In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain. His stated intention was "to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity." The first edition was published in 1586. The work, which was written in Latin, was very popular, going into seven editions by 1607. The first English language translation, prepared by Philemon Holland (probably under Camden's direction) appeared in 1610.
Britannia is a county-by-county description of Great Britain. It is a work of chorography: a study that relates landscape, geography, antiquarianism, and history. Rather than write a history, Camden wanted to describe in detail the Great Britain of the present, and to show how the traces of the past could be discerned in the existing landscape. By this method, he produced the first coherent picture of Roman Britain.
He continued to collect materials and to revise and expand Britannia throughout his life. He drew on the published and unpublished work of John Leland and William Lambarde, among others, and received the assistance of a large network of correspondents with similar interests. He did not simply accept older authorities unquestioningly, but travelled throughout Great Britain and looked at documents, sites, and artifacts for himself, coming to his own conclusions based on first hand inspection and knowledge of the available sources. His firsthand research set new standards for the time. He even learned Welsh and Old English for the task. (Camden's tutor in Old English was Laurence Nowell.) The resulting work is one of the great achievements of sixteenth century scholarship.
In 1593, Camden became Headmaster of Westminster School. He held the post for four years, but left when he was appointed Clarenceux King of Arms. By this time, he was a well-known and revered figure, and the appointment was meant to free him from the labour of teaching and to facilitate his research. The College of Arms at that time was not only a centre of genealogical and heraldic study, but a centre of antiquarian study as well. The appointment, however, roused the jealousy of the herald Ralph Brooke, who, in retaliation, published an attack on Britannia, charging Camden with inaccuracy and plagiarism. Camden successfully defended himself against the charges in subsequent editions of the work.
The Annales were not written in a continuous narrative, but rather in the style of earlier annals, giving the events of each year in a separate entry. Though sometimes criticised as being too favourably disposed towards Elizabeth and the future James I, the Annales are one of the great works of English historiography. Camden's access to source material is unparalleled; the Annales are the basis for later histories of the period and are still consulted by historians today.
Camden left his library to his closest friend, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. His circle of friends and acquaintances included Lord Burghley, Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Stow, John Dee, Jacques de Thou and Ben Jonson, who was Camden's student at Westminster and who dedicated an early edition of Every Man in His Humour to him.
Among Camden's other works are a Greek grammar, very popular at one time; Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (1605), a collection of material gathered for Britannia but not included; the official account of the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters; and a catalogue of the epitaphs at Westminster Abbey.
The Camden Society was named in his honour in 1838.
A pub bears his name in Bexleyheath, Greater London (though, postally, in Kent).
The English Emblem Tradition: Vol. IV: William Camden: "Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine"; H.G.: "The Mirrour of Maiestie"; Otto van Veen: "Amorum Emblemata".(Review)
Jul 01, 2001; The English Emblem Tradition. Vol. IV: William Camden: 'Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine'; H. G.: 'The Mirrour of...