CAMDEN, WILLIAM (1551–1623), English antiquary and historian, was born in London on the 2nd of May 1551. His father, Sampson Camden, a native of Lichfield, had settled in London, and, as a painter, had become a member of the company of painter-stainers. His mother, Elizabeth, belonged to the old Cumberland family of Curwen. Young Camden received his early education at Christ’s Hospital and St Paul’s school, and in 1566 went to Magdalen College, Oxford, probably as a servitor or chorister. Failing to obtain a demyship at Magdalen he removed to Broadgates Hall, afterwards Pembroke College, and later to Christ Church, where he was supported by his friend, Dr Thomas Thornton, canon of Christ Church. As a defender of the established religion he was soon engaged in controversy, and his failure to secure a fellowship at All Souls’ College is attributed to the hostility of the Roman Catholics. In 1570 he supplicated in vain for the degree of B.A., and although a renewed application was granted in 1573 it is doubtful if he ever took a degree; and in 1571 he went to London and devoted himself to antiquarian studies, for which he had already acquired a taste.
Camden spent some time in travelling in various parts of England collecting materials for his Britannia, a work which was first published in 1586. Owing to his friendship with Dr Gabriel Goodman, dean of Westminster, Camden was made second master of Westminster school in 1575; and when Dr Edward Grant resigned the headmastership in 1593 he was appointed as his successor. The vacations which he enjoyed as a schoolmaster left him time for study and travel, and during these years he supervised the publication of three further editions of the Britannia. Although a layman he was granted the prebend of Ilfracombe in 1589, and in 1597 he resigned his position at Westminster on being made Clarencieux king-at-arms, an appointment which caused some ill-feeling, and the York herald, Ralph Brooke, led an attack on the genealogical accuracy of the Britannia, and accused its author of plagiarism. Camden replied to Brooke in an appendix to the fifth edition of the Britannia, published in 1600, and his reputation came through the ordeal untarnished. Having brought out an enlarged and improved edition of the Britannia in 1607, he began to work on a history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, to which he had been urged by Lord Burghley in 1597. The first part of this history dealing with the reign down to 1588 was published in 1615 under the title Annales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha. With regard to this work some controversy at once arose over the author’s treatment of Mary, queen of Scots. It was asserted that Camden altered his original narrative in order to please James I., and, moreover, that the account which he is said to have given to his friend, the French historian, Jacques de Thou, differed substantially from his own. It seems doubtful if there is any truth in either of these charges. The second part of this work, finished in 1617, was published, after the author’s death, at Leiden in 1625 and in London in 1627. In 1622 Camden carried out a plan to found a history lectureship at Oxford. He provided an endowment from some lands at Bexley, and appointed as the first lecturer, his friend, Degory Wheare. The present occupant of the position is known as the Camden professor of ancient history. His concluding years were mainly spent at Chislehurst, where he had taken up his residence in 1609, and in spite of recurring illnesses he continued to work at material for the improvement of the Britannia and kindred subjects. He died at Chislehurst on the 9th of November 1623, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument now stands to his memory.
The Britannia, the first edition of which is dedicated to Burghley, is a survey of the British islands written in elegant Latin. It was first translated into English in 1610, probably under the author’s direction, and other translations have subsequently appeared, the best of which is an edition edited by Richard Gough and published in three volumes in 1789, and in four volumes in 1806. The Annales has been translated into French, and English translations appeared in 1635, 1675 and 1688. The Latin version was published at Leiden in 1639 and 1677, and under the editorship of T. Hearne at Oxford in 1717. In addition to these works Camden compiled a Greek grammar, Institutio Graecae Grammatices Compendiaria, which became very popular, and he published an edition of the writings of Asser, Giraldus Cambrensis, Thomas Walsingham and others, under the title, Anglica, Hibernica, Normannica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta, published at Frankfort in 1602, and again in 1603. He also drew up a list of the epitaphs in Westminster Abbey, which was issued as Reges, Reginae, Nobiles et alii in ecclesia collegiata Beati Petri Westmonasterii sepulti. This was enlarged and published again in 1603 and 1606. In 1605 he published his Remains concerning Britain, a book of collections from the Britannia, which quickly passed through seven editions; and he wrote an official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators as Actio in Henricum Garnetum, Societatis Jesuiticae in Anglia superiorem et caeteros.
Camden, who refused a knighthood, was a man of enormous industry, and possessed a modest and friendly disposition. He had a large number of influential friends, among whom were Archbishop Ussher, Sir Robert Cotton, John Selden, the French jurist Brisson, and Isaac Casaubon. His correspondence was published in London in 1691 by Dr Thomas Smith under the title, Vita Gulielmi Camdeni et Illustrium virorum ad G. Camdenum Epistolae. This-volume also contains his Memorabilia de seipso; his notes of the reign of James I.; and other interesting matter. In 1838 the Camden Society was founded in his honour, and much valuable work has been done under its auspices.