Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Antiquary, Survey of London
English historian and antiquary, was the son of Thomas Stow, a tailor, and was born about 1525 in London, in the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill. His parents were poor, for his father's whole rent for his house and garden was only 6s. 6d. a year, and Stow himself in his youth fetched every morning the milk for the family from a farm belonging to the nunnery of the Minories. He learned the trade of his father, but possibly did not practice it much after he grew up. In 1549 he "kept house" near the well within Aldgate, but afterwards he removed to Lime Street ward, where he resided until his death. About 1560 he entered upon the work with which his name is associated. He made the acquaintance of the leading antiquaries of his time, including William Camden, and in 1561 he published his first work, The woorkes of Geffrey Chaucer, newly printed with divers additions whiche were never in printe before. This was followed in 1565 by his Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, which was frequently reprinted, with slight variations, during his lifetime. Of the first edition a copy was said to have been at one time in the Grenville library. In the British Museum there are copies of the editions of 1567, 1573, 1590, 1598 and 1604. Stow having in his dedication to the edition of 1567 referred to the rival publication of Richard Grafton in contemptuous terms, the dispute between them became extremely embittered. Stow's antiquarian tastes brought him under ecclesiastical suspicion as a person "with many dangerous and superstitious books in his possession", and in 1568 his house was searched. An inventory was taken of certain books he possessed "in defence of papistry", but he was apparently able to satisfy his interrogators of the soundness of his Protestantism. A second attempt to incriminate him in 1570 was also without result. In 1580 Stow published his Annales, or a Gensrale Chronicle of England from Brute until the present yeare of Christ 1580; it was reprinted in 1592, 1601 and 1605, the last being continued to the 26th of March 1605, or within ten days of his death; editions "amended" by Edmund Howes appeared in 1615 and 1631.
The work by which Stow is best known is his Survey of London, published in 1598, not only interesting from the quaint simplicity of its style and its amusing descriptions and anecdotes, but of unique value from its minute account of the buildings, social condition and customs of London in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. A second edition appeared in his lifetime in 1603, a third with additions by Anthony Munday in 1618, a fourth by Munday and Dyson in 1633, a fifth with interpolated amendments by John Strype in 1720, and a sixth by the same editor in 1754. The edition of 1598 was reprinted, edited by W. J. Thoms, in 1842, in 1846, and with illustrations in 1876. Through the patronage of Archbishop Matthew Parker, Stow was enabled to print the Flores historiarum of Matthew of Westminster in 1567, the Chronicle of Matthew Paris in 1571, and the Historia brevis of Thomas Walsingham in 1574. At the request of Parker he had himself compiled a "farre larger volume", An history of this island, but circumstances were unfavorable to its publication and the manuscript is now lost. Additions to the previously published works of Chaucer were twice made through Stow's "own painful labors" in the edition of 1561, referred to above, and also in 1597. A number of Stow's manuscripts are in the Harleian collection in the British Museum. Some are in the Lambeth library (No. 306); and from the volume which includes them were published by the Camden Society, edited by James Gairdner, Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles, with Historical Memoranda by John Stowe the Antiquary, and Contemporary Notes of Occurrences written by him (1880). Stow's literary labors did not prove very remunerative, but he accepted poverty in a cheerful spirit. Ben Jonson relates that once when walking with him Stow jocularly asked two mendicant cripples "what they would have to take him to their order." In March 1604 King James I authorized him and his deputies to collect "amongst our loving subjects their voluntary contributions and kind gratuities", and himself began "the largesse for the example of others." If the royal appeal was successful Stow did not live long to enjoy the increased comfort resulting from it, as he died on the 6th of April 1605. He was buried in the London church of St. Andrew Undershaft, where the monument erected by his widow, exhibiting a terra-cotta figure of him, still remains.
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