The 'Newe Cronycles' of Robert Fabian

A leaf from The chronicles of Fabian: whiche he nameth the concordaunce of histories, newly perused. believed to be by Robert Fabyan, 4th edition published by John Kingston in London in 1559 (265 x 188 mm)

Like Caxton before him, Robert Fabian (or Fabyan) pursued a career in commerce and public service, but is better known for something else. In Fabian's case he is fêted as compiler of a groundbreaking chronicle, though there is some doubt about whether he really was the author.

Robert Fabian was apprenticed to a London draper in about 1470 and eventually rose to serve as Master of the Drapers' Company and an Alderman in the City of London. When and why he began to compile his chronicle (if he did) is not known. The book did not appear in print until 1513, two years after Fabian's death, and did not bear his name. Not until 1533 was a version published under the title 'Fabyans Cronycle Newly Printed'.

What makes Fabian's Chronicles special among English chronicles is first that it treats English and French history in parallel and second that the author acknowledges his sources and is not afraid to question their veracity. Some dozen sources were used, including some in Latin and French. Higden's Polychronicon was one of them. Margin notes on the leaf shown here indicate that he is drawing on an earlier chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth (abbreviated as 'Geff').

My leaf comes from the earlier part of the book, where the compiler, having started with the Creation, has now reached a period several centuries before the Romans came. He describes how Britain was ruled by descendants of a man called Leir or Leyr – better known as King Lear in Shakespeare's play.  This part of the Chronicles is of course entirely fictitious and seems to have been fabricated by Geoffrey of Monmouth. There is evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with Fabian's Chronicles.

Chapter 19, at the end of the recto page of this leaf, Fabyan tells us that Rivallus – King Lear's great-grandson - 'ruled the Britons with great soberness, and kept the land in great wealth and prosperity', except that 'in his reign it rained blood, by the space of three days continually'. After this there came 'so great exceeding number and multitude of flies, the which were to the people so noxious and contagious, that they slew much people', followed by 'great sicknesss and mortality, to the great desolation of this said land'.

The printer was John Kingston whose shop was near the west door of (old) St Paul's Cathedral in London.