William Camden – antiquarian and historian

William Camden - antiquarian and historianIt is generally supposed that Camden Place in Chislehurst was named after William Camden, antiquarian and historian, who is reputed to have lived in a house on the site where Camden Place was later built.

Born in 1551 in London, William Camden (right) was educated at St Paul’s School and Oxford University, where he was in residence variously at Magdalen College, Broadgates Hall and Christ Church, where his interest in history was encouraged by Philip Sidney.

His first work, A Survey of the Country of the Iceni, was published in 1586, and was quickly followed by his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. Camden wanted to ‘restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity’. In it, he describes the country as it was at that time, but through landscape and geography and in other ways, he traces the links to the past, especially to Roman Britain. The first editions were in Latin, and it was only in 1610 that an English language edition was published.  It is remarkable that this was the first book to include a full set of English county maps. Camden continued to update and revise Britannia, and travelled widely across the country to view places, documents and materials.

His second great work, suggested to him by Lord Burghley, was The Annals of Queen Elizabeth, tracing the implications of the many significant events of her long reign. While writing this book, he moved to Chislehurst, and finished it here.  It is in two parts, the first published in 1615, covering events up until 1597.  The second part was finished in 1622, but not published until after Camden’s death.

Wiliam Camden had been Headmaster at Westminster School from 1593, where one of his students was Ben Johnson.  Johnson dedicated his work Every Man in His Humour to him.  Camden found that being headmaster interfered with his work, and in 1597 accepted the honourable post of Clarencieux King-at-arms, which provided him with an income, and plenty of time for his researches and writing.

In 1609 he moved to Chislehurst, not least because of his friendship with Sir Thomas Walsingham, who at that time was living at Scadbury, and he remained in Chislehurst for the rest of his life.  He was renowned for his scholarship, and it was while he was in Chislehurst, having just completed the second part of the Annals, that he endowed a history lectureship at Oxford University, apparently the first of its kind.  This still exists as the Camden Chair in Ancient History. William was struck by paralysis in the same year, and died in November 1623.  He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Among Camden’s other works are a Greek grammar, a standard school textbook for many years; Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (1605), a more popular English-language companion to Britannia, the official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters; and a catalogue of the epitaphs at Westminster Abbey.

Camden’s house in Chislehurst was rebuilt a hundred years after his death by Robert Weston, and only then was named Camden Place.