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English History Abridged: John Stow's Shorter Chronicles and Popular History*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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John Stow's abridged chronicles present a short, simplified version of English history that formed an important component of sixteenth-century popular culture. The author was a citizen historian, a self-educated man, whose social status placed him outside the gentry, and a scholar who was closer to medieval traditions than to the New Learning associated with Renaissance humanism. Stow and his chronicles therefore stand apart from the university-educated intellectual elite whose writings shaped the high culture of Elizabethan England. His abridged chronicles, based on his larger Annales of England, offered readers of lower social and economic status a more affordable national history than was available in the larger quarto volumes. This essay considers the character of abridged chronicles, examines Stow's interpretation of a variety of significant topics from the Norman Conquest to the death of Henry VIII, and argues that Stow's work offers valuable insights into the historical understanding of ordinary men and women.

For centuries John Stow, identified in the Dictionary of National Biography as a “chronicler and antiquary,” lived in the shadow of more illustrious contemporaries. Shakespeare preferred Raphael Holinshed's chronicle to Stow's Annales of England as the source for his history plays while William Camden was a scholar of vastly greater erudition to whom the DNB assigned the higher status of “historian.” In contrast to the glittering literati of Elizabethan England, Stow is usually cast in gray, a worthy man of negligible learning who through a lifetime of hard work produced books that were generally accurate but dull.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 36 , Issue 1 , Spring 2004 , pp. 12 - 27
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2004

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Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the Western Conference on British Studies at Denver in October 2000 and to a conference on “John Stow (1525–1605) Author, Editor, and Reader” at Oxford in April 2001.


1 For further details concerning Stow's life, social status, and education, see Beer, Barrett L., Tudor England Observed: The World of John Stow (Stroud, 1998)Google Scholar and John Stow's Historical Notes (1500–1605): The Craft of a Citizen Historian,” Manuscripta 41:1 (March 1997) [2000]: 3852CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Woolf, D. R., Reading History in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 7–8, 1178Google Scholar. See also Levy, F. J., Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, CA, 1967)Google Scholar. For a recent of assessment of A Survey of London, see Merritt, J. F., ed., Imagining Early Modern London: Perceptions and Portrayals of the City from Stow to Strype 1598–1720 (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 1–7, 2751Google Scholar.

3 Patterson, Annabel, Reading Holinshed's Chronicles (Chicago, 1994), pp. 912Google Scholar. At the end of his life Stow was embittered by the inability to find a publisher for a larger chronicle that he had completed and blamed Holinshed. Stow complained that his work was not published “by printing and reprinting of Reign Wolfes collections, and other late commers, by the name of Ralfe Holensheads Cronicles,” The Annales of England (London, 1604), p. 458Google Scholar.

4 Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 279, 296–97Google Scholar. For a helpful discussion of book costs see Woolf, , Reading History, pp. 4348Google Scholar. As the price of a book was determined by the number of sheets, those in larger format cost more than smaller ones. According to Woolf's data, a copy of Stow's abridgement, Edmund Howes' continuation of 1618 [STC 23332], is listed at 3s. bound and 2s. 4d. unbound in 1618. Larger chronicles such as Holinshed's edition of 1577 were more expensive; a bound copy cost 26s. in 1577.

5 A Short Title Catalogue of Books printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475–1640, compiled by Pollard, A. W. & Redgrave, G. R., 3 vols. (2nd ed.; London, 19761977), 2: 368–69Google Scholar.

6 A Cronicle of Yeres (London, 1542), STC 9986, British Library shelf mark C122 a.1Google Scholar.

7 STC 9968–9976. The best study of Mychell is Wiatt, William H., “The Lost History of Wyatt's Rebellion,” Renaissance News 15 (1962): 128–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 A Brefe of the Cronecles since the Raynne of Brute… (Canterbury, n.d. [1552]), STC 9968, British Library shelf mark G. 5894.

9 Grafton, Richard, An Abridgement of the Chronicles of England (London, 1563), STC 12148Google Scholar.

10 For a fuller discussion of the conflict between Stow and Grafton, see Devereux, E. J., “Empty Tuns and Unfruitful Grafts: Richard Grafton's Historical Publications,” Sixteenth Century Journal 21, 1 (1990): 3356CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Manchester, Andrea, “Chronicling Bloody Mary: Richard Grafton's Depiction of the English Reformation,” Proceedings of the Ohio Academy of History (1999): 3949Google Scholar.

11 Johns, , The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 1998), pp. 161–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Athens, GA, 1982)Google Scholar, and Wheale, Nigel, Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590–1660 (London, 1999)Google Scholar.

