At the head of a party of titled mourners preceding the coffin of Elizabeth I, wearing a tabard with the royal arms and flanked by two gentlemen bearing white rods, was a herald, scholar and former headmaster of Westminster School named William Camden. The funeral procession included Sir Walter Raleigh, earls and bishops, and 266 poor women, summoned to pray for Elizabeth’s soul and testimony to how certain rites of Catholicism lingered on in the Protestant England of 1603. For Camden, with no noble blood, born in a poor area of London and not inclined to promote his own renown, it must have been a day of ironical triumph. He had become one of the most celebrated men of his age, as the author of a ground-breaking encyclopaedia of Britain, and at the request of the new king he was about to write the first biography of the dead queen.
William Camden: A Life in Context is the first full-length biography of Camden. Given his importance, this might seem a surprising oversight, but Camden’s is not an easy life to write. We have his two major works, the Britannia and the Annals of Elizabeth. He kept some personal records; a