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Author: Michael Best
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Introduction to Holinshed on King John


1Although the author of the excerpt that follows is recorded simply as Raphael Holinshed, the two-volume work that bears his name is a compilation written and revised by several authors. First published in 1577, it was extensively revised, then censored, in the 1587 version used here. In her groundbreaking study, Reading Holinshed's Chronicles, Annabel Patterson invoked the useful term "multivocality" to describe the result. The Chronicle was written after Elizabeth's succession, during a period of relative calm after the extreme turbulence of the previous two reigns, where the religion of the state swung like a weathercock from anglo-catholic, to protestant, to catholic, and again to protestant (Patterson 22). Perhaps because the authors of the Chronicles themselves varied significantly in their religious leanings, one overall direction of the work is a tendency to suggest that the word not the sword should settle disagreements, both of religion and the affairs of state (Patterson 18).

2The authors of the Chronicle (whom I shall for convenience call Holinshed) referred constantly to earlier writes, and often adopted their work with little change, but the thoroughness of their reading made them very much aware of varying narratives of the past, and the influence that ideology had in shaping those narratives. The reign of King John is an excellent example both of the variations in sources and Holinshed's own historiographical methods and ideological choices. John was generally vilified by earlier writers. After all, he had lost vast territories on the Continent, gone to war with the barons, suffered an invasion from France that came perilously close to success, and, worst of all in the eyes of some, had defied the pope to the extent that the whole kingdom was placed under an indictment, where normal church services were suspended as a punishment to the whole realm. This defiance of the pope led to a partial restoration of his reputation in protestant England; one of Honished's sources was John Bale's Scriptorum illustrium majoris Britanniae, a catalogue of famous English writers; Bale also wrote the fiercely protestant morality play Kynge Johann, published on this site.

3On more than one occasion, Holinshed pauses in his narrative to comment on the bias of his sources:

But such was the malice of writers in times past, which they bore towards King John, that whatsoever was done in prejudice of him or his subjects it was still interpreted to chance through his default, so as the blame still was imputed to him . . .
(Paragraph 60)

4In a summation of John's reign after recording his death, Holinshed returns to this problem, struggling to find some way of arriving at a balanced judgement. On his general character, Holinshed writes:

He was comely of stature, but of look and countenance displeasant and angry; somewhat cruel of nature, as by the writers of his time he is noted, and not so hardy as doubtful in time of peril and danger. But this seemeth to be an envious report uttered by those that were given to speak no good of him whom they inwardly hated.
(Paragraph 341)

5He continues in the same vein, suggesting a reason for what he sees as the extreme bias of his sources:

Verily, whosoever shall consider the course of the history written of this prince, he shall find that he hath been little beholden to the writers of that time in which he lived, for scarcely can they afford him a good word, except when the truth enforceth them to come out with it as it were against their wills. The occasion whereof (as some think) was for that he was no great friend to the clergy.

6Coupled with a keen sense of the potential bias of his sources, Holinshed's reading was wide enough that he saw many variations in the narratives of central events in John's reign. His response was to report them, sometimes speculating on the most likely, at other times simply leaving readers to reach their own conclusions. On the vexed question of King John's involvement in the death of Prince Arthur, Holinshed leaves the question open:

But now touching the manner in very deed of the end of this Arthur, writers make sundry reports. . . . so as it is not thoroughly agreed upon in what sort he finished his days; but verily King John was had in great suspicion, whether worthily or not, the lord knoweth.
(Paragraph 95)

7And when he comes to variant narratives concerning John's death and burial, Holinshed acknowledges the impossibility of reaching a definitive conclusion in words that sound remarkably modern in their acceptance of indeterminacy:

I leave it as doubtful, and therefore undetermined, esteeming the less to labor therein because the truth can hardily by certainly be winnowed out but by conjectural supposals aimed and shot at.
(Paragraph 335)

8It is unlikely that it is altogether a coincidence that Shakespeare, an avid reader of Holinshed, frequently puts his audience in a similar position: a dramatic situation or character is capable of more than one interpretation. One of the main differences between King John and The Troublesome Reign is that Shakespeare's play leaves motivations and events more fluid and undetermined (see the General Introduction).

9If Holinshed seems quite modern in his sense of the inteterminacy of history, and its construction by the ideologies of those who write it, he is still very much of an age that sees history as a moral discourse, one driven at times by providential intervention signalled by signs and portents. He is often ready to generalize from individual actions to general moral statements. He comments on John's reconstruction of Angiers (Anger) after he had himself razed it: it was an expense "which he might have saved had not his foolish rashness driven him to attempt that whereof upon sober advisement afterwards he was ashamed." And he continues with a broader moral:

But what will not an ordinary man do in the full tide of his fury; much more princes and great men, whose anger is resembled to the roaring of a lion, even upon light occasions oftentimes, to satisfy their unbridled and brainsick affections, which carry them with a swift and full stream into such follies and dotages as are undecent for their degrees.
(Paragraph 130)

