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Believed to be a portrait of William Camden by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

William Camden (2 May 1551 – 9 November 1623) was born in London. His father Sampson Camden was a member of The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. He attended Christ's Hospital and St Paul's School, and in 1566 entered Oxford (Magdalen College, Broadgates Hall, and finally Christ Church). At Christ Church, he became acquainted with Philip Sidney, who encouraged Camden's antiquarian interests. He returned to London in 1571 without a degree. He was encouraged by Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster, to devote the next few years to travel. Camden, already a keen antiquarian and historian, took up the opportunity and for the next few years, traveled abroad to study topography and collect many archeological materials. In 1575, he became Usher of Westminster School, a position that gave him the freedom to travel and pursue his antiquarian researches during school vacations. Camden was interested in astrology and famously observed that when Saturn is in capricornus, a great plague is certain in London. Remarkably, Saturn was positioned exactly so in the Great Plague of 1625 and in the last Great Plague of 1665.

In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. His stated intention was to "restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britain to his antiquity". The first edition, written in Latin, was published in 1586. It proved very popular, and ran through five further editions, of 1587, 1590, 1594, 1600 and 1607, each greatly enlarged from its predecessor in both textual content and illustrations. The 1607 edition included for the first time a full set of English county maps, based on the surveys of Christopher Saxton and John Norden, and engraved by William Kip and William Hole (who also engraved the fine frontispiece). The first English language edition, translated by Philemon Holland, appeared in 1610, again with some additional content supplied by Camden.

In 1593 Camden became headmaster of Westminster School. He held the post for four years, but left when he was appointed Clarenceux King of Arms. By this time, largely because of the Britannia's reputation, he was a well-known and revered figure, and the appointment was meant to free him from the labour of teaching and to facilitate his research. The College of Arms at that time was not only a centre of genealogical and heraldic study, but also a centre of antiquarian study. The appointment, however, roused the jealousy of Ralph Brooke, York Herald, who desired the position himself, and, in retaliation, published an attack on Britannia, charging Camden with inaccuracy and plagiarism. Camden successfully defended himself against the charges in subsequent editions of the work.

Early 17th Century map of Cheshire based on the first survey of England and Wales by Christopher Saxton and published in William Camden's Britannia. Engraved by William Hole.

In 1608 at the age of fifty-seven, Camden fell from his horse resulting in severe injuries which kept him in bed for over nine months. During this time, he was able to start on his second major publication which focused upon the history of Queen Elizabeth's reign. This publication was delayed by a severe illness, but was finally completed and published in 1615. The title was Annales rerum Anglicarum et annum; he wrote a second part completed in 1617. William Camden expressly asked that it not be published until after his death.

In 1609 Camden moved to Chislehurst in Kent, now south-east London. Though often in ill health, he continued to work diligently. In 1622 he founded an endowed lectureship in History at Oxford – the first and oldest chair of history in England – which continues to this day as the Camden Chair in Ancient History. That same year he was struck with paralysis. It is thought that before Camden died, John Hackett, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, arrived at Camdens' deathbed and stole his autobiographic memoirs. He died at Chislehurst on 9 November 1623, and was buried at Westminster Abbey, where his monument, incorporating a demi-figure of Camden holding a copy of the Britannia, can still be seen in the south transept ("Poets' Corner").

Camden left his books to his former school pupil and friend, Sir Robert Cotton, the creator of the Cotton library. His circle of friends and acquaintances included Lord Burghley, Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Stow, John Dee, Jacques de Thou and Ben Jonson, who was Camden's student at Westminster and who dedicated an early edition of Every Man in His Humour to him.

After Camden's death, his former home at Chislehurst became known as Camden Place. In the 18th century, it was acquired by Sir Charles Pratt, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and later Lord Chancellor, who in 1765 was elevated to the peerage with the title Baron Camden, of Camden Place. In 1786 he was created Earl Camden, and in 1812 his son became Marquess Camden. The family owned and developed land to the north of London, and so, by this circuitous route, William Camden's name survives in the names of Camden Town.



