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Testing times

Testing times

A chronicle at large : and meere history of the affayres of Englande … from the creation … vnto the first yere of … Queene Elizabeth: …

London : Imprinted at London by Henry Denham, for Richarde Tottel and Humffrey Toye, 1569 [1568-69]

Canterbury Cathedral Library H/M-4-34 STC  12147

This month’s image for ‘Picture this…’ is a woodcut taken from Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at large. The scene depicts the testing of Abraham’s faith by God. However, before examining the image and its significance, it is interesting to consider the book’s printer more closely. In the case of Richard Grafton (c.1511-1573) as well as being a printer and historian he is known to have operated as a merchant with connections in Antwerp and during his early career he acted as a commercial agent, which meant that he oversaw the implementation of printing projects as well as often providing financial backing. Under the patronage of Cranmer, Grafton was involved in the production of two of the earliest Bibles in English, The Matthew Bible, 1537 and The Great Bible, 1539 (this latter once Cranmer had obtained a commission to produce an official Bible in English). After Cranmer was executed Grafton found himself imprisoned several times for publishing material that was ‘hostile’ to the new religious regime. In 1543 Grafton and his associate Edward Whitchurch were granted a privilege which entitled them to be the sole publishers of church service books. In 1545 they became printers to the household of Prince Edward; soon afterwards Grafton was operating his print workshop on his own. When Edward became King in 1547 Grafton was appointed as printer to the royal household. Although Grafton continued to print material for a few more years after Mary came to the throne in 1554, he was no longer printer to the royal household. By 1557 Grafton had retired from printing and his son-in-law Richard Tottel had inherited his types and woodcuts.

Grafton printed several editions of chronicles and other historical works; these include The chronicle of Ihon Hardyng, from the firste begynnying of Englande, vnto … Edward the fourth, 1543 (Grafton added a verse dedication to the Duke of Norfolk – see W2/X-2-8). In 1562-3, Tottel issued Grafton’s Abridgement of the Chronicles of England, which was followed up by the Manuell of Chronicles in 1565. Grafton’s Chronicle at large was printed in 1568 and is a very impressive tome, bearing a distinct resemblance to quarto Bibles.

Up until the seventeenth century Chronicles were a popular form of historical writing; the sixteenth century was the golden age in printed versions, ‘reaching its peak of printed success between 1550 and 1579’ (Woolf). This in part could be attributed to improved printing techniques and the rise in the number of printer/publishers which in turn led to an increase in the dissemination of historical material. In general terms Chronicles can be defined as an account of events past and present organised chronologically; they served as a means of preserving records of significant events for the benefit of future readers rather than analysing the causes of the events. D.R. Woolf notes that by the fifteenth century the chronicle had become a ‘kind of civic commonplace book’.   It might be imagined that writing a history during the political and religious turbulence of the Tudor period could be a very dangerous activity; they were certainly a powerful means of circulating propaganda.

The Cathedral’s copy of Chronicle at large measures 185mm x270mm, which makes it a medium-sized book (a quarto); the woodcut measures 116mm x 78mm. The book consists of two volumes bound as one. The title page and some of the prefatory material is missing or damaged. The work is dedicated to William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and the capital letter at the beginning of the dedication contains his shield of arms with crest.

Image 2 H.M-4-34 002

The first volume is divided into parts, with the first four pages missing (which probably contained a woodcut). Each of the six remaining parts has a woodcut depicting scenes from the Bible, starting with the Flood and ending with the life of Christ. The woodcuts are from a set created by Virgil Solis (1514-1562), an acquaintance of Martin Luther who shared a desire to see the Bible more profusely illustrated. Solis was a prolific sixteenth-century artist, part of a group known as the German Mannerists. In 1560 he created a set of woodcuts illustrating scenes from both books of the Bible, which continued to be used throughout the 1560’s. The sequence first appeared without a border, and it is from this series that the woodcuts in the Chronicle at large are taken from. Solis’s sequence was used in the first edition of the Bishop’s Bible, though they are from the later series as they bear the Renaissance style border with floral elements. Each woodcut bears Solis’s initials. In the image of Abraham the initials can be seen in the bottom right hand corner of the frame.

Image 3 H.M-4-34 004

The tale of Abraham is taken from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22. The scene depicted shows Abraham about to sacrifice the life of his long awaited son in response to a command from God, in order to prove his faith. The main action of the story is shown with figure of Abraham, placed just off centre; he is almost the same height as the frame, asserting him as the leading figure in the narrative. The figure of his son, Isaac, is that of a young boy, thus perhaps adding to the emotional tension of the scene. Isaac is kneeling atop a make-shift altar with his hands bound in front of him as if in prayer. The background is a pastoral setting and the artist has employed the technique of continuous narrative, that’s to say that Abraham and Isaac appear more than once in the same scene. To the right of centre we can see Abraham, in his pointed Jew’s hat, and his son with their ass on the first part of their journey. To the left of the tree, behind the main scene we can see the tiny figures of Abraham and Isaac, having left the ass, carrying the kindling and climbing to face their trial. The climax of the tale is shown with an angel descending through the clouds, sent by God to relieve Abraham of his gruelling task. The angel’s pointing figure leads Abraham and the viewer to the sheep, entangled in the shrub next to boy on the altar. The decision to use this scene may well have been taken by Tottel, as it was the printer who usually made decisions as to which images to use. It may well have just been that woodcuts were readily available as at the time of the Chronicle’s publication they were being used in Bibles. Nevertheless it is an interesting choice of image to use in a time of uncertainty. Grafton’s own faith and loyalties had certainly been tested during his life time, especially during the reign of Mary I. The sixteenth century was a time when an individual might be called upon to assert their political and religious allegiances depending on who was in power at the time.

Karen Brayshaw (Cathedral Librarian)

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading:

  1. R. Woolf, ‘Genre into Artefact; The Decline of the English Chronicle in the Sixteenth Century’, The Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol 19, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988). Pp. 321-354

Marcia lee Metzger, ‘Controversy and “Correctness”: English Chronicles and the Chroniclers. 1553-1568’, The Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol 27, No. 2 (Summer, 1996). Pp. 437-451

  1. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds.) Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, OUP, 2004.
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