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Saxton’s map of Northumbria

Image from Saxton’s map of Northumbria

Map of Northumbria
British Library Royal MSS 18.D.III, ff.71v-72
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 early printed map comes from an atlas once owned by Lord Burghley, Chief Minister to Queen Elizabeth I. Burghley was acutely aware of the political value of maps, and encouraged Christopher Saxton to produce 34 maps of the English and Welsh counties during the 1570s. The completed atlas, published in 1579, was dedicated to the queen. Saxton’s superb work set the standard, both in accuracy and decorative detail, for succeeding county maps over the next century and more.

Who was Christopher Saxton?

Though often hailed as ‘the father of English cartography’, Saxton’s life remains largely unknown. He was born in Yorkshire in the early 1540s, perhaps the son of a farmer or clothier. It seems likely he learned his skills at surveying and draughtsmanship from a local vicar called John Rudd.

Rudd was a map enthusiast. In 1561, he secured leave from his duties as Vicar of Dewsbury and Rector of Thornhill to travel the country in pursuit of a project he'd already worked on for several years: the mapping of England. It has been suggested that Saxton, known to be in Rudd’s employment by 1570, assisted him on these surveying trips. Rudd’s ambition may never have been achieved, but it did contribute, perhaps even directly, to Saxton’s success.

How did Saxton’s county maps come to be made?

The use of maps became increasingly common during the reign of Elizabeth I. The need for accurate maps at a time of social change and political tension was met during preceding years by technical advances in surveying and the invention, in Italy, of printing in fine detail from engraved copper plates.

Although he was the mastermind behind Saxton’s atlas of England and Wales, the astute Lord Burghley saw to it that another court official, Thomas Seckford, financed the expensive commission. By way of reward, the Seckford family coat of arms and motto appear on each map.

Saxton began his survey early in the 1570s. He probably used a basic system of triangulation – a technique, pioneered in the Low Countries some 40 years earlier, for measuring the relative positions of features in a landscape by applying the rules of trigonometry to the angles observed between them.

Despite the size of his task, Saxton had the first map ready for the printer by 1574. It showed Norfolk. By 1578, the whole of England and Wales had been covered. The speed with which the survey was conducted infers Saxton may have used existing research material, perhaps that gathered by his mentor, John Rudd, whose own work might also have been supported by Lord Burghley. There had been talk of mapping the country since the 1520s, so much other data may also have been available.

Saxton’s drawings were transferred to copper plates for printing by a team of engravers from England and the Low Countries, home of the finest cartography of the day. They included Remigius Hogenberg, Lenaert Terwoort, and Cornelis de Hooghe. Continental training is also evident in the style of the English craftsmen, among them Augustine Ryther, who probably engraved this map of Northumbria.

Decorative features, such as fanciful sea monsters and ships in full sail, were added to make the maps appeal to the eye as well as the mind. Titles in Latin were set in grandly ornamented cartouches. If required, colour was added by hand, to suit the particular tastes of individual patrons.

The maps vary in size. Yorkshire, by far the largest, is the only map engraved on two copper plates. Like most Yorkshiremen, Saxton was evidently very proud of his native county – and evidently gave it preferential treatment!

As the first to survey England and Wales, Saxton’s place in the story of English cartography is assured. Unusually, his efforts were even rewarded in his own day, and richly too. On completion of the first map, Saxton was given a lease on land at Grigston Manor in Suffolk; and when the survey of England was finished, the queen granted him exclusive rights to publish the maps for a period of ten years.

Why are there no roads on the map?

Today, a map with no roads would be unthinkable. 16th-century travellers, however, crossed the country on horseback if they could afford it, and on foot if they couldn’t. Neither was obliged to keep to roads that were often little more than tracks. Maps such as this were used to plan journeys, which were plotted on separate sheets of paper or just noted down as an itinerary of place names.

Saxton’s priority was to show the geographical relationship between rivers and forests, towns and villages, and the country estates of the landed gentry. A village is indicated by a church with a spire, and major towns by several buildings grouped together. Country estates are shown enclosed by circular fences. The schematic depiction of hills is meant to give a general impression of the landscape rather than detailing individual hilltops.

What are the notes written over this copy of the map?

As each map was finished, a proof copy was sent straight from the press to Lord Burghley for his approval. This is the proof copy of Northumbria, lacking some finishing touches that would appear in the final map, such as Christopher Saxton’s name between the arms of the scale compass. It landed on Burghley’s desk probably in 1576.

Burghley would have been anxious to receive an accurate map of Northumbria since the county formed England’s frontline defence against the Scots. Relations between the two nations were fractious. It was vital to gather all the intelligence he could gather on the state of the borderlands, which had been divided since the 13th century into three pairs of opposing ‘Marches’: East, Middle and West.

The notes around the margins of the map were added in Burghley’s own hand. Under the heading, “Names of ye principal lordships in the Middle March”, he lists the estates belonging to “the Queen’s majesty”, including Tynmouth, Harthill, Humbleton and Barrington, and those of powerful lords such as the Earl of Northumberland, Sir Thomas Grey and Robert Delaval.

Burghley also records his assessment of the number of horsemen each lord might muster to defend, or perhaps challenge, the English Crown. Robert Delaval, he notes, could be counted on to raise “30 horses”. With this map before him, Burghley would have known from exactly where Queen Elizabeth could call up the troops to defend her realm – or to discipline a lord with ideas above his station.

How did this copy come to be at the British Library?

Lord Burghley’s atlas was probably acquired by King James I on the death of Burghley’s son, Lord Salisbury, in 1612. It was among the books in the Old Royal Library, which was presented to the British Museum on its foundation in 1757. The atlas was transferred to the British Library when it was established in 1973.

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