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The unveiling of Britain

This selection of maps and views traces the growing awareness of the form of British Isles and their place in the wider world from 800 to 1600.

Image of Peter Barber

Peter Barber

Head of Map Collections

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.

Read the full curator's introduction

Curator's choice

Peter Barber highlights personal favourite items from the collection

See all of the items in this exhibition

Diagrammatic Zonal World Map, 11th century

This vision of the world dates back to the Greece of the sixth century BC. According to the theo...

Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi, 1025-1050

The 'Anglo-Saxon world map' contains the earliest known, relatively realistic depiction of the Br...

Map Of The British Isles By Matthew Paris

This map belongs to the earliest surviving group of relatively detailed maps of the British Isles...

South west coast of England from Exeter to Land's End, 1539-40

This is a map of the south-west coast of England, from Exeter to Land’s End. It dates from ...

Great Yarmouth

By the reign of Elizabeth I maps were being employed as tools of government. This was encouraged ...

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