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The Discovery of England's Past

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 27 March 2003

Presented by Elizabethan and Renaissance expert Jonathan Bate, this new three part series looks at the flowering of culture that took place under Elizabeth I and shaped our image of England forever. Famed for exploring the new world and laying the foundations of the British Empire, the Elizabethans also focused on domestic and inward discovery.

This programme tells the true story of the book that inspired the greatest history plays of the Elizabethan era. The Holinshed Chronicles set down, for the first time, fragments of knowledge about the English, Scottish and Irish past into a single epic publication. The book on England was the largest and became the most popular Elizabethan history and the basis for the national story we still tell our children.

But how much of England's newly documented past was based on ancient history, and how much on political propaganda?

Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles were published in 1577. They were soon plundered for plots and plagiarised by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists. Richard II and many of the history plays draw closely on their retelling of the past. However, as we will discover, they are an unreliable basis for any truthful assessment of England's history - a fact many in power were well aware of at the time. So influential did the Chronicles become that Elizabeth's closest advisers called in the book for rewriting and censorship so that the story it told of England's past suited the Tudor regime.

Jonathan Bate hears how today's historians have rescued the Chronicles from neglect. They were central to the idea of nationhood that emerged in the sixteenth century.

Producer: Matthew Dodd


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