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6 - Murder in Faversham: Holinshed's impertinent history

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Donald R. Kelley
Affiliation:
Rutgers University, New Jersey
David Harris Sacks
Affiliation:
Reed College, Oregon
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Summary

As its first entry for the year 1551, Holinshed's Chronicles (1577 and 1587) presents a detailed account of the murder of a certain Master Arden, a gentleman of Faversham in Kent, by his wife, her lover, and a host of accomplices. The entry is not unique. Leaving aside political assassinations, Holinshed's 1587 index lists some twenty-three murders. But its length does make it unusual. Where most of Holinshed's other murder stories get no more than a sentence or two, the Arden account goes on for a full seven tightly printed folio columns, nearly five thousand words, considerably more than he gives many events of state. Perhaps that's why he felt the need for a justification and apology: “The which murder, for the horribleness thereof, although otherwise it may seem to be but a private matter and therefore, as it were, impertinent to this history, I have thought good to set it forth somewhat at large.”

The “horribleness” Holinshed vaunts is obvious enough: a wife's adultery leading to the murder of her husband; servants rebelling against their master; neighbors turning against neighbor; the engagement first of a poisoner and then of “a notorious murdering ruffian” and his vagabond companion; a whole series of grotesque failed attempts, culminating in a successfully brutal murder in the victim's own parlor; and finally eight spectacular public executions. Nor was the horribleness only a matter of sensational transgression and violence. It also served to prompt wonder and thus led to a reawakened sense of human depravity and providential design – a design signaled by the miraculous print of Arden's body still to be seen “two years and more” after he was slain in the field where the murderers dumped him.

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The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain
History, Rhetoric, and Fiction, 1500–1800
, pp. 133 - 158
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1997

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