10In defense of a digression recounting a marvellous event of "a fish like to a man," Holinshed first cites his authorities and their variant versions of the time the marvel occured, then continues to justify the inclusion of the anecdote, castigating those who rely exclusively on the evidence of their own eyes, and fail to see the importance of such marvels as providing portents of things to come:

Which report of theirs in respect of the strangeness thereof might seem incredible, specially to such as be hard of belief and refuse to give faith and credit to any thing but what their own eyes have sealed to their consciences, so that the reading of such wonders as these is no more beneficial to them than to carry a candle before a blind man, or to sing a song to him that is stark deaf. Nevertheless, of all uncouth and rare sights, specially of monstrous appearances, we ought to be so far from having little regard that we should rather in them and by them observe the event and falling out of some future thing, no less miraculous in the issue than they be wonderful at the sudden sight.
(Paragraph 113)

11Despite this defense of the significance of portents, Holinshed describes the times as "superstitious and popish" (Paragraph 335), and he is scathing when it comes to what he sees as false prophecy. Shakespeare is typically ambiguous in his treatment of Peter of Pomfret, leaving the question of the nature of his inspiration undecided. Holinshed is in no doubt; he begins by by stating alternative explanations of his pronouncements, suggesting that he was "either inspired with some spirit of prophesy as the people believed or else having some notable skill in art magic," but goes on to dismiss him completely as a mischief-maker and "pseudo-prophet or false foreteller of afterclaps [later unexpecte events], . . . a deluder of the people and an instrument of Satan raised up for the enlargement of his kingdom -- as the sequel of this discourse importeth" (Paragraph 209-11).

12Holinshed's categorization of obedience to the pope as supertition echoes another consistent thread in the narrative about King John's defiance of the pope, the rejection of interference from abroad. Holinshed frequently refers disdainfully to the "strangers" who are given authority and lands in England, either by the pope or by Lewis on his march across th country. In rejecting Stephen Langton, nominated by the pope to be Archbishop of Canterbury, John is recorded as claiming that he had no need of "foreign persons":

. . . sith the archbishops, bishops, abbots, and other ecclesiastical persons, as well of his realm of England as of other his lands and dominions, were sufficiently furnished with knowledge that he would not go for any need that should drive him thereto to seek justice or judgement at the prescript of any foreign persons.
(Paragraph 137)

13Distrust of foreigners was widespread after the reign of Mary, when the Spanish presence had been generally resented, and this section of the Chronicles describes the events that led to the almost-successful invasion of the French army under Lewis. Holinshed makes very clear the political moral of these events in an eloquent passage that once again stresses the dangers of foreign domination:

It was surely a rueful thing to consider the estate of this realm at that present, whenas the king neither trusted his peers, neither the nobility favored the king; no, there were very few that trusted one another, but each one hid and hoarded up his wealth, looking daily when another should come and enter upon the spoil. The commonalty also grew into factions, some favoring and some cursing the king, as they bore affection. The clergy was likewise at dissention, so that nothing prevailed but malice and spite, which brought forth and spread abroad the fruits of disobedience to all good laws and orders, greatly to the disquieting of the whole state. So that herein we have a perfect view of the perplexed state of princes, chiefly when they are over swayed with foreign and profane power and not able to assure themselves of their subjects' allegiance and loyalty.
(Paragraph 152)

14Together with the detailed and graphic description of the war between John and the barons, where so often one side or the other "wastes" a city and the farms surrounding it, this passage that well have stimulated Shakespeare to emphasize the need for unity in his oft-quoted patriotic final lines of the play:

This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
. . . naught shall make us rue,
If England to itself, do rest but true.
(TLN 2723-29)

15While it is clear that Shakespeare relied on The Troublesome Reign for the overall structure of the play and most of his historical references, it is also clear that he consulted his well-thumbed copy of Holinshed, a work he must have found both stimulating and at times disconcerting in its portrayal of political opportunism as kings, dukes, and barons change sides according to the pressure of immediate need rather than any deep principle of loyalty. In contrast to the generally recuperated image of King John he would have seen in The Troublesome Reign, the John of Holinshed, while immensely energetic as he travels continuously through his wide realms, is vaccilating, impetuous, and often cruel. In the welter of war and confusion Holinshed records there is no single historical figure who promises stability or honor for the nation; to provide the missing political, military, and moral center of his play Shakespeare chose to create one from the sketch he found in The Troublesome Reign: the fictional figure of the Bastard.

16This edition

This edition has been created by modernizing the text provide online by the Holinshed Project, compared where with the online graphic images at the University of Pennsylvania. I have retained many, but not all, of the marginal references, since they provide a useful way of navigating highlights and timelines. I have provided light annotation for the convenience of readers less familiar with the language of Holinshed's time, and have changed names to their modern equivalence where that was obvious. This is not, however, a fully scholarly edition; Holinshed deserves one, but that will no doubt have to wait until the Holinshed project reaches maturity.

17Works cited

  1. Holinshed Project, The. http://www.cems.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/. Oxford University: 2008-2010. Accessed February 2011.
  2. Holinshed, Raphael. The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. London, [1587]. Published online by the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/sceti/. Accessed February 2011.
  3. Patterson, Annabel M. Reading Holinshed's Chronicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.