Old English Maps . . . the 1500s



Although the first half of the sixteenth century produced only one notable English map, it was a period of rapid progress in all branches of cartography. This was the result of events abroad. In around 1409 Byzantine scholars, fleeing from the Turks before Constantinople, had brought to Italy manuscript copies of the maps in Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, drawn about 168 A.D. at Alexandria. They were the greatest work of the Greek geographers and became not only the first atlas of the world but a template for map makers of the time, the principles for the creation of maps of large areas being based upon a network of lines of latitude and longitude (parallels and meridians). Englishmen who, inspired by the new technology, travelled abroad in ever increasing numbers after 1520, brought back an enthusiasm for the study of geography and cartography. aroused by Ptolemy’s work and by contact with the Continental scholars who were continuing it,  With knowledge of the new devices for navigation, for surveying and for printing maps from copper plates which the Age of Discovery had inspired continental mathematicians and instrument makers to ever greater invention. Henry VIII was himself a product of the Renascence in his great love for music and poetry, his skill in feats of arms and his ruthless and unscrupulous quest for power; but he had a breadth of vision which was invaluable to a country as backward as England. English seamen were far behind those of Portugal, Spain and France as navigators. In 1520 they still possessed no sea-charts except a very few drawn by foreigners, and though, like Chaucer’s Shipman from Dartmouth, they “knew well alle the havens as they were from Gotland to the Cape of Finistere” and round it into the Mediterranean, all their sailing was coastwise. Henry set about introducing skilled navigators and mathematicians, mainly from northern France, to instruct his pilots in nautical science. In 1514 he founded the historic Brethren of the Trinity to aid coastal mariners with pilots, beacons, landmarks and buoys, his charts being created for many English harbours, from the Bristol Channel round to Newcastle.

Coastal Chart

Coastal Chart of Waberwick and Bawdsey c.1540

The originals of a few of these charts which were the first, so far as we know, ever made by Englishmen as well as copies of others, are still preserved in the British Museum and other great libraries. They are really bird’s eye views of the ports, taken from a little way out at sea. Created on parchment, which for maps was still preferred to paper, they are highly coloured with wash or paint. In the foreground a graceful ship is generally found riding, with shoals, sandbanks and varying sea depths marked around it, the depths being given in fathoms; beyond it the nature of the shore: sandy beach, shingle beach, rocks or cliffs, is graphically depicted in plan, cliffs being, as it were, rolled back to show their faces, and boulders being often greatly exaggerated in size; and behind this, represented in elevation, are the landmarks by which the mariner could steer his course, such as church-towers, beacons, windmills and lone trees. These charts were intended to be used in conjunction with “Rutters,’ or books of sailing directions.

By his dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540 and his grants of a large proportion of their vast estates to laymen, Henry VIII created a new landed gentry. Few of them belonged to the old noble families, which had been greatly reduced by attainder, execution and death in battle; most of them were able businessmen, interested in making a profit from their new possessions, and many had written surveys made of their lands. This gradually brought into existence a body of professional lay surveyors, distinct from the manorial stewards. These so-called “surveyors” were authorities and advisors upon manorial law and estate management, enjoyed a certain prestige and did not make maps; the men who measured parcels of land and laid down boundaries were called “landmeters” and had little professional standing. At first their methods were those of simple geometrical mensuration with a cord measuring a fixed number of perches in length and soaked in resin to prevent it from shrinking. The first English work on the subject, The Maner of Measurynge of Lande, was published in 1537, soon after the dissolution of the monasteries had begun, and the author, Richard de Benese, had been an Augustinian Canon but was evidently well able to adapt himself to the altered circumstances and a new lifestyle.

