1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harrison, William
HARRISON, WILLIAM (1534–1593), English topographer and antiquary, was born in London on the 18th of April 1534. He was educated, according to his own account, at St Paul’s school and at Westminster under Alexander Nowell. In 1551 he was at Cambridge, but he took his B.A. degree from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1560. He was inducted early in 1559 to the rectory of Radwinter, Essex, on the presentation of Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham, to whom he had formerly acted as chaplain; and from 1571 to 1581 he held from another patron, Francis de la Wood, the living of Wimbish in the same county. He became canon of Windsor in 1586, and his death and burial are noted in the chapter book of St George’s chapel on the 24th of April 1593.
His famous and amusing Description of England was undertaken for the queen’s printer, Reginald Wolfe, who designed the publication of “an universall cosmographie of the whole world . . . with particular histories of every knowne nation.” After Wolfe’s death in 1576 this comprehensive plan was reduced to descriptions and histories of England, Scotland and Ireland. The historical section was to be supplied by Raphael Holinshed, the topographical by Harrison. The work was eventually published as The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland . . . by Raphael Holinshed and others, and was printed in two black-letter folio volumes in 1577. Harrison’s Description of England, humbly described as his “foule frizeled treatise,” and dedicated to his patron Cobham, is an invaluable survey of the condition of England under Elizabeth, in all its political, religious and social aspects. Harrison is a minute and careful observer of men and things, and his descriptions are enlivened with many examples of a lively and caustic humour which makes the book excellent reading. In spite of his Puritan prejudices, which lead him to regret that the churches had not been cleared of their “pictures in glass” (“by reason of the extreme cost thereof”), and to exhaust his wit on the effeminate Italian fashions of the younger generation, he had an eye for beauty and is loud in his praise of such architectural gems as Henry VII.’s chapel at Westminster. He is properly contemptuous of the snobbery that was even then characteristic of English society; but his account of “how gentlemen are made in England” must be read in full to be appreciated. He is especially instructive on the condition and services of the Church immediately after the Reformation; notably in the fact that, though an ardent Protestant, he is quite unconscious of any breach of continuity in the life and organization of the Church of England.
Harrison also contributed the translation from Scots into English of Bellenden’s version of Hector Boëce’s Latin Description of Scotland. His other works include a “Chronologie,” giving an account of events from the creation to the year 1593, which is of some value for the period covered by the writer’s lifetime. This, with an elaborate treatise on weights and measures, remains in MS. in the diocesan library of Londonderry.
For the later editions of the Chronicles of England . . . see Holinshed. The second and third books of Harrison’s Description were edited by Dr F. J. Furnivall for the New Shakspere Society, with extracts from his “Chronologie” and from other contemporary writers, as Shakspere’s England (2 vols., 1877–1878).