12 Woolf, , Reading History, pp. 22, 80Google Scholar; Cressy, David, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Raven, J., Small, H., and Tadmor, N., eds., The Practice and Representation of Reading in England (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 121Google Scholar; Hackel, Heidi Brayman, “‘The Great Variety of Readers’ and Early Modern Reading Practices,” in A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Kastan, D. S. (Oxford, 1999), pp. 139–57Google Scholar.

13 John Dee's Library Catalogue, ed. Roberts, J. and Watson, A. (London, 1990)Google Scholar contains a facsimile of 1583 catalogue that lists the following English chronicles: nos. 1699–1702: 1570 “John Stowe's chronicle” STC 23322 [Summary]; 1575 STC 23325 [Summary]; 1567 STC 23325.5 [Abridgement]; 1573 STC 23325.6 [Abridgement]; 1703 Grafton's abridgement 1570; 1681 Holinshed 1577. Lady Margaret Hoby was an avid reader active at the time when Stow's abridgements and other chronicles were available but never mentioned reading a secular historical work although she read accounts of the fall of Essex. She read Foxe and on one occasion “a little of humanitie.” The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady: The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599–1603, ed. Moody, J. (Stroud, 1998), pp. 99, 147, 26, 70, 151, 89Google Scholar.

14 British Library shelf mark 570 a. 10. The second copy of the 1598 edition was acquired by the author from Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London, and is now in the Kent State University Library. The bookplate may be that of Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevy, 2nd Bt. (1745–1818).

15 Annales of England (1605), p. 450. Entry is for 1381Google Scholar.

16 Annales of England (1605), p. 452Google Scholar.

17 Papers given at a meeting titled John Stow (1525–1605) Author, Editor, and Reader,” Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 30 March–1 April 2001Google Scholar.

18 A Summarie of the Chronicles of England Diligently Collected, Abridged, and Continued… (London, 1604), p. 13Google Scholar; Kendrick, T. D., British Antiquity (London, 1950), pp. 39, 159Google Scholar.

19 Gillingham, John, “The Early Middle Ages,” in The Oxford History of Britain, ed. Morgan, K. O. (Oxford, 1988), pp. 120–25Google Scholar.

20 Annales of England (1605), p. 133Google Scholar. Stow cites Matthew Paris and William of Malmesbury as his authorities.

21 The reader who ventured beyond the events of 1066 discovered that William I presided over a repressive regime that was burdensome to the English.

22 A Summarie (1604), pp. 3435Google Scholar.

23 Annales of England (1605), pp. 130–35Google Scholar, lists the following fourteen sources in the margins with a short title. A complete listing of sources, “Authors out of whom these Annales are collected,” is given at the beginning of volume: Rog. Houed. [Roger of Howden]; Simon Dunel.[mensis.] [Simeon of Durham]; Gualter Couen. [Walter of Coventry]; Marianes. [Marainus Scotus, an Irish monk living in Mainz]; Johannes Rouse. [John Rous]; Sigebertus. [Gimblacensis] [Sigebert of Gembloux]; W. Gemiticen.[sis.]; [Registrum de] Li Woodbridge; John de Tailour, [History of Normandy, 132]; Chronicle of Normandy; Mathew Paris [c. 1200–1259] [I have caused to be printed]; W. Malmes.[bury] [William of Malmesbury (1095–1143)]; Flores Historiae [I have caused to be printed]; Lib. S. Albani [Book of St. Albans]. In contrast to Stow, Richard Grafton, Grafton's abridgement of the Chronicles of England, newely corrected and augmented, to thys present yere of our Lord, 1572 (London, 1572)Google Scholar, listed sources for his account of the Norman Conquest. See, for example, fos. 31v., 32, 38v., 39r.

24 A Summarie of the Chronicles (London, 1604), p. 76Google ScholarPubMed.

25 Grafton, Richard, Grafton's abridgement of the Chronicles of England… (London, 1572), fo. 57rGoogle Scholar.

26 The 1598 edition has about the same account of Magna Carta. A fuller account may be found in the Annales of England (1605) where there is a reference to the barons' attack on London and their plundering of Jews' property, pp. 257–58. There is a discussion of the rediscovery of Magna Carta by chroniclers and lawyers during the 16th and 17th centuries in Thompson, Faith, Magna Carta (Minneapolis, 1948)Google Scholar. Thompson, pp. 162–63, notes that Stow's account of the reign of John is based on Robert Fabyan. For the later role of Magna Carta in English education see Heathorn, Stephen, For Home, Country, and Race: Constructing Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880–1914 (Toronto, 2000), pp. 6268CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Heathorn also stresses the importance of Simon de Montfort, Edward I, and Parliament.