The discovery that maps could be printed from engraved copper plates had been made in Italy in around 1473, and in 1477 the maps of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia the first ever engraved in copper-were published in Bologna. The marvellous opportunities, cartographical, artistic and commercial, presented by this new invention were quickly realised; and as popular interest in travel, new markets abroad and geography increased, as it did rapidly in a world which was expanding intellectually no less than physically, engraved maps became almost as important an educational source as printed books. The first important engraved map of England, apart from those in editions of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, was one of Great Britain and Ireland published in Rome during 1546. The author was George Lily, a member of the household of the exiled Cardinal de la Pole; the map was engraved through the efforts of a group of English Catholic refugees in Rome.

Old English map George Lily Map

The British Isles by George Lily 1546

This map, with its firm but delicate lines, its stately ornamental panels “cartouches” enclosing the title and descriptive texts, and it’s clear, sloping Italic lettering, must have been a revelation to Englishmen. It is uncoloured, for the Italian map-engravers wisely avoided colours because of the risk that they would obscure important details; so symbols rather than colours became the way to key the features contained in the maps.  The sea is stippled, and bought to life with artistically drawn ships and huge monsters; the coastline is emphasized with hatching; the forests are groups of


THE USE OF THE THEODOLITE From L. DiFrom W. Cuninggham’s Cosmographical Glasse, 1559

bushy trees, slightly shaded on the right; the lower hills are gently curving lines with shading added on one side, but mountain ranges are represented like early conical sugar loaves. Small, neat groups of buildings represent towns, but a tiny circle below each indicates its centre, for measuring distances. The symbols for cities and county towns and for castles are explained at the bottom of the map, thus the beginning of “Tables” of symbols or conventional signs which have appeared on all good maps ever since.

Curiously, no roads are shown, though other facts show that Lily utilised a copy of the Gough map. The influence of Ptolemy and of the recent progress in cartography is evident in that the map is oriented to the North and that degrees of latitude and longitude are marked in a double-lined border around it. There is also a scale in the form of a handsome engraved rule divided into 200 Roman or Italian miles. The latitudes are reasonably accurate, but England is shown as lying between 14°35′ and 24°30′ East longitude. This was the result of the acceptance by most contemporary geographers of a prime meridian drawn through the island of St. Mary in the Azores because there, at the time, there was little or no declination of the magnetic needle from the true North, although everywhere else the declination was noted to vary greatly. The representation of Scotland and of the Scottish islands is extremely good, far superior to anything earlier. It was probably based upon a chart drawn by Alexander Lindsay when he was chief pilot of an expedition round the Scottish coasts which James V made in 1540. Ireland, however, is hardly recognizable. After Lily’s return to England, copies of the map were printed at London in 1555.

The English of the mid-sixteenth century owed most of their knowledge of map-making to Flemish technicians of that century. The ancient friendship between the two countries had become closer than ever, and Mercator, one of the greatest geographers of all time, was Flemish. In around 1533, a professor at Louvain, Gemma of Friesland, surveyed a large area between Mechlin and Antwerp by triangulation. His method, which was basically compass sketching, was generally adopted everywhere during the next twenty years. In his book, The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) William Cuningham of Norwich described a similar triangulation made by him between Norwich, Swarston and Wymondham. Already, however, the planimetrum and other similar instruments were giving way practically everywhere to the plane table. This was a light rectangular wooden table on which the surveyor could lay his paper, holding his alidade, or sighted ruler, in position over it while sighting and drawing, and only using a compass when commencing his map to fix his ray to the magnetic North. The better educated surveyors were quick to add knowledge of mapping with a plane table to their knowledge of the laws and management of property, and the Royal surveyors, usually employed as engineers to fortify castles and harbours against the Scots and the French extended their activities to surveying and drawing maps of districts of military importance and of property returned to the Crown. A few of these are still preserved.

IMG Early Triangulation

An Illustration of Early Triangulation


THE USE OF THE THEODOLITE From L. Digges’ Pantometria, 1571

From W. Cuninggham’s Cosmographical Glasse, 1559

By 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, a group of young Elizabethans, men like William Camden, Philip Sidney’s friend, were discovering, like the Italians of the Renascence, the history, antiquities and literature of their own country with pride and delight. Their eagerness to see her cities and

IMG Mercator 1564

Gerard Mercator Antique Map of 1564

shires mapped was increased by the publication in 1564 of a fine map of England and Wales by Gerard Mercator, based in the main upon information supplied by Englishmen such as the energetic and versatile Dr. John Dee. By 1570 the number of skilled English surveyors had greatly increased. Lord Secretary Cecil, the watchdog of England, had commissioned maps to be created for his own use, of Ireland, where there was constant fighting, and of the northern English counties, where the Catholic Rising of the North had just been quelled; while Richard Popinjay, a government surveyor, had mapped parts of southern England. Some of the new nobles, among them the Earl of Pembroke, one of Henry VIII’s innumerable connections by marriage, who had obtained large grants of land at Wilton, began to have plans made of their estates.

IMG wilton

The village Wiltshire  Drawn c. 1563 for a survey of the Estates of William Ist Earl of Pembroke


By 1570 the Dutch, partly owing to their skill in copper-engraving, had supplanted the Italians as the chief suppliers of maps to the world, and their cartographical knowledge was being brought to England by Protestants fleeing from the persecution of the Spaniards. In that year Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp published his historic atlas of the world, which was acclaimed by educated Englishmen who had begun to study cosmography and geography. In 1571 the most important work of the century on surveying appeared, The Pantometria of Leonard Digges, published by his son Thomas. Digges brought order and mathematical accuracy into the existing methods of surveying and described a new instrument of his own invention, the “Topographical Instrument.” In principle it closely resembled our modern theodolite, and was soon became known by that name, though some time elapsed before it came into manufacture and general use.

The first map known to have been engraved on copper in England was one of Palestine, which appeared, fittingly enough, in the first edition of “The Bishops’ Bible”. It was the work of Humphrey Cole, a goldsmith employed in the Mint and a famous instrument-maker. Its style resembled Lily’s map, but the cartouche combined Italian strap-work design with decorations of birds, fruits, flowers and snakes, which reveal the Dutch love of ornament for its own sake. The conventional symbols are unchanged except that the rivers have flowing lines along their courses and the mountains are definitively shaded on the eastern side, a style that became widely followed. With the possible exception of a view of Norwich included in Cuningham’s Cosmographical Glasse (1559), the first English town to be engraved on copper was Cambridge (1572), executed by Richard Lyne. It is a bird’s-eye plan-profile in the style of the fifteenth century, and an absorbing picture. An obscure young surveyor from Yorkshire, Christopher Saxton, was, however, the man destined to carry out the national atlas towards which all these developments were working. During 1573 Thomas Seckford, a wealthy Suffolk gentleman and one of the Queen’s Masters of Requests, commissioned Saxton to make maps of all the English counties, which he undertook to have engraved and published at his own expense. There is strong evidence that Seckford originally intended the atlas to accompany and illustrate Raphael Holinshed’s famous “Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland”, which was then in preparation; but eventually he published it independently.

IMG Cambridge 1575

Cambridge 1572 by Richard Lyne

Saxton’s first two maps were engraved in 1574, others appeared in rapid succession, and the atlas, containing a general map of England and thirty-four county maps, was completed in 1579. The Queen had shown much interest at an early stage, with the result that the Royal Tudor arms,

a lion and a dragon, appeared on every map.

For an individual to survey and map single handily the whole of England and Wales in six years would have been at that time a superhuman feat, and there is no doubt that Saxton had many existing maps lent to him by men like John Wolfe, the publisher of “Holinshed’s Chronicles”, who had collected several maps which were never printed, and William Lambarde, the antiquary. He would have needed these to check and correct his work as he travelled around, generally on horseback. Nothing is recorded about his method of surveying, but he must have made compass-sketches or used a plane-table from local officials. He had an open letter from the Queen to local mayors and Justices, ordering them to assist him and guide him to any “Town, Castle or hill to view that country.‘ The small counties he mapped appeared in threes, or even fours, on one sheet, larger counties had a sheet to themselves, and Yorkshire, his own county and the largest, had a double sheet. The scales vary, therefore, from 1 to 3 miles to an inch. Many “customary” miles, which varied considerably in different districts, were then in use, much to the confusion of surveyors; but Saxton seems to have employed, whenever possible, the Old English mile of 2,240 yards. The Hundreds, then the chief administrative unit, are shown in only five of the counties, their limits being marked by dotted lines. From then on it became usual to mark the boundaries of the Hundreds in colour. Considering how much travelling he had to do and that at least one road book with distances had already been published, it is strange that Saxton omitted all roads. To engrave the maps Seckford was fortunate in finding several Protestant Flemish refugees, such as Remy Hogenberg and Leonard Terwoort of Antwerp.



Their cartouches and Royal Arms are in the ornate, sometimes then futuristic style of the Dutch schools; but their general style also illustrates that love of display which characterized Elizabeth and her courtiers. The first issues of these maps were a blaze of colours with gold added in some cases; while the groups of flowers, fruits, birds, animals and fish which dominated Terwoort’s cartouches and the Neptunes, sea nymphs and cherubs which decorated Hogenberg’s work were much loved by Her Majesty. The colours were in wash and were put on by hand, generally in the publisher’s shop though sometimes, and inartistically, by the purchasers themselves. They were generally in the conventional old manuscript colours for topographical features, revived under the Dutch influence. A few of the maps dated 1576 to 1579 were engraved by Englishmen, notably by Augustine Ryther, one of our finest map engravers, who always signed himself “Anglus” to show that he was not a foreigner.

Apart from the cartouches, the decorations included narrow borders imitating carved and painted wooden frames, monsters and ships in the sea, the arms of Seckford as well as those of the Queen,


From L. Digges’ Pantometria, 1571


a large brass compass divider surmounting the scale, and a very ornamental scale rule. The only new conventional sign is a paling or fence surrounding a piece of land, representing the great parks which the new nobility had enclosed, largely from the common parish lands -“whereby the inhabitants of many places were devoured.” Mountains are like coloured like great conical sugar loaves, giving no idea either of height or of gradient and often so large that villages lying among them had to be misplaced to be made visible. While villages are represented by a single church tower, towns of any importance have two or more, and cities several. The flowing Italic hand, which, in various styles, had reached England in the “writing books” of foreign copper engravers, and was recognised by Malvolio as “the sweet Roman hand,’ is seen in its most beautiful forms. Saxton introduced a system of lettering, which continues in use today, to indicate the relative importance of the different features. Small Italic being used for small places, larger and bolder Italics for towns, and also for forests, chases, moors and mountain ranges, while large towns and Hundreds are named in Italic capitals of two kinds.

Saxton’s general map of England and Wales in the atlas, engraved by Ryther was, both artistically and cartographically, a masterpiece and a larger map by him published, again at Seckford’s expense, in 1583, remained the most authoritative map of England for the next century. Both, like all maps of the time, were drawn upon the crude conical projection first devised by Ptolemy, and each shows degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude in the margins. The prime meridian was still drawn through St. Mary’s in the Azores, although it was known that true North and magnetic North no longer coincided there. The scale on each of these maps gives three different miles, called “Long, Middle, Short,” which work out as respectively, 1920, 1760, and 1600 yards long.

Saxton’s atlas was the first national atlas produced by any country, and Saxton deserves a place beside Shakespeare as an ambassador of English unity and pride and stand amongst the greatest achievements of Elizabethan England. Additionally, it established cartography firmly in England, partly because it showed how engraved maps could be printed in large numbers. As late as 1600 copies from the original plates were being printed and sold. These were often uncoloured, and were weak impressions, as the designs on the plates were wearing down. Their style at once became the model both for draftsmen and engravers, setting a standard which from 1580 onwards were generally as artistic as any engraved county maps.

