In Pictures: First map of Great Britain put online by Cambridge University Library

By Nick Owen | 19 April 2011
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An image of a map illustration
© Cambridge University Library
A beautifully detailed hand coloured atlas which was the first to comprehensively cover Great Britain is to get a digital revamp by the Cambridge University Library in celebration of its 400th anniversary.

John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, published in 1611, marked the first time that comprehensive plans of English and Welsh counties and towns were made available in print.

Now considered priceless, the University Library holds one of the five original proofs, which includes an individual map of each county in England and Wales, all of which are now available to view as part of an online archive.

An image of a map illustration
© Cambridge University Library
According to Anne Tyler, Head of the Map Department at the University Library, the atlas was snapped up by the university in 1968 after the government refused an export licence for the map to be sold abroad.

“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.
“It really is a rare and delightful item."

An image of a map illustration
© Cambridge University Library
Painting a rich picture of Tudor and Jacobean life at the turn of the 17th Century, the atlas proved so influential that armies on both sides of the English Civil War consulted Speed’s masterpiece.

The county maps were the first consistent attempt to show territorial divisions, but it was Speed’s town plans, inset into the corner of each map, that were his major innovation – and probably his greatest contribution to British cartography.

Accompanying each map in the published edition is a description of the county, derived largely from William Camden’s Britannia.

An image of a map illustration
© Cambridge University Library
Each spare inch of the individual maps abound with meticulous detail, including illustrations of famous battles, local coats of arms, and – with contour lines yet to be invented – small scatterings of molehills denoting higher ground. 

To check for errors, the maps were occasionally printed from the copper plates which were engraved, in reverse, by highly skilled artisans – hence the library’s proofs.  

Born in Farndon, Cheshire, in 1551 or 1552, John Speed was an historian as well as a cartographer, who paid tribute to earlier map makers whose work he drew on.

Drawing influence from the county maps of the great Elizabethan surveyor Christopher Saxton, Speed wrote: “I have put my sickle into other men’s corne”.

The Theatre was an immediate success: selling out its first run of 500 copies and followed by several editions, it became the blueprint for folio atlases until the mid-18th Century.

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