Polydori Vergilii Vrbinatis Anglicae historiae libri XXVI
Polydore Vergil was sent to England by Pope Alexander VI in 1501 to be deputy collector of Peter’s Pence. Born in Urbino and educated likely in Bologna, he had published several works including the first printed collection of Latin proverbs and served as chamberlain to the pope before this assignment. In England, Vergil became close to King Henry VII, who had a splendid library and enjoyed both listening to and reading histories. In 1503, the King appointed Vergil to write a history of England. The King wished to have Vergil firmly establish that King Arthur was in his family tree.
Vergil finally completed his Anglicae Historiae about 30 years later. The book was dedicated to successor King Henry VIII, who also took interest in the writing of history. It was not the work that the King’s father had asked for. Rather than backing Tudor claims of heritage, it attacked the historicity of Arthur. Using common sense arguments, Vergil also called into question the Trojan ancestry of the British. In addition, he dismissed the claim that the Gaels came from Egypt and that the land and people in northern Britain had received their name from from Scota, the Egyptian wife of the conquering commander.
In writing Anglicae Historiae, Vergil brought to England a humanistic approach to history to England. He made good use of manuscripts and printed sources, oral traditions and recollections of older contemporaries, and as an Italian only later to be naturalized, objective observation of English customs. Although Vergil did not add much to what medieval historians had known, he shrewdly made critical use of sources and recognized that history is more than a collection of annals—it can be put to purpose and instruct.
Printed abroad and in Latin, Anglicae Historiae was undoubtedly more widely read on the Continent than in England. Nine editions were printed by 1651. Importantly, Vergil’s works were studied, used as a resource, and emulated by Edward Halle and later Tudor chroniclers to shape the way English history was presented to English readers.
The present copy of the first edition of Anglicae Historiae is in fine contemporary English calf over wooden boards and has its original catches and remnants of clasps. The efficiency of the book trade at the time is demonstrated by the fact that the book was printed in Basel in 1534 and the binding was made in Oxford or London no later than 1535 for an owner, who signed the book, that may have resided in Essex.
Chrzanowski 1534v *