The early antiquaries of the reign of Elizabeth I faced an enormous task in understanding the successive waves of invasion and settlement that made up the history of Britain. The material evidence of the Celtic past, of Roman occupation, of Anglo-Saxon settlement and Viking incursion prior to the Norman Conquest would not be easily unravelled. Lacking the means to classify and understand the material remains from these periods of history meant that early antiquarians concerned themselves more with manuscripts and written evidence, with language (the translation of Anglo-Saxon), with understanding ideas about the development of English Christianity and the different forms of government.
The early maps of John Speed (1611) omitted roads in favour of rivers as the most reliable means of transport. Travel was a rare event and many people’s knowledge of the country was restricted to their own locality. Much antiquarian research was devoted to local issues, and since many antiquaries were heralds, men responsible for the regulation of knights' coats of arms, there was great interest in establishing genealogical trees for prominent local families. The leading antiquary of Elizabeth’s reign was William Camden, also a herald, but whose work would have great national significance.
William Camden’s great work, Britannia, was first published in Latin in 1586. In it he set out to describe the location of Roman settlements and in doing so hoped to give some idea of the native British tribes that the Romans had subdued. By travelling the country, studying the manuscripts, histories and ancient sites in the different counties his work became a geographical and historical account of Britain. Expanded in later editions, it was finally translated into English in 1610. Camden did discuss the early tribes but could find no physical remains of their existence. However he soon realised the greater contribution of the Saxons rather than the Romans to the history of the country.
Camden attracted a large group of antiquaries who co-operated in their research, corresponded and met frequently: men like Sir Robert Cotton who built up a large library of Saxon and medieval manuscripts which he made available to fellow antiquaries. The members of this group ceased to meet formally in 1607 and attempts to revive a society were discouraged by James I who suspected their researches might undermine royal powers. Nevertheless, important work was done by individuals later in the century on county histories and an extensive history of Monasticism.
In a period where the flint tools of our Stone-Age ancestors were regarded as ‘thunderbolts from the gods’, little archaeological activity was carried out. Chance finds of burial urns or coins might enter the popular cabinets of curiosities alongside exotic objects from the natural world, but with little questioning of their potential significance. Cotton and Camden had made an expedition to Hadrian’s Wall in 1600 to note inscriptions and unearth altars and what statuary they could find, but such archaeological interest was rare. In 1620 James I’s curiosity about Stonehenge was satisfied by his Surveyor, the architect Inigo Jones, who dug and measured and concluded the monument was Roman in origin.
The characteristics of the antiquary were already being recognised, and were somewhat unfairly described by John Earle in 1628 as ‘one that hath that unnatural disease to be enamoured of old age, and wrinkles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen do cheese) the better for being mouldy and worm-eaten.’ But love of the past could have a more pressing and immediate purpose.
The idea of using an illustration to record and help preserve a building would be an important aspect of antiquarianism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The diptych of Old St Paul’s may be the first painting to be created for that purpose. In 1561 the old St Paul’s Cathedral had been struck by lightening, its spire destroyed and roof damaged. Its consequent state of disrepair led a legal clerk, Henry Farley, to mount a campaign for its restoration. Writing poems and publishing pamphlets, he appealed to the Mayor and Bishop of London, even to James I. His poem The Complaint of Paules ends with a dream in which the author sees the church restored to its former glory. This diptych was commissioned by Farley to illustrate his vision.
The outer panel depicts ships sailing up the Channel while a procession of dignitaries crosses London Bridge into the City. Opening the panel reveals the two inner paintings: on the left, the assembled crowd gather in front of the cathedral to hear a sermon lamenting its present condition, as a flock of black crows hover over the ruined spire; and on the right, Farley’s vision of restoration with the gleaming tower and spire heralded by a choir of angels.
The foundation of the Royal Society in 1660 might have provided a focus for antiquarian research, since not all members were scientists and antiquaries were able to join. Among them was John Aubrey, best known for his Brief Lives, who was fascinated by the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire. The first to realise that this was not a random collection of stones but carefully planned circles, he drew and measured and made plans of the site. In his view, ‘it does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church.’ On the basis of the rough finish of the stones he made the important judgement that the monument was pre-Roman and presented his findings to the Society in 1663. His attention to methodical research and accurately presented information fitted into the new intellectual ethos, and his treatise Monumenta Britannica, though not published until the twentieth century, could be seen as the first English archaeological study.
Despite Aubrey and others, the Royal Society was to prove an uncongenial home to the broad scope of antiquarian research, and when Sir Isaac Newton became president in 1703 its concentration on scientific matters convinced antiquaries that they needed their own organisation.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.
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