William CamdenWe really are spoilt for choice when it comes to good documentaries on TV at the moment and I realise from my posts it looks like I spend all day in front of the box, but what the hell…

Yesterday’s treat was the first in a three part series called Nicholas Crane’s Britannia: The Great Elizabethan Journey. Nicholas Crane takes a walk through Britain to discover the places described in William Camden’s exhaustive 16th century survey of the British Isles.

William Camden was born in London in 1551, attended Oxford University and went on to become an antiquarian and historian. In 1577, he began work on Britannia, the first complete topographical and historical survey of Britain, and his most famous achievement. It was first published in Latin in 1586, with no maps, but was nevertheless extremely popular. In 1610 it was published in English, with extensive maps.

Map of England and Wales from Britannia

Saxon England and Wales, Robert Morden, 1722

Instead of narrative history, Camden described the state of Britain county by county, detailing the landscape, geography, towns and people and their historical links, with an aim to ‘to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity’. He went to great lengths to collect information, travelling around the country and learning Welsh and old English to aid his exploration. Camden seemed to present Britain as a tranquil, beautiful place, conveniently omitting the turbulence and dangers of life in the 16th century. As Nicholas Crane describes:

Britannia gave Elizabethans a vision of remote parts they’d scarcely heard of. It gave them a pride in their own nation. Britannia suggests that most things in Camden’s England and Wales are in very good shape. If there are problems, the people overcome them. Above all the country is at peace with itself. Well, it’s certainly a point of view – the long view, perhaps, reflecting the Elizabethan craving for order. But it glides over troubled waters. The truth is that Britain wasn’t so tranquil, it wasn’t unified and it didn’t share a common purpose.

The programme is beautifully filmed with stunning views of the British countryside, so do watch it if you can – and big apologies to anyone in the US who is fed up with me going on and on about programmes only available in the UK. BBC2 next Tuesday, this time dealing with Scotland, funnily enough.

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