Camden's Britannia remained a standard and highly regarded authority for many years after his death. A lightly revised edition of Holland's 1610 translation was published in 1637. A new and greatly expanded translation, edited by Edmund Gibson, was published in 1695, and was reissued in revised editions in 1722, 1753 and 1772. Yet another new and further expanded translation by Richard Gough was published in 1789, followed by a second edition in 1806. In an address given in 1986, marking the original publication's 400th anniversary, George Boon commented that the work:

  • "still fundamentally colours the way in which we, as antiquaries, look at our country".

Camden on Chester

William Camden wrote his noted description of Chester roughly around 1590. Obviously, he did not have the benefit of the Internet, otherwise he could have updated it as shown below (we hope he would have found it useful). The original text is in bold and comments, as a gloss, have been added as bullet points:

But to testifie the Romanes magnificence, there are remaining indeede at this day very few tokens, besides pavements of foure square checker worke: howbeit in the former ages it presented many, which Ranulph a Monke of this Citie shall tell you out of his Polychronicon in these his owne words: There be waies heere under the ground vaulted marvelously with stone worke, chambers having arched roofes over had, huge stones engraven with the names of ancient men. Heere also are sometimes digged up peeces of money coined by Julius Caesar and other famous persons, and stamped with their inscriptions.

Likewise Roger of Chester in his Policraticon, When I behold (saith he) the groundworke of buildings in the streets laid with monstrous big stones, it seemeth that it hath beene founded by the painfull labour of Romans or giants, rather than by the sweat of Britans.

  • "Roger of Chester" may be a mixed-up reference to Robert of Chester who translated several historically important books from Arabic to Latin, by authors such as Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Khwarizmi.

This Citie, built in forme of a quadrant foure square, is enclosed with a wall that taketh up more than two miles in compasse, and hath eleven parishes. But that of Saint Johns without the Northgate was the fairest, being a stately and solemne building, as appeareth by the remaines, wherein were anciently Prebendaries and, as some write, the Bishops See.

Neere unto the river standeth the Castle upon a rockie hill, built by the Earles, where the Courts Palatine and the Assises, as they call them, are kept twice a yeere.

The houses are very faire built, and along the chiefe streets are galleries or walking places, they call them rowes, having shops on both sides, through which a man may walke dry from one end to the other.

  • There have been several theories as to the origin of The Rows;
Porch sculpture at Chester Town Hall - Egbert - believed at the time to be the first king of England. Visited Chester once - to invade it. It is not clear who Camden means when he mentions "Egfrid".

But it hath not continued evermore in one tenor of prosperity. First it was rased by Egfrid King of Northumberland, then by the Danes, yet reedified againe by Aedelfled Lady of the Mercians, and soone after it saw King Eadgar in magnificent maner triumphing over the British Princes. For sitting himselfe in a barge at the fore-decke, Kennadie King of the Scots, Malcoline King of Cumberland, Macon King of Mann and of the Ilands, with all the Princes of Wales brought to do homage, and like watermen working at the Ore, rowed him along the river Dee in a triumphant shew, to his great glory and joy of the beholders.

Certaine yeeres after, and namely about the yeere of our redemption 1094, whenas in a devout and religious emulation, as one saith, Princes strove avie that Cathedrall Churches and Minsters should bee erected in a more decent and seemelie forme, and whenas Christendome rouzed as it were her selfe, and, casting away her old habilimentes, did put on everiewhere the bright and white robe of the Churches, Hugh the first of the Norman bloud that was Earle of Chester repaired the Church, which Earle Leofrick had formerlie founded in honour of the Virgin Saint Werburga, and by the advise of Anselm, whom hee had procured to come out of Normandie, granted the same unto monkes. And now it is notorious for the tombe of Henrie the Fourth, Emperour of Almaine [Germany], who, as they say, gave over his empire and lived heere an Eremites life, and for the Bishops See therein established. Which See immediately after the Normans conquest Peter Bishop of Lichfield translated from Lichfield hither, but when it was brought to Coventrie, and from thence into the ancient seat againe, West-chester lay a long time bereft of this Episcopall dignity, untill in our fathers daies King Henrie the Eighth, having thrust out the monkes, ordeined Prebendaries and restored a Bishop againe, under whom for his Dioecise hee appointed this Country, Lancashire, Richmond &c., and appointed the same to bee within the Province of the Archbishop of Yorke.

