A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

NEAR the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, Reginald Wolfe, the Queen’s Printer, with the splendid audacity characteristic of that age, planned to publish a “universal Cosmography of the whole world, and therewith also certain particular histories of every known nation.” Raphael Holinshed had charge of the histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the only part of the work ever published; and these were issued in 1577, and have since been known as “Holinshed’s Chronicles.” From them Shakespeare drew most of the material for his historical plays.

Among Holinshed’s collaborators was one William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, and later Rector of Radwinter in Essex and Canon of Windsor. To him was allotted the task of writing the “Descriptions of Britain and England” from which the following chapters are drawn. He gathered his facts from books, letters, maps, conversations, and, most important of all, his own observation and experience; and he put them loosely together into what he calls “this foul frizzled treatise.” Yet, with all his modesty, he claims to “have had an especial eye to the truth of things”; and as a result we have in his pages the most vivid and detailed picture in existence of the England into which Shakespeare was born.

In 1876 Dr. Furnivall condensed Harrison’s chapters for the New Shakespeare Society, and these have since been reprinted by Mr. Lothrop Withington in the modern dress in which the most interesting of them appear here. No apology is needed for thus selecting and rearranging, since in their original form they were without unity, and formed part of a vast compilation.

Harrison’s merit does not lie in the rich interest of his matter alone. He wrote a racy style with a strong individual as well as Elizabethan flavor; and his personal comment upon the manners of his time serves as a piquant sauce to the solid meat of his historical information.