Robert Adams, Plan of Flushing (Vlissingen), 1588. Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.105.

Early plans in the British Isles

James Elliot traces the development of British town and country plans from the earliest examples in the Library’s manuscript, map and topographical collections to those produced towards the end of the 17th century.

As on the European continent, the first representations of towns and cities in the British Isles were stylised pictorial drawings, some of the earliest of which can be found in the itinerary executed sometime after 1252 by Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259), a monk at St Alban’s Abbey. The itinerary was intended to illustrate the journey made to southern Italy by Henry III’s brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, on his election in 1252 as King of Sicily, and appears as part of the Historia Anglorum, an abridgment of Paris’s earlier Chronica Maiora. The first section of the itinerary, depicting the route from London to Beauvais, shows the road as a straight line, with the towns of London, Rochester, Canterbury and Dover placed in the order in which they were encountered by the traveller rather than in their correct spatial relationship. In this respect, Paris’s map anticipated the work of John Ogilby, whose Britannia of 1675 repeated the strip-map technique. The towns on the itinerary were depicted in perspective and, in the case of London and Canterbury, were shown surrounded by their walls in a manner that harks back to the classical traditions of some versions of the Corpus Agrimensorum. In the case of London, the walls were generalised, but the identity of the city was established by drawing and naming prominent buildings, such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower.

Itinerary from London to Beauvais

A linear map showing the route from London to Beauvais from Matthew Paris's Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

Recognisable buildings, such as St Paul's Cathedral, are a feature of Matthew Paris' 14th-century Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

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The earliest known English plan believed to result from the application of scientific methods of survey to an urban ground plan appears in a manuscript portrayal of Bristol, then England’s second largest city, on folio 5 of The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar, compiled by Robert Ricard in c.1479. Ricard, then the city’s town clerk, depicted Bristol as a bird’s-eye view with the High Cross at the centre of four wide streets, each of which seems to have been drawn along broadly correct alignments to one of the city’s four gates.

The application of printing techniques to urban cartography did not occur until the middle of the 16th century, when plans and views of the major urban centres became available in small but steadily increasing numbers. London, whose population of about 150,000 in 1559 amounted to some 10 per cent of England’s total, was the most common subject. The earliest known plan of the city was one originally executed on fifteen copper-plates by an unknown artist at a scale of about 34 inches to 1 mile (c. 1:1860). The two surviving plates, both now in the Museum of London, are dateable from internal evidence to between 1553 and 1559, and cover a north–south section of the city from Moorgate to the Thames. No known impression of the so-called ‘copper plate map’ now survives, but it was evidently copied by the author of a woodcut map on eight sheets once attributed to the Elizabethan surveyor Ralph Agas (1545–1621). The three surviving copies of the ‘Agas map’ seem to have been produced some time between 1561, when the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed, and 1570, when the new Royal Exchange was built. The ‘copper-plate map’ was also copied by Frans Hogenberg for his map-view of the city for book I of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum of 1572.

Almost contemporary with the ‘copper-plate