The Agricola Tower at Chester Castle seen from Edgar's Field across the River Dee in Handbridge.

But returne wee now to matters of greater antiquity. Whenas now the said Cathedrall church was built, the Earles that were of the Normans line fortified the citie both with walles and castle. For as the Bishop held of the King that which belongeth to his Bishopricke (these are the words of Domesday-booke made by King William the Conquerour), so the Earles with their men held of the King wholy all the rest of the City. It paide geld or tribute for fifty hides, and foure hundred thirty and one houses were thus geldable, and seaven Mint-maisters. When the King himselfe in person came thither every Carrucata yeelded unto him two hundred Hesthas, and one tun full of Ale, and one Rusca of butyr. And in the same place, for the reedification of the City wall and the bridge, the Provost gave warning by an edict that out of every Hide in the County one man should come , and looke whose man came not, his Lord or Maister was fined in fortie shillings to the King and the Earle. If I should particulate the scufflings and skirmishes hereabout betweene the Welsh and English in the beginning of the Normans time, their inrodes and outrodes, the often scarfyres [fires] in the Suburbs of Hanbrid beyond the bridge, whereupon the Welshmen call it Treboeth, that is, The burnt towne, as also the wall made there of Welshmens sculls that went a great length, I should seeme to forget my selfe and thrust my sicle into the Historians harvest.

But ever since the said time hath Chester notablie flourished, and King Henry the Seventh made it a County by it selfe incorporate. Neither wanteth any thing there that may be required in a most flourishing City, but that the Ocean, being offended and angrie (as it were) at certaine Mills in the very chanell of the river Dee, hath by little withdrawne himselfe backe, and affordeth not unto the citie the commoditie of an haven, as heretofore. The Longitude of this place is twentie degrees and three and twentie scruples, the Latitude three and fiftie degrees and eleven scruples. If you desire to know more touching this citie, have here these reports out of Lucian that monke above said, who lived almost five hundred yeeres agoe. First, it is to be considered that Chester is built as a Citie, the site whereof inviteth and allureth the eye, which beeing situate in the West parts of Britaine, was in times past a place of receipt to the Legions comming afarre off to repose themselves, and served sufficientlie to keepe the keies, as I may say, of Ireland, for the Romans to preserve the limite of their Empire. For beeing opposite to the North-east part of Ireland, it openeth waie for passage of ships, and mariners with spred saile passing not often but continuallie to and fro, as also for the commodities of sundrie sorts of merchandise. And whiles it casteth an eye forward into the East, it looketh toward not onely the See of Rome and the Empire thereof, but the whole world also, so that it standeth forth as a kenning place to the view of eyes, that there may bee knowne valiant exploites, and the long traine and consequence of things; as also whatsoever throughout the world hath beene done by all persons, in all places, and at all times, and what ever hath beene yll done may also bee avoided and taken heed of. Which Citie having foure gates from the foure cardinall winds, on the East side hath a prospect toward India, on the West toward Ireland, North-Eastward the greater Norway, and Southward that streit and narrow Angle which divine severity, by reason of civill and home-discords, hath left unto the Britans. Which long since by their bitter variance have caused the name of Britaine to be changed into the name of England. Over and beside, Chester hath by Gods gift a river to enrich and adorne it; the same, faire and fishfull, hard by the Citie walls. And on the Southside a rode and harbour for shippes coming from Gascoine, Spaine, and Germanie, which with the helpe and direction of Christ, by the labour and wisdome of merchantes, repaire and refresh the heart of the City with many good things, that wee, being comforted every waie by our Gods grace, may also drinke wine often, more frankelie and plentuouslie because those Countries enjoy the frute of the Vineyards aboundantlie. Moreover the open sea ceaseth not to visite it every daie with a tide, which according as the broad shelves and barres of sands are opened or hidden by tides and ebbes incessantlie, is wont more or less either to send or exchange one thing or other, and by his reciprocall flow and returnes, either to bring in or to carrie out somewhat.

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