Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Masterpiece of Maps Goes Digital At Cambridge

By Nancy Mattoon

Proof Sheet For The Map Of Lancashire,
Engraved For John Speed's 1611

Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.

(Image Courtesy Of Cambridge University Library.)

Anglophiles who are planning to watch the Royal Wedding of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29, 2011, now have a new opportunity to gain insight into the history and geography of the kingdom over which the future monarch and his bride will reign. Cambridge University Library has digitized a set of proof sheets for the first comprehensive atlas of Great Britain, first published 400 years ago.

Detail From The Proof Sheet For A
Map of
Britain at the time of the Saxon Heptarchy.
(Image Courtesy Of Cambridge University Library.)

John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine is one of the world’s finest cartographic treasures. Anne Taylor, head of the Map Department at Cambridge University Library, notes that, "Although the Library holds several copies of the published atlas – including a first edition – it is the hand-coloured set of proofs produced between 1603 and 1611 that is one of its greatest treasures."

Detail From The Title Page
For the Finished Atlas.

(Image Courtesy of Occidental College.)

There are only five known sets of the proof sheets in existence worldwide, and each of them differs greatly in composition. The proof sheets were purchased by the Cambridge Library in 1968, and are now considered priceless. They consist of a single sheet for each county of England and Wales, plus a map of Scotland and each of the four Irish provinces. The maps were engraved by the great Flemish artisan Jodocus Hondius, who worked for 10 years to complete the intricate copper plates used for printing the atlas.

A Sampling Of The Heraldry Included In Speed's Atlas.
(Image Courtesy of Occidental College.)

Born in Farndon, Cheshire, in 1551 or 1552, John Speed was a historian as well as a cartographer. He wrote a Historie of Great Britaine, which was also published in 1611, but is today remembered much more for his cartography than his writings. Speed did not do all of the surveying for his maps himself, but the maps which have a "scale of passes" in the completed atlas are those whose geography he observed first hand. He also relied to a degree on the works of earlier cartographers, especially the county maps of the great surveyor Christopher Saxton. As Speed himself wrote, "I have put my sickle into other mens corne."

Speed's Map of The Town Of Rochester.
(Image Courtesy of Occidental College.)

In the finished atlas, but not on the proof sheets, there are descriptions of each town which was mapped.These were often adapted from William Camden’s Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of Great Britain and Ireland, and are not always flattering. The entry for Cambridge states, "This province is not large, nor the aire greatly to be liked, having the Fenns so spread upon her North, that they infect the aire far into the rest." The entry for the city of Lincoln includes two major events in that city's history, "In the Citie of Lincolne two great conflicts have bene fought. The first by Ranulph Eearl of Chester and Robert Earle of Gloreshter against King Stephen in defence of Maude the Empress where King Stephen was taken and hence had to Bristow, and there layd in Irons. Anno 1140. The second was fought by King Henry 3 against his disloyall Barons, where Barons with the French were put to flight and therein dyed the Earle of Perch with 400 knights."

Detail Showing The Prehistoric
Monument Of Stonehenge.

(Image Courtesy of Occidental College.)

Anne Taylor points out a significant element omitted in the proofs by cartographer Speed: "You can see there aren't any roads on the maps. The bridges over rivers would have been a major transport route through the countryside back in those times. Roads would not have been properly constructed." She notes that these maps were not meant for the same purpose as road maps today. "People would not have used maps to get to places. They would have gone to a place and then asked for directions to the next place. These maps may have been sold individually but they would have been bound in a large volume that you wouldn't have been able to take out with you. They were more like a reference book. Queen Elizabeth’s advisers may have used the maps for strategic purposes." It is known that in the 1640's, Speed's atlas was used to create battle plans by both sides in the English Civil War.

Speed's Map Included Portraits Of
English Citizens Of Various Ranks.

(Image Courtesy of Occidental College.)

Speed's country maps were among the first to attempt to show the territorial divisions created by local governments. But his town plans are considered his greatest contribution to British cartography. The atlas was the first printed collection of British city plans, and at least 50 of the 73 locales included in the atlas had never previously been mapped. The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was an immediate success: the first print run of around 500 copies sold quickly, and many later editions followed. It remained the source of all folio maps of Britain well into the 18th century. If the proof sheets whet your appetite for more, there are several web sites which have digitized editions of the finished atlas. One of the most comprehensive was created by Professor Maryanne Cline Horowitz of Los Angeles's Occidental College, the source of many of the images in this post.

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