500-year-old maps provide clues to Tudor Britain and sinking of Henry VIII's ship at Mary Rose Museum

By Ben Miller | 13 July 2010
A photo of a 16th century map

(Above) A "splendid" chart of Portsmouth Harbour at the Mary Rose Museum was originally dated to 1620 by the National Maritime Museum, but experts now believe it may pre-date the Armada battles of the previous century

Exhibition: Mapping Portsmouth's Tudor Past, Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth, until October 17 2010

Cartography has never looked more sublime than it does in this show. Among an incredible display of hand-drawn parchments, huge maps of Tudor Portsmouth date from as far back as the sinking of the Mary Rose in 1545, representing the earliest scale maps of an English town.

Others were made for dignitaries such as Edward VI (1552) or to define the city's harbour defences under the orders of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State.

"The art and science of map-making blossomed during Henry VIII's reign and reached new heights under Elizabeth I," explains David Starkey, the historian and broadcaster who worked with local Navy experts and academics after initially suggesting the exhibition's premise.

"The whole southern coastline was mapped, from the Wash to Milford Haven, and fortifications were built to guard possible landing points. The Navy was also transformed, with bigger and better ships requiring deep-sea ports.

"Portsmouth was one of the most important of these new royal naval bases and the Solent became, as it was to remain to the 20th century, a key to England's defences. The strategic significance of the Solent meant that some of the earliest accurate maps in the country are of this area."

A photo of a 16th century hand-drawn map

Analysts are intrigued by the positioning of the decorative fleur-de-lis on the Harbour map, which lies immediately on top of the wreck site of the Mary Rose

Contributing institutions include the UK Hydrographic Office, which has lent a chart of Portsmouth Harbour. Research by the University of Portsmouth suggests it could pre-date the National Maritime Museum’s original early 17th century suggestion by up to 40 years.

The British Library has released five items for the display, most notably the Brouscon tidal atlas of 1540, demonstrating Tudor understanding of tidal currents and timings in a centrepiece for the show featuring a tidal calculator recovered from the Mary Rose.

The 1535 Agnese atlas, opened at pages illustrating America, Europe, Africa, India and other sections of the "known world", has been provided by The Admiralty Library alongside a first edition Waghenaer sea atlas from 1586, reputedly used during the Spanish Armada battles two years later.

"The Mary Rose Museum has brought together a unique collection of these Tudor maps and charts to make this temporary exhibition," concludes Starkey.

"The maps say a great deal about the state of the nation's defences. They show a sophistication that is impressive for any age. But they also have a beauty that makes them works of art as well as planning documents for war."

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