27 Richard was the third son of Henry II. This is given correctly in the Annales of England (London, 1605)Google Scholar.

28 Date is incorrect. Richard I was crowned in 1199. This is apparently a printer's error as it does not occur in the 1598 edition. Cf. Grafton's abridgement (London, 1572) fo. 53r, which offers a fuller accountGoogle ScholarPubMed.

29 Bury St. Edmunds, Lincoln, Stamford, King's Lynn

30 A Summarie (1604), pp. 6263Google Scholar.

31 Ibid. (1604), pp. 95–99.

32 Ibid. (1604), pp. 84, 89, 110.

33 Stow's approach to medieval Jews may be contrasted with later writers of popular historical works. Mrs.Markham, Elizabeth Penrose [(d. 1837)], A History of England (London, 1853), pt. 1: 96–103Google Scholar, concentrating on Richard I's crusading adventures, omitted any reference to his anti-Semitism. The early twentieth-century historian, G. M. Trevelyan, Illustrated History of England (London, 1926; 1956), pp. 164, 187–88 condemns “shocking pogroms,” but fails to mention the actions of Richard I or the incident at York.

34 Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (New York, 1965), 1: 205, 210–12Google Scholar, where Matthew Paris and William Paruus [Petyte] are cited as sources for the reign of Richard I, Stow provided no sources for this episode in the Annales of England.

35 In the Chronicles of England (London, 1580), pp. 304–05Google ScholarPubMed, Stow wrote, “He [Edward I] banished all the Jewes out of England, giuing them to beare their charges, till they were out of his Realme, the number of Jewes then expulsed, were xv. M. lx. persons.” Stow also referred to the plight of the Jews in A Survey of London. See Roth, Cecil, A History of the Jews in England (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1964), pp. 1825Google Scholar, Shapiro, James S., Shakespeare and the Jews (New York, 1996), pp. 6288Google Scholar, Meyers, Charles, “Law Suits in Elizabethan Courts of Law: The Adventures of Dr. Hector Nunes, 1566–1591: A Precis,” The Journal of European Economic History 25, 1 (1996): 157–68Google Scholar and Meyers, and Simms, Norman, eds., Troubled Souls: Conversos, Crypto-Jews, and Other Confused Jewish Intellectuals from the Fourteenth through the Eighteenth Century (Hamilton, NZ, 2001)Google Scholar.

36 A Summarie (1604), p. 48Google Scholar.

37 Grafton, , An Abridgement of the Chronicles of England (London, 1563), fo. 49rGoogle Scholar.

38 A Summarie (1604), p. 61Google Scholar.

39 Ibid. (1604), p. 129.

40 Ibid. (1604), p. 147.

41 Annales of England (1605), p. 595Google Scholar.

42 Ibid. (1605), p. 688.

43 A Summarie (1604), p. 175; (1598), p. 200Google Scholar.

44 A Summarie (1604), p. 178Google Scholar.

45 The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, ed. Sylvester, R. S. (New Haven, 1963) 2: xxxxxiiGoogle Scholar.

46 See Stow's comments on Hood, Robin, A Summarie (1604), p. 63Google Scholar. Many examples of charitable giving are also recorded in A Survey of London, for example, Stow's Survey of London (London, 1965), pp. 82–84, 236Google Scholar. See also Archer, Ian W., “The Arts and Acts of Memorialization in Early Modern London,” in Imagining Early Modern London, pp. 89113Google Scholar.

47 A Summarie (1604), pp. 192–93Google Scholar. Hall's Chronicle (London, 1809; reprint, New York, 1965), pp. 422505Google Scholar.

48 Tudor England Observed, pp. 84–108.

49 A Summarie (1604), p. 199Google Scholar.

50 A Summarie (1604), pp. 1315Google Scholar. This account stands in marked contrast to the Annales (1605), pp. 894, 908–18, based on Edward Hall, which includes a lengthy discussion of the issues surrounding the king's divorce.

51 A Summarie (1604), pp. 204–05Google Scholar.

52 Ibid. (1604), pp. 204–05. See Hughes, P. L. and Larkin, J. F., Tudor Royal Proclamations, 3. vols. (New Haven, 1964) 1: 197–98Google Scholar.

53 A Summarie (1604), p. 211Google Scholar.

54 Powicke, Maurice, The Reformation in England (London, 1967), pp. 123Google Scholar; Haigh, Christopher, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford, 1993), pp. 1821Google Scholar; and Bernard, G. W., Politics and Power in Tudor England (Burlington, VT, 2000), pp. 108–23Google Scholar.

55 Helgerson, Richard, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago, 1994)Google Scholar.