"Learned men in all Ages": the Biographies of the Biographers

For more information about each biographer, read more here...

"Those hidden Springs of Affairs": A Familiar Circle of Friends, Politics, and Publishing

These men were connected, directly or indirectly, through their social and political experiences. At least seven of the ten biographers were university educated, four at Cambridge, while the other three were more informally educated and exposed to various ideas due to their positions at court, correspondence with scholars, and personal libraries. John Stow, William Camden, Francis Bacon, Robert Naunton, and Fulke Greville were particularly intertwined. Greville was friends with Camden and Ben Johnson, both of whom helped their mutual friend, John Stow, collect manuscripts. Stow, in turn, knew and helped Camden in his work. Camden was friends and also corresponded with Greville, and left money for him in his will (Beer, "English History Abridged," 13; McGurk, 53; DeMolen, 329).


Fig. 2. keyword in context and word occurrence count for "Rosse" in Clarke's text ("Ross" mentioned twice in Clarke's text).

At court, these men also dominated the political scene. Greville and Bacon were closely tied in their political support of the Leicester-Essex faction despite their education at Cambridge, whose chancellor was William Cecil ( Maclean, "Fulke Greville: Kingship," 239). These men did not forget their alma mater either, as Mr. George Herbert, Public Orator at Cambridge, thanked Greville, Bacon, and Naunton, for their various gifts to the school ( Walton, 132). Leicester and the Cecils, though rivals, were also the patrons, kin, or political influence within the lives and careers of Stow, Camden, Greville, and Bacon. Often though, Greville, Bacon, and Naunton competed for the same office, or worked for, or with, each other as they moved up and down the political ladder. The later writers were intertwined in this group as well. Robert, Fulke Greville’s heir and cousin, supported Clarke’s career. Melville knew Elizabeth and Mary personally, and probably his fellow Scotsmen Leslie and Buchanan too, as all three were involved in Scottish politics at the same time ( Levin, 5, 125, and 132). These connections and the conscious acknowledgement of their individual importance can be seen in that John Leslie, George Buchanan, Fulke Greville, Robert Melville, Nicolas Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney, Earl of Leicester, the Cecils, and Sanderson’s father were all mentioned within the various biographies.

For example, Melville offered a detailed sketch of Buchanan’s life, painting his widely known polemics as a result of character flaws that should be forgiven him. In both Annales and Historie...of Mary Stuart,

Fig. 3. keyword in context and word occurrence count for "Buchanan" in Camden's Historie...of Mary Stuart.


Fig. 4. keyword in context and word occurrence count for "Buchanan" in Camden's Annales.

Camden too wrote about Buchanan (see Fig. 3 and 4), condemning his writings, but showing him as a repentant man at the end of his life. The textual connections are frequent throughout these biographies, as Camden’s two works along with Stow’s Chronicles, Bacon’s In Felicem Memoriam, and Leslie’s Defence, become the canonical sources referenced the most by later writers.

Clearly, their careers were dependent upon the favor of the monarch or the royal favorite. When they turned to writing as a career (e.g. Stow and Camden), for hope of advancement (e.g. Bacon), or for other reasons, this royal dependency overshadowed their choices and actions. For example, Buchanan’s History of Scotland was anathema to James who banned this work in the British Isles. Later English authors, who did not want to suffer the same fate, avoided following Buchanan's negative portrayal of Mary Stuart ( Trevor-Roper, 11 and 13). Several of these works were published posthumously; however, even if not published, works were still passed around in manuscript form. For example, Bacon completed his History of the Reign of Henry VII in October 1621 (not published until 1622), and gave a manuscript copy to James, who passed it on to Fulke Greville (Jardine and Stewart, 478). Camden experienced similar issues when drafts of his Annales (crafted from 1606-1615) were sent unauthorized to various people, including Jacques de Thou, a French historian James disliked ( Herendeen, 297 and 478). Whether a the work was published immediately or not, the need for royal approval was a significant influence on content. These factors, when combined with the dynastic change from Elizabeth to Mary’s James in 1603, produced a noticeable difference in the textual portrayals of these queens. There was a noticeable shift from the previous religious and political fragmentation in biographical material of Elizabeth and Mary, and into careful rhetorical strategies that did not offend Mary’s Stuart descendents or detract from Elizabeth’s place as the previous English monarch.

