, known as factotums. This might suggest that the book was made to be produced quickly and cheaply.

A factotum of the letter W.

A factotum of the letter W.

The title page, which has been reprinted on new paper and inserted into this 1581 published book, helpfully declares that the book is ‘very pleasant and profitable for all Estates, but chiefly for Gentlemen, and such as are in aucthoritie’. This is further supported by Lindsay explicitly showing in his fourth book, where he writes small segments for the people in authority, ‘to the Prelates’ and ‘brethren Princes’, that they may read his words and take guidance from them. This section is what the English publisher possibly had in mind when writing the title page. However, a more subtle indication that this book is aimed at a wider audience, is that not only is it written in the vernacular so that all can read but Lindsay deliberately incorporates a written world history and the Christian teachings surrounding death and the Last Judgement so that more common people could access them whilst the vernacular Bible was circulating. In Scotland, the Earl of Arran had legalised the English Bible in 1543 which enabled all men to read the bible in English or Scots but it was not printed in Scotland at all until 1579 and so the imported bibles came from England.

‘David Hall 1724 Eius Liber’ penned on the edge of the page.

‘David Hall 1724 Eius Liber’ penned on the edge of the page.

Significantly, on the back of page 13 (13b), there is the inscription that reads; ‘David Hall 1724 Eius Liber’ which is Latin for ‘his book’. Was this the David Hall (1683-1756) who was a ‘schoolmaster  and Quaker minister’ from Skipton in Craven, Yorkshire? There is no other significant marginalia within the book but on a couple of pages near the back, especially noticeable on the separate poem published within the Monarche; ‘The complaynt and publique confession of the Kings olde Hounde called Bagshe, directed to Bawty the Kings best beloved Dog, and his companions’ on page 119 in the ‘The fourth booke’, and also page 64, there are pen trials. This indicates that the reader was possibly making notes on a separate page whilst reading this book or the markings could be the reader’s own symbols to draw attention to important parts of the text. This shows that Lindsay’s poem was fulfilling its function of teaching his audience, may it be his intended or unintended audience.


Primary Source:

A Dialogue between Experience and a Courtier, of the miserable state of the worlde by David Lindsay (London: Thomas Purfoote, 1851). Special Collections & Archives, Pre-1700 Collection: C 581 LIN

Secondary Sources:

Collinson, Patrick., ed. Guy, John. 1995. ‘Ecclesiastical vitriol: religious satire in the 1590s and the invention of puritanism’ in The reign of Elizabeth I: Court and culture in the last decade’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Edington, Carol. 1994. Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, (USA: University of Massachusetts Press).

Harland, Richard. ‘Hall, David (1683-1756), schoolmaster and Quaker minister’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 26/10/2018].

McGinley, J,. K. ‘Lyndsay [Lindsay], David (c. 1486-155), writer and herald’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 22/10/2018].

Pearson, David. 2011. Books as History: The importance of books beyond their texts (London: The British Library).

Wormald, Jenny. 1981. Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland 1470-1625, (London: Edward Arnold Ltd).

Looking at Lanquet: A Closer Look at An Epitome of Chronicles

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

Little is actually known about Thomas Lanquet’s life, except that he began writing his Epitome of Chronicles, but he died before it was finished. The Chronicles werefinished by Thomas Cooper and published in 1549, with the book later being known as the Coopers Chronicle. Lanquet died in 1545 after writing about the accession of Tiberius, with the rest of the book being written by Cooper. Despite the fact that very little is known about Lanquet himself, it is known that he was a historian and a humanist, which would suggest that he would have styled his work to mimic Classical literature, something seen as contemporarily popular.

Title Page of An Epitome of Chronicles

The copy of An Epitome of Chronicles held at Special Collections & Archives at the Templeman Library is interesting for several reasons. The book has been rebound and several pages of the beginning on the book have been replaced, most likely due to water damage, as seen in the images below. The newer elements of the book seem to have been replaced in the nineteenth or twentieth century. This is also seen with some pages where the original paper has remained partially intact, with the damaged elements being replaced with newer paper, as seen in the images below. This is something that is therefore unique to this copy of An Epitome of Chronicles and gives a clear idea that the book was not left in the best condition, potentially being left in a damp storage area that would have degraded these elements of the book to the point of needing replacing. [Editor’s note: this damage did not occur in the book’s current home!]

One of the damaged pages

One of the damaged pages


Cover of An Epitome of Chronicles

Cover of An Epitome of Chronicles

Another interesting feature that is unique to this copy of Epitome of Chronicles is the fact it has been annotated. This is indicative that a previous owner of the book did not feel that it was important enough to remain unmarked, with one page containing a sum, which appears to be to do with the chronology of the history. This highlights the use and engagement with the book, as they were able to read well enough that they felt that they were able to annotate certain sections and to add their own thoughts. This suggests that the book was owned by a literate person who was able to write down what they thought of particular passages, giving an insight in to their responses from when they read the book.




