In his youth John Speede was thought to have “a very rare and ingenious capacity in the drawing and the setting forth of maps”. He compiled his maps individually between 1596 and 1610, and published them in four books known as “the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain”. It was the first Atlas to encompass all the counties of Britain and became the best known collection of English county maps. John Speede was the son of a tailor, born in about 1552 in Cheshire. Like his father, he became a Freeman of Merchant Taylor’s Company, but devoted most of his leisure time to map making. In 1598 he found a wealthy patron, Sir Fulke Greville, who secured him a post in Her Majesty’s Customs where, with Queen Elizabeth’s support, he continued his map making. The inclusion of Royal portraits and battle sites elevated his craft to an elaborate work of art.
As Samuel Pepys remarked in 1662 whist searching the Forest of Dean for sources of timber to build ships for the Navy, “Speede’s maps there showed me how it lies”.
To own a John Speede map, is to own a part of history.
Everyone with a love of this country and an interest in her local and national history should own and enjoy at least one of these masterpieces. Speede also mapped other countries – be sure to look through the Europe & World sections of our site.
Portrait courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery