Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources
Chronicles: The Early Modern “History” Book
Page Three Audio File
The literary form of the chronicle flourished in the Early Modern era, especially at the time of Caxton’s introduction of the printing press to England in 1476. However, Chronicles can be encountered even prior to the Battle of Hastings: see the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (circa ninth century) or Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) (circa 1136) or Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil (circa fourteenth to fifteenth centuries). These texts function as nation-building monuments, providing the history of a kingdom compiled in one place, and were written in an elevated style. This stylistic change marks an attempt to add formality and structure to previously disparate histories. Two of these Chronicles are of importance to Shakespeare’s Henry V: Hall’s Chronicle (circa fifteenth to sixteenth centuries) and Holinshed’s Chronicle (circa fifteenth to sixteenth centuries).
This is not to say that Chronicles were entirely accurate as a history-providing genre. Scholars largely agree, for example, that Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is a largely fictionalized account of nearly 2000 years of history in Britain. The same holds true for Hall and Holinshed; these Chronicles abandon complete historical accuracy in favor of searching of a proper narrative. This same impulse carries over to Shakespeare’s work; Henry V, and by extension the rest of the related history plays called the Henriad do not completely follow historical record. All changes made to the history, however, are done in service of a dramatic narrative.
Edward Hall (variantly spelled Halle) lived and wrote in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, providing material for Shakespeare’s history plays. Hall’s text, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, more commonly known as simply Hall’s Chronicle, was written in 1548 and revised and enlarged in 1550. Hall chronicled events from circa 1399 to 1509 in his work, which later served as the basis for Holinshed’s work. Hall took a different literary approach from other Chronicles, as demonstrated in Scott Lucas’s examination of both texts. Hall attempted to discern the causes of events, rather than to recount the event itself. He examined the personalities of the politicians he discussed, rather than just their deeds. This approach improved the literary value of the Chronicle genre, demonstrating its narrative power.
Of the two chroniclers, however, Raphael Holinshed’s is the far more recognizable name. Elizabethan dramatists mined Holinshed’s work for plots and information. Along with the stories of the Henriad tetralogy, material for Macbeth, King Lear, Cymbeline, and other texts can all be found in Holinshed’s Chronicle. Holinshed was also inspired by chroniclers before him; Lucas notes that Holinshed’s project was built on Hall’s previous endeavors towards creating a chronicle, leading him to describe Hall’s Chronicles as having “extensive influence on the form and content of the Holinshed authors’ accounts of English historical affairs from 1399 to 1547.” Holinshed’s Chronicles of both 1577 and 1587 are both continuations of this shared cultural phenomenon. Holinshed expands the historical reach of the chronicle format to encompass 1066 (William I and the Battle of Hastings) to 1576 (Elizabeth I) in his 1577 edition, and until 1587 in his 1587 edition.
Notably, Holinshed’s works are those most often considered Shakespeare’s historical sources. Full copy texts of Holinshed’s work can be found online and in print in volumes edited by Henry Ellis over the nineteenth century, reissued in 1976. Holinshed’s influence on Shakespeare, however, can be seen through the proliferation of scholarship that specifically cite Shakespeare’s use of Holinshed (see Holinshed’s Chronicle as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays and Shakespeare’s Holinshed ). Shakespeare’s full use of the Chronicles can be found through internet sources as well; Internet Shakespeare Editions includes supplementary materials for their edition of Henry V, including selections from the Chronicles.