See study by S. Booth (1968).
Little is known about Holinshed’s life. There is no source which states his date of birth, for instance. He became known only by the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, and all the information we have about him is related to this work. Although Vernon Snow remarks that Holinshed was an experienced Cambridge-educated translator, no other works by Holinshed are available. A few months after the Chronicle had been licensed, Holinshed retired to the countryside near Warwick. He died around 1580 and his will was proven on 24 April 1582. Nothing is known about Holinshed’s civil duties, other scholarly achievements or work for the Church.
The contributors were industrious compilers. They took the primary sources and linked them together into consistent and chronological narratives. They quoted from documents, copied printed histories and paraphrased others. They rarely excluded something, as they thought that the more source authorities they had, the better it was. This was not seen as plagiarism at the time; it was seen as good methodology and, moreover, the work was well documented. Prefatory bibliographies were included and there were marginal notations indicating the source documents. Harrison, for instance, relied heavily on Leland for much of his descriptive detail, whereas Holinshed used John Bale and Geoffrey of Monmouth for the chronology of the narrative. The compilers did not, however, pass critical judgment on the evidence. Instead, they enabled the readers to be critical themselves by allowing conflicting views and dubious interpretations. They selected and wrote from a Protestant point of view, similar to that of John Foxe.
The second edition was finally licensed in 1587. It was printed in three folio volumes with title pages and several dedications, but without illustrations. The text was altered here and there, the new authorities were cited in the margins and some mistakes that had crept into the first volume were corrected. This made the work more comprehensive, but because of injudicious accretions, this had turned into an unbalanced agglomeration. The Chronicle was also restructured by Hooker and his companions, who did retain the basic framework, but shifted some chapters of the first book to the second and vice versa. Some short chapters were enlarged, several new ones were added, some chapters were omitted and several lengthy chapters were split into two. The accretions, however, exceeded the deletions by far, resulting in a more comprehensive work. In total, the number of chapters in the first volume was increased from 17 to 24. The history of England up to the Norman Conquest remained almost intact. The new editor of this section retained Holinshed's chronology, but he divided the bulk into eight chapters. He added a preface to each chapter, summarizing the contents. This too increased the work’s comprehensiveness.
This second edition was a huge success, despite its flaws and shortcomings. It was superior to its predecessor in several respects. The pagination was now consistent instead of a mixture of medieval and modern foliation and the elaborate indices Hooker and Fleming had increased the work's utility considerably. Even the paper it was printed on was of higher quality, withstanding hardships such as fire, water and bookworms far better than the first edition. The second edition also proved to be a veritable source of income for them, because it was more than just a compilation of sources. The second edition served as an almanac, a travel guide and an encyclopaedia for Englishmen, but it also had great value for foreign travelers and merchants, who used it as a description and guide of the English culture, both present and past. For poets and playwrights it became as important as the Bible in terms of information for their works. For them it was a book full of legends, allusions and dramatic plots.
By the time of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Holinshed's Chronicles had been superseded by other historical writings; chronicles that were better structured and more up-to-date had been published. These chronicles show a more critical methodology of historical writing which had emerged during the Renaissance. This resulted in the rejection of most of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fantastic stories that were still held as true in Holinshed's work. In short, the Chronicles were seen as outdated and simply inaccurate. The interest in the work, however, did not diminish. Many seventeenth century authors continued to use Holinshed as a source and, more importantly, in 1723 a folio volume containing the excised passages of the second edition was published. What saved Holinshed ultimately, however, was the revival of interest in Shakespeare at the end of the eighteenth century. The critical approach of the scholars at the time required Shakespeare’s sources to be available. Sir Henry Ellis decided to publish a new edition of Holinshed's Chronicles. He restored the contents of the chronicle to that of the second edition and the additions made between 1723 and 1728 were added separate from the original second edition. The scholars now had the exact edition that Shakespeare used.