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William Camden, antiquary and historian, and 462 years old today was born in the Old Bailey in London on 2 May 1551. His father Sampson moved to London from Lichfield and was a member of the Guild of Painter-Stainers. His mother Elizabeth was from Lancashire, and was from the old Cumberland family of Curwen in Workington.

William Camden (by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

William Camden (by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

Having survived an attack of the plague in Islington, aged 12, William attended St Paul’s School, and later Oxford, under the patronage first of Dr Thomas Cooper, and later Dr Thomas Thornton. It was at Oxford that his antiquarian interests first stirred, and were encouraged. However, his studies were fruitless, and he returned to London both without a degree and without employment in 1571.

For the next few years he began to compile the research for his work, the ‘Brittania’. From the Dictionary of National Biograghy:

In the address ‘ad Lectorem,’ which he added to the fifth edition of that work, Camden has himself given us an interesting sketch of the way in which his studies were directed to antiquarian subjects, and how the ‘Britannia’ grew under his hand. From his earliest days, we are told, his natural inclination led him to investigate antiquity; as a boy at school, and afterwards as a young man at Oxford, all his spare time was given to this favourite pursuit. He specially mentions the encouragement he had from his fellow-student at Christ Church, Sir Philip Sidney. Much of his leisure after leaving the university was passed in travelling through the kingdom and noting its antiquities. But his collections at this time were not made with any view to publication.

In 1575 he was appointed as schoolmaster at Westminster, a role which still left his school holiday time free to pursue his antiquarian interests, travelling around the country. His reputation as an antiquary and topographer grew as a result of these travels. Urged and encouraged by Abraham Ortelius, Camden began the systematic preparation of his ‘Brittania’.

The Rollright Stones, from Camden's Brittania.

The Rollright Stones, from Camden’s Britannia.

The work took ten years, and was published on his 35th birthday, 2 May 1586. It was an enormous success, with three reprints within four years, and a fourth edition within eight, all personally overseen and expanded by Camden himself.

In 1593 he succeeded to the headmastership of Westminster School, and in 1597 was appointed to the office of Clarenceux king-of-arms. Freed from school life, he continued his travels, visiting Carlisle and the northern counties in 1600, as well as preparing a fifth edition of ‘Britannia’, which answered various criticisms of the genealogies in the earlier editions, and acknowledged a debt to Leland’s earlier work.

Despite several periods of severe illness he continued working on improving both ‘Britannia’ and his many other works as late as 1621. Camden spent the latter years of his life in retirement at Chislehurst. He died unmarried at his home at Chislehurst in Kent on 9 November 1623 following further bouts of illness, and his body was laid in the southern transept of Westminster Abbey. A monument of white marble, affixed to the wall above his grave, represents him at half length, his left hand resting on a closed book on which is the word ‘Britannia’.

Camden’s house at Chislehurst passed into the hands of the family of Pratt, barons Camden, who took their title from the property. Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden (1714–1794) started the development of the settlement that was later to become known as Camden Town in London.


May 2013

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