For as Melville said, when “we see things in a clear light, stript of all their paints and disguisings, and discover those hidden Springs of Affairs” that led to this change, textual and chronological patterns emerge, dividing the authors into cliques.

  1. Early Authors:George Buchanan and John Leslie
    • a group that is diametrically opposed to each other in their treatment of the primary source (the Casket Letters), their religious beliefs, and in how they portray Mary.
  2. Representational Shift: John Stow, William Camden, Raphael Holinshed, and Richard Grafton
    • used sharply improved orthography ( Beer, "John Stow," 360-61) and approached portraying both queens in as balanced a way as any of the biographers. Stow, although prior to James’s reign, set an example for his friend Camden on how “self-censorship and deliberate ambiguity” helped a writer remain above political and religious debates ( Beer, "John Stow," 372-73).
    • Holinshed and Grafton's texts have strong similarities to Stow and Camden. They both mention the queens, but Grafton began to show how avoiding sensitive topics (like Mary's escape into England, her marriage to Bothwell, and her insistence to be named heir to the English throne) could allow for a fairly neutral but successful history. Both Grafton and Holinshed are biased in that they provide more direct quotes and dicussion of Elizabeth (as seen in Grafton and Holinshed's use of her famous Parliamentary speech), with Holinshed's history being notorious for its copious citations of such primary sources. Holinshed's text was actually an group effort in writing, with Stow as one of the editors, so the representations in this text are not univocal, but change depending upon the editor. However, both Grafton and Stow are cited several times in his text.
  3. Representational Choice #1:Francis Bacon, Robert Naunton, and Fulke Greville
    • a group that adhered to recording only Elizabeth’s life. Their rhetorical strategy was to avoid having to form an opinion of Mary, or even indirectly implicate her, so they left their discussions of Catholics to generalities.
  4. Representational Choice #2:William Sanderson, Samuel Clarke, and James Melville
    • returned to the pattern set by Camden and Stow, but with two changes. First, they mentioned both queens quite a bit, even if only one queen was in the title of their work. Lastly, they did tend to drift towards more opinionated descriptions, tempered by blaming third parties for the situation or following soon after with praise for the queen under consideration.

All of the textual representations of the queens, various subjects, and sampling of elements in this project only begin to scratch the surface. There are numerous themes and aspects left uninvestigated within these biographies. It is, however, important to remember that despite some individual variances that appear with these author's rhetorical choices, these men were a part of a larger association of writers and politicians in early modern England. They knew of each other's writings, and helped in their formation or used their predecessors as sources for their own work. In particular, Stow and Camden clearly become the textual groundwork that later authors built on, by offering a study in "self-censorship and deliberate ambiguity" ( Beer, "John Stow," 372-73).

Furthermore, these biographers often crossed paths in their political maneuverings, aiding or competing with one another for government posts and royal favor. These interconnections helped to spread information and writing styles, as the biographers developed careful, but varied, rhetorical strategies to balance the portrayal of Elizabeth and Mary once James became king in England, and thus the inheritor of both women's legacies. Most importantly, the previous tradition of writing with a clear view of the author’s religious and political biases disappeared with the rise of the Stuart dynasty. For "a naked Narrative" was not as good as "Perfect History," the “truth...which comprehends a Chronocled Time, representing the life of a Prince, with the Narrative of actions relative; therefore with little favour of different opinions, [Perfect History] may be accounted the most compleat for Estimation, Profit and Use in the magnitude of Affairs, Men and Matter." These men strove to provide a 'perfect history,' and, if successful, become remembered and used by future generations.