William Camden (2 May 1551 – 9 November 1623) was an English antiquarian, historian, and officer of arms. He wrote the first topographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and the first detailed historical account of the reign of Elizabeth I of England.
Camden was born in London. His father, Sampson Camden, was a member of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. He attended Christ's Hospital and St Paul's School, and in 1566 entered Oxford (Magdalen College, Broadgates Hall, and finally Christ Church). At Christ Church, he became acquainted with Philip Sidney, who encouraged Camden's antiquarian interests. He returned to London in 1571 without a degree. In 1575, he became Usher of Westminster School, a position that gave him the freedom to travel and pursue his antiquarian researches during school vacations.
In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. His stated intention was "to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity." The first edition was published in 1586. The work, which was written in Latin, was very popular, going into seven editions by 1607. William Hole engraved title pages and some of the maps for the 1607 edition. The first English language translation, prepared by Philemon Holland (probably under Camden's direction) appeared in 1610.
Britannia is a county-by-county description of Great Britain and Ireland. It is a work of chorography: a study that relates landscape, geography, antiquarianism, and history. Rather than write a history, Camden wanted to describe in detail the Great Britain of the present, and to show how the traces of the past could be discerned in the existing landscape. By this method, he produced the first coherent picture of Roman Britain.
He continued to collect materials and to revise and expand Britannia throughout his life. He drew on the published and unpublished work of John Leland and William Lambarde, among others, and received the assistance of a large network of correspondents with similar interests. He did not simply accept older authorities unquestioningly, but travelled throughout Great Britain and looked at documents, sites, and artifacts for himself, coming to his own conclusions based on first hand inspection and knowledge of the available sources. His firsthand research set new standards for the time. He even learned Welsh and Old English for the task. (Camden's tutor in Old English was Laurence Nowell.) The resulting work is one of the great achievements of sixteenth century scholarship.
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