The work of Lanquet, and subsequently Cooper was to educate readers on the history of England as they saw it, with references to what was happening in the wider world. This would include who was ruling in other countries and if there were any plagues within countries, such as a pestilence in 491 B.C. in Rome. It is accepted within the writing that the Bible and Arthurian legend are history, and this is used to emphasise the chronology he was writing. Cooper, however, changes Arthurian legends to suit the history he wanted to tell, removing magic from his chronicles and replacing it with the power of the ‘common voice of the people’. Magic being removed when writing the histories would have been not only to make them a realistic part of history, but also because Cooper, who finished the chronicle, was a bishop, and the use of magic would not have fallen in line with his religious views. The histories therefore would have been adapted to suit the narrative that the authors would have believed in, as well as any political leanings that they may have had, which is shown with how the book is dedicated to Prince Edward and the Duke of Somerset. This highlights how Cooper would have been attempting to praise the prince, while affirming Protestant beliefs, with Cooper stating in the preface, ‘the holy scriptures […] teaches us politicall administracion, and let forth many notable examples, which in rulying a publike weal be necessary to bee knowen, and whereby the myndes of princis may bee stiered to the study of true nobilitee and vertue’. This explains why not only the biblical history is accepted as fact and dated within the chronicle, but also why it is so supportive towards the Tudors and how they are favoured by God. The fact that the book is also written in English, in a Gothic font, further highlights the break from Rome, as Lanquet and Cooper did not write in Latin, with English books being more common following the Reformation.

The preface not only gives an idea of the setting in which the book was written in, but also the type of person it was written for. As ‘the readyng of histories doth indifferently avayle all men’ and ‘Princis, yea and all other, that have auctoritee in great affaires and high matters, ought those examples and actes chiefly to consider’ suggest that Lanquet and Cooper believed that the main audience of their book would be those in a position of political power, and that history would be useful in knowing where previous leaders have failed and how they have succeeded.

Even though little is known about Thomas Lanquet, quite a lot can be discerned about England during his time from this single copy of An Epitome of Chronicles, with language choices giving an indication of the context that the book was written in, and additions to the book with owners’ notes giving a sense of the history of this particular copy of An Epitome of Chronicles. The book is unique to other copies because of its treatment since its publication in 1549, making it an interesting centrepiece for research, seen even in the past with different copies of the book. The way in which the book has been treated, such as the rebinding of the book because of its damage makes this copy unique to any others. The copy of Lanquet’s Epitome of Chronicles held in the Templeman Library is therefore interesting based on not only the history of England that it gives, but also in how it differs from other copies


Primary Sources

Lanquet, Thomas and Thomas Cooper, An Epitome of Chronicles [London: Thomas Berthelet, 1549] Special Collections & Archives: Pre-1700 Collection, C 549 LAN

Lanquet, Thomas and Thomas Cooper, ‘An Epitome of Chronicles’, Early English Books Online, <> [accessed 31 October 2018]

Secondary Sources

Fletcher, Robert Huntington, The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles Especially Those of Great Britain and France (New York, NY: Haskell House, 1965)

H., C. W., ‘Queries with Answers’, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., 11 (1867), 332-333

Pearson, David, John Mumford and Alison Walker, ‘Understanding and caring for bookbindings’, British Library Preservation Advisory Centre, <> [accessed 30 October 2018]

Starnes, D. T., ‘Sir Thomas Elysot and the Lanquet-Cooper “Chronicle”’, The University of Texas Studies on English, 34 (1955), 35-42

Summerson, Henry, ‘Lanquet, Thomas’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, <> [accessed 29 October 2018]

Wheatley, Chloe, Epic, Epitome, and the Early Modern Historical Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011)

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.


A brief history of alchemy; or, My Alchemical Romance

First performed in 1610 by the King’s Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a satire centred around three con artists who use subterfuge, guile and wit to relieve targets of their belongings. Jonson makes no attempt to conceal his low opinion of alchemy and its practitioners, with the titular alchemist an obvious fraud and this makes it a useful springboard into thinking about alchemy in its historical context. The Templeman Special Collections and Archives holds a copy of Jonson’s First Folio from 1616 in its pre-1700 collection which contains the play and so in order to demonstrate how the Maddison collection could be useful for study and research beyond the history of science, we are going to use The Alchemist as a framing device for this week’s blog post.

Title page from 'The Alchemist' by Ben Jonson in Jonson's First Folio of 1616.

