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Mercator Atlas of Europe

Image from Mercator's Atlas of Europe

Map of British Isles
British Library C.29.c.13, f.6
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This atlas was put together in the early 1570s by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, perhaps the best-known mapmaker of all time, to help with planning the grand tour of Europe of his patron’s son, the crown prince of Cleves.

Mercator compiled several maps from copies of wall maps of the British Isles, Europe, and the world that he had available in his workshop. He carefully cut up and pasted parts together to fit the atlas format. He created aesthetically balanced regional maps, removing tables and illustrations that did not wholly fit on the page and making space for customised scale-bars for each of the ‘new’ maps. This process gave him a chance to experiment with the creation of regional maps as a step towards his long-term ambition of producing an atlas. For the rest of the atlas he used hand-drawn maps by himself, an urban map of Ancona in Italy, and numerous maps from an atlas published in 1570 by his friend and rival Abraham Ortelius.

The sheets from the 1554 map of Europe and the hand-drawn maps are unique survivors. The maps of the British Isles, from his wall map of 1564, are probably based on surveys by John Elder, a disreputable Scottish Catholic priest, that – much against Mercator’s will – were intended to assist an invasion of England and the overthrow of Elizabeth.

Shown here is a map of the British Isles. One of Mercator's principal sources was almost certainly George Lily's map, printed in Rome in 1546. Mistakes in the rendering of place names and surprising omissions such as Snowdon and Windsor Castle are testament to Mercator's lack of direct knowledge of Britain. Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex are written as if they were villages.

This atlas is the most important surviving body of Mercator's work in a single volume.

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