John Norden

The maps of John Norden were more original than any which preceded or followed them for a long time, and embodied that spirit of independent scientific research enjoyed by scholars and the middle classes in the 1590’s. He had a grandiose scheme for a new atlas of England, the Speculum Britanniae, which would contain archaeological and historical descriptions of each county; but from lack of patronage only succeeded in publishing maps of five counties and plans of London and Westminster (1593-98). Always poor, he was a tireless worker, surveying and drawing individual maps of estates all over the country, including those of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Honor of Windesor, besides publishing two valuable books on surveying, and an excellent roadbook in 1625. The maps of the Speculum contain many features new in England, though some of them originated on the Continent. They were the first engraved English maps to show roads represented by double dotted lines. Instead of ornamental borders, double lines surround the maps, containing figures along the top and letters down one side which give references, now familiar to many of us today who have travelled without satellite navigation or apps, for finding any place on the map; while the inner line is divided into fractions of an inch, supplying a simple marginal scale.

IMG THE VILLAGE OF WILTON, WILTSHIRE Drawn c. 1563 for a survey of the Estates of William, 1st Earl of Pembroke

Norden was the first Englishman to introduce a symbol for a battle representing the Battle of Barnett by two opposite lines of swordsmen. The familiar symbol of two crossed swords probably derives from this early work. His imagination and love of his subject gave rise to many fascinating tables of symbols including “Howses of gent.; Nob; men’s;


Howses and places of Quene Eli.; Decayde places.” The houses of nobility and gentry were no doubt marked partly to attract interest and purchasers among the right people; and each map bears the coat of arms of some patron who paid for its engraving and printing. Saxton, Norden and their successors depended upon patrons for their work and livelihood, and for the next two hundred years the seats and coats of arms of influential persons were hopefully engraved upon nearly all maps printed for public sale with the idea of attracting subscriptions from those family arms bearers. Norden also introduced into England the triangular tables of distances between towns which were later adopted on most road maps, especially those intended for commercial travellers.

After 1580 maps became very numerous, including plans of towns, state plans, and many maps of coastal districts and harbours carried out for the government. Ralph Aggas executed some fine estate maps, while the plans of Robert Adams, a Royal surveyor, are perhaps amongst the most delicate and beautiful ever drawn in this country. Some plans of the coastal defences and beacons hastily erected in 1585 against the arrival of the Spanish Armada are still preserved. In on one of these, showing Waborne in Norfolk, the draftsman wrote “Reason would a scale but tyme permits not.” Of the few town plans which were engraved in England, Exeter (1587) by Remy Hogenberg and Oxford (1588) by Aggas, engraved by Ryther, are outstanding. London of course attracted many artists and surveyors but the large plan, by Aggas, with much fascinating detail, which was published about 1592, is considered the best representation of Elizabethan London.

IMG The Agas Map link

Maps of Wales and Scotland appeared soon after the introduction of map engraving into England. That of Scotland published in 1578 by John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, was scarcely more than a reduced copy of Lily’s map of 1546; but Humphrey Lhuyd, the Welsh antiquary, contributed a good map of his country to an edition of Ortelius’ atlas issued at Antwerp in 1573, and Saxton utilized it. In Ireland MS. maps were drawn of several confiscated territories, but being official documents, were not published. A large and detailed map of Ireland was, however, published in 1599, the author being Baptista Boazio, who had accompanied the Earl of Essex on his expedition to the country. Like its predecessors, it represents the west coast as running practically due north-south. This error on earlier maps had misled several of the captains of the defeated Armada into setting a course due south for Spain after they had rounded Teelin Head in Donegal, with the result that many ships were wrecked on the rock-bound coasts of Mayo and Galway.

Although they knew their own coasts well, English seamen possessed very few detailed charts. Indeed, the Flemish and Dutch, from their long experience as enterprising sea-traders, knew the waters of Northern Europe better than any Englishman; and it was a Dutchman, Lucas Waghenaer, who gave the world the earliest volume of engraved charts, published in 1583. It depicted the coasts from Stockholm to Cadiz


From L. Waghenaer’s Mariners’ Mirrour, 1588

IMG northern europe Waghaner Add Series as products!

except those of Ireland, Wales and western and northern Scotland. Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham at once perceived its value, especially as he knew that Philip II was already contemplating an invasion of England from the sea, and he persuaded Sir Anthony Ashley to translate it. The translation, entitled The Mariners’ Mirrour, with charts copied from Waghenaer’s, appeared in 1588 shortly before the Armada sailed, and must have gladdened the hearts of Effingham’s captains. Waghenaer’s charts are a development of the earlier MS. coastal views. Shoals, banks, shingle-beaches and soundings are marked clearly, and good anchorages indicated by the figure of an anchor. Wherever the shore is steep or there are landmarks upon it, these are bent backwards, as it were, so that they appear in elevation, although the sea and land beside them are in plan. A new and important addition was made at the top of each chart: a silhouette of the coast as seen from two or three leagues out at sea. These silhouettes, which derived from the views in the early sailing-books, are a standard feature on our present Admiralty charts. So well-known did this work become that for the next century and a half English sailor usually called any volume of charts a “Waggoner”.

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Detail of South West Cornwall from Waghenaer’s Sea Chart of the Cornish Coast

The rich territories and richer trade which the Portuguese and Spaniards consolidated for themselves in America, the Indies and Africa during the sixteenth century aroused an eager though commercial interest in world geography among the English. Of the maps and charts of the world. which inspired the colonizing schemes of men like Dr. John Dee, Frobisher and Raleigh, none can compare with the great globes completed in 1592, which are still preserved in the Library of the Middle Temple. These, one terrestrial and one celestial, were fashioned by Emery Molyneux, an instrument-maker; eliptical strips, or gores, were engraved by a Fleming, Josse de Hondt or Jodocus Hondius; and the expenses were borne by William Sanderson, a London merchant and a patron of Norden. At least three great Elizabethan geographers contributed to make the terrestrial globe as correct as possible: Edward Wright, a Fellow of Caius College and our first exponent of nautical mathematics, John Davis, who had already made three voyages in search of the North-West passage, and Richard Hakluyt, probably the greatest force behind the expansion of the English overseas.

IMG The Molyneux Terrestrial Globe

The Molyneux Terrestrial Globe

Image courtesy of The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple

English captains such as Frobisher in 1576 and Drake in 1577 had generally carried globes with them when venturing upon ocean voyages because they had no satisfactory charts. Of the ocean charts in use, one, the commoner, showed no parallels and none except the prime meridian, but was covered with compass roses from which lines radiated and intersected everywhere. These straight lines were “true bearings” on the flat surface of the chart, but were nothing of the kind on the spherical surface of our world, and gave little help to sailors attempting to keep a constant course across an ever curving ocean. Charts drawn upon conical and “equidistant” or pseudo- cylindrical projections proved misleading; but in 1599 Edward Wright solved the problem with a famous world-chart, A True Hydrographical Description of the World. It was based upon a chart published by the great Mercator in 1569, where the meridians and parallels were all straight lines cutting each other at right angles; to compensate for the resultant increased length of degrees of Longitude, degrees of Latitude were gradually increased towards the Poles. On this every straight line was a constant bearing. While, however, Mercator left no explanation of his method, Wright worked out the mathematical problems involved and gave data enabling any trained navigator to ensure that a correct sailing course or “rhumb line” would be straight. Ever since then most ocean charts have been constructed on Mercator’s, or rather, Wright’s projection. On Wright’s chart and on all which followed it down to about 1700, longitude was always reckoned eastwards, never westwards, so that a point 5°W. of the prime meridian was entered as in Longitude 355°. This was probably due to the influence of Ptolemy, who knew nothing west of his prime meridian, which was drawn through the Canaries.

Map of Lincolne & Northumberland




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