Jo says we are not allowed to have favourites because it makes the other books sad. The Jonson Folio (Q C 616 Jon) is Philip’s favourite. Don’t tell Jo. Or the other books.

‘Alchemy is a pretty kind of game, / Somewhat like tricks o’ the cards, to cheat a man / With charming.’ (2.3.180-182, The Alchemist)

To the uninitiated, alchemy can seem a vague art form that seems to cover a range of random topics. Whilst researching for this post we read about people trying to turn base metals into gold or silver, about some trying to create a source of eternal life and others searching for ways to raise the dead. Alchemy has spanned a large number of fields in its history from supernatural and spiritualism to medicine and early chemistry but what many fail to realise is that alchemy was in fact an early science intent on answering many of the same questions we strive to answer today. It was only in the 1700s that a strong distinction between ‘alchemy’ and ‘chemistry’ was established; prior to this time that the study of both subjects was much more fluid.

A pictorial diagram of the four base elements in a cross. Each element is represented by a creature. Clockwise from top: fire (ignis) is an angel; earth (terra) by a bear; water (aqua) by a dragon-looking creature; air (aer) is a long-necked bird.

The dragon-demon-sea monster thing is our spirit animal.


Alchemy has a long history, dating back to  antiquity and it is possible to track its early modern evolution through the Maddison Collection in the form of dedicated volumes, notes and annotations, and handwritten recipes.The roots of Western alchemy are founded in the classical idea of the basic elements – fire, water, wind and earth – and it is primarily this Eurocentric alchemy which is covered in the Maddison Collection. Variant forms of alchemy have been practiced across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, China, and India. It is the various cultural and religious influences which make each strain of alchemy unique.

A taoist philosopher, alchemist, medical writer and poet, Ko Hung was the originator of first aid in traditional Chinese medicine.

A taoist philosopher, alchemist, medical writer and poet, Ko Hung was the originator of first aid in traditional Chinese medicine.

These aforementioned roots of alchemy are derived from the classical world and continued to evolve through the ages in Western Society by adopting and discarding knowledge from various influences. However, the core of alchemy always reflected its origins through its continued use of classical mythology as a communicative device. In multiple volumes within the collection the reader is able to see various illustrations utilised to express a concept or recipe in relation to alchemy, but to those unversed in identifying these alchemical signs these illustrations appear to be merely depictions of ancient myths and folklore.

Colour illustration of a peacock in the vase of Hermes

This peacock is serving all kinds of fabulous perfection.

‘Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then/ Proceeds she to the perfect.’ (2.3.158-9, The Alchemist)

There were alchemists working across Europe through the medieval period into the early modern. The collection’s earliest works on alchemy come from Agrippa, a German polymath, legal scholar, physician and theologian,who was an important alchemist in the early sixteenth century. He is an interesting man to study, as during his career he turned away from the occult and focused much more his theological work, rejecting magic in his later life.

Just look at all those instruments! Agrippa’s getting the band back together.

Just look at all those instruments! Agrippa’s getting the band back together.


Paracelsus is another influential figure in alchemical circles, also well represented. A respected physician, alchemist and astrologer during the German renaissance, Paracelsus is known as the father of toxicology, as well as being one of the first medical professors to use chemical and minerals in medicine. John Dee, Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole were also important names in the history of alchemy and all of these alchemists have works related to them within the Maddison collection.


Guess who’s back, back, back. Back again, Boyle’s back! Tell a friend.

Guess who’s back, back, back. Back again, Boyle’s back! Tell a friend.


It is unsurprising that Boyle engaged in alchemy alongside his more conventional scientific research. Many regarded alchemists as great experimentalists, who engaged in complicated experiments, which they then documented and amended. Cleopatra the Alchemist was a Greek Egyptian alchemist from the 3rd century whom focused on practical alchemy and is considered to be the inventor of the Alembic, an early tool for analytical chemistry. She along with other alchemists such as Mary the Jewess focused on a school of alchemy which utilised complex apparatus for distillation and sublimation, important techniques still in use in the chemistry lab today. Cleopatra the Alchemist’s biggest claim to fame is as one of only four female alchemists who were supposedly able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone.

This was one method of distillation being utilised in 1653, which looks very similar to a modern day distillation technique! On a large drum sit 2 identical vessels, and in between them is a ventilation shaft allowing smoke to escape. The two vessels on the drum are connected by long thin spouts to two conical flasks,designed to receive the run off liquor.

This was one method of distillation being utilised in 1653, which looks very similar to a modern day distillation technique! On a large drum sit 2 identical vessels, and in between them is a ventilation shaft allowing smoke to escape. The two vessels on the drum are connected by long thin spouts to two conical flasks,designed to receive the run off liquor.

‘I am the lord of the philosopher’s stone.’ (4.1.156, The Alchemist)

Twenty-first century readers may be more aware of alchemy than they realise. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone placed alchemy front and centre in contemporary culture. Other references in popular culture include manga and anime Fullmetal Alchemist and fantasy video games, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy, amongst countless more. F. Sherwood Taylor points out the misconception of alchemists as ‘magicians or wizards’ that is common to these modern representations, writing that ‘as far as we know the alchemists sought to accomplish their work by discovering and utilizing the laws of nature […] never […] by “magical processes”’ (p.1, The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry, F. Sherwood Taylor). The Philosopher’s Stone was one of the primary goals of alchemy. Supposedly the catalyst needed to turn base metals such as mercury, tin or iron into the noble metals, gold and silver, it was also theorised to cure illnesses and extend lifespan. Alchemists disagreed on just about every aspect of the stone; from what it symbolised to how it was created. What all alchemists did agree upon was that the Philosopher’s Stone was a tangible possibility and someone had managed to make and use it in the past. During our research we discovered a series of images related to transmutation that may be related to the Philosopher’s Stone. You can see those, with added captions, as part of the Adventures series here

Image of A New Light of Alchymie book

J K Rowling’s Half Blood Prince anyone?

‘If all you boast of your great art be true; / Sure, willing poverty lives most in you.’

(1-2, Epigrams VI, “To Alchemists”, Jonson)

The fortunes of alchemy and its practitioners waxed and waned through the centuries. Renaissance alchemist and thinker, John Dee is a prime example. A key adviser to Elizabeth I, after James I succeeded the throne Dee was accused of being a ‘Conjurer, or Caller, or Invocator of Divels, or damned Spirites’ and died impoverished.

John Dee books in the Maddison Collection

Maddison Collection and it’s not Boyle! What a shock!

Most other alchemists did not suffer quite so dramatic a reversal of fortunes, but the legality of alchemy was dubious and throughout history it was often concealed in coded language or symbolic imagery. Renaissance legal scholar, Sir Edward Coke, wrote on its illegal status in The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (1644), citing the 1404 Act Against Multiplication, which forbade ‘multiplication […] That is, to change other metals into very Gold or Silver’ (Institutes, p.74). Robert Boyle campaigned to overturn this law and it was repealed in 1689.

As the eighteenth century wore on and the scientific method took hold, alchemy became increasingly discredited and chemists, wanting to distance themselves from alchemists, succeeded in separating the disciplines.The decline of alchemy in Europe was in conjunction with the rise of modern science, which placed a high significance on quantitative experimentation and which regarded the “ancient wisdom” so highly prized in alchemy as redundant and useless.

Starting with gold? I thought we were trying to make it! This is alchemy for the 1%.

Starting with gold? I thought we were trying to make it! This is alchemy for the 1%.

Did alchemy work? Mostly not, but it was the forerunner to modern chemistry. Advancements in technology have now made some alchemical feats possible. For instance, it is now possible to turn lead into gold. It takes a chemist who knows what he is doing and a lot of time, energy and money, but changing lead to gold has been done. The method of doing so is nothing like what is recommended in the various alchemy books within the collection but the once scoffed at dream is now a possibility.

The Alchemist may treat its subject matter as a joke and its practitioners as charlatans but the tangible contribution of alchemy to scientific knowledge should not be undersold. As  Sherwood Taylor notes, ‘the hopeless pursuit of the practical transmutation of metals was responsible for almost the whole of the development of chemical technique before the middle of the seventeenth century, and further led to the discovery of many important materials.’ (x, F. Sherwood Taylor) They may not have attained everlasting life or succeeded in transmuting lead to gold, but the alchemists did pave the way for their successors to develop modern scientific theory.

Tune in for the next blog post where we will be investigating the man behind the Maddison collection, R. E. W. Maddison!


Further reading

On Alchemy

John Read, Prelude to Chemistry (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1939) [Maddison 23B1]

J. S. Thompson, The Lure and Romance of Alchemy (London: George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1932) [Maddison 24A14]

Sherwood Taylor,The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1951) [Maddison 24A7]

Arthur Edward Waite, The Secret Tradition of Alchemy (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1926) [Maddison 24B20]

On John Dee

Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee (1527-1608) (London: Constable, 1909) [Maddison 13C8]

Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) [Maddison 13C7]

Past exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, 2016: ‘Scholar, Courtier, Magician: the lost library of John Dee’

On The Alchemist

Ben Jonson, The workes of Beniamin Jonson (London: W. Stansby, 1616) [Q C 616.JON]

Previously in Philip and Janee’s blog posts:

The honourable Robert Boyle; or, reaching Boyle-ing point? 

Introduction; or, how do you solve a problem like the Maddison Collection?