Shakespeare's sourcebook

A leaf from Volume 4 of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, printed by Henry Bynneman for John Harrison in London in 1577 (285 x 195 mm)

A graphic woodcut here depicts hand to hand fighting as the French King recaptures Paris from the English in 1436 (though the picture is a generic one, used to illustrate a number of different battles). It comes from a huge work, commonly known as Holinshed's Chronicles, first published in 1577. Pikemen are much in evidence, with an attacking force advancing from the left, spurred on by their own drummer and apparently driving back their opponents. A cannon stands idle, and limbs and bodies litter the ground.

The text on these pages describes the events leading to 'the losse of the whole dominion of France ... and in especial of the noble Citie of Paris' (recto page, left hand column, from line 39). William Shakespeare would have read of these events in a copy of Holinshed, and mentions them at the start of his play Henry VI, part1. Altogether he drew on the Chronicles for a dozen of his plays, though it is thought he mainly used a later edition which appeared in 1587.

My leaf shows pages 1257-8 of a book which ran to 2835 pages altogether. In preparing this vast work, Holinshed was assisted by a number of other authors. The book was printed by a respected London printer, Henry Bynneman, whose shop, like those of many others in the trade, was near St Paul's cathedral.

It was not a cheap book. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Robert Devereux, later second earl of Essex, paid one pound six shillings for his copy when he went up to Cambridge in 1577, a sum equal to the cost of breakfast for a whole term.