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Curator's introduction

When the ancient Greeks looked beyond their Mediterranean world, Britain was virtually invisible, lost in the mists of legend. Their view, or lack of it, survived as late as the ninth century in maps that do little more than offer a few place names. The Orkneys, for example – the fabled Orcades – are shown unconvincingly situated in the Atlantic just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. Britain’s shape and contours were gradually uncovered by the world outside, and to some extent by its own inhabitants, during the centuries between 800 and 1600. Through the British Library’s remarkable collection, we can follow the lifting of that veil.

It was the Romans who first grasped the broad outline of the British Isles. Map making is often a consequence of conquest, and Britannia was, after all, a province of the Empire. Agricola, Roman governor here between 78 and 85CE, sailed far enough north to set the Orkneys in their proper place. The Roman outline still underlies the medieval depiction of Britain in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world map created in Canterbury between 1025 and 1050, and the four maps of Great Britain drawn by Matthew Paris around 1250. Each, however, adds to the Roman model.

The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ map sets out the boundaries of some Saxon kingdoms and identifies the last refuges of the ancient Britons in Wales, Cumberland, Brittany and Cornwall, which is shown as a separate kingdom. A strange symbol in the east of Cornwall seems to represent two soldiers fighting. Could this be a reference to battles associated with King Arthur?

Matthew Paris was an artistically talented monk at St Alban’s, a monastery on the main road north of London where he was well placed to indulge his interests in history, politics and geography. His maps plot major towns along travel routes, shown schematically as straight lines running, for example, from Newcastle to London and on to Dover. Paris’ maps also provide the earliest surviving views and plans of London. From the mid-thirteenth century, maps begin to bring more detail into shaper focus. The first ‘practical’ maps appear, such as the plan of the water supplies to Waltham Abbey. In the fourteenth century, Matthew Paris’s views of London were joined by miniature panoramas of other cities, York and Salisbury among them.

The unveiling of Britain was a slow process until the sixteenth century when many more people began to realise the practical and political potential of maps, particularly if they were accurate. Increasing accuracy became possible because of advances in scientific instrument making, made chiefly in the Low Countries.

In Britain, there was an added impetus: Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome during the 1530s put him in direct conflict with the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who also happened to be the nephew of Henry’s spurned wife, Catherine of Aragon. There was a real threat of invasion. Fortunately for Henry, the dissolution of the monasteries and the sale of their lands provided a financial windfall that lasted for a decade. Using this money, he ordered a survey of the English coastline and its defences, unsurpassed in its detail until the nineteenth century. The most spectacular of the surviving maps is the ‘Long View’ of the coast from Exeter to Land’s End, drawn in 1538-9.

These maps led to the creation of the first modern looking maps of the country a generation later. In 1564, Gerard Mercator, a cartographer from the Low Countries, published a detailed map of the British Isles in eight sheets. The map was based on work probably commissioned by the Catholic Queen Mary I during the 1550s, but never published during her reign. Its Catholic bias is shown by the deliberate omission of all the Protestant bishoprics created by Henry VIII – a reminder that maps often tell us more about the motives of those commissioning them than they do about the geography they purport to show.

The Mercator map was followed, the next decade, by the first systematic survey of England and Wales, carried out by Christopher Saxton. Between 1574 and 1578, Saxton produced thirty-four coloured maps of the counties, beginning with Norfolk. The survey was conducted under the supervision of Elizabeth I’s chief adviser and Treasurer, Lord Burghley – a wily politician who was acutely aware of the value of maps. Burghley received, and used, proof copies of Saxton’s maps as each was engraved.

Maps had now grown beyond their predominantly military function to serve a wider variety of purposes. They had become keys to solving problems and disputes, first in government, then in local communities. Throughout the country it was understood that a petition to Elizabeth’s Privy Council under Lord Burghley stood little chance of success without the submission of a suitable map. Burghley’s voracious appetite for all kinds of intelligence led to the creation of numerous maps of small towns such as Yarmouth.

By 1600, the British Isles had been unveiled. In its essential form and content, the Elizabethan image would remain unchanged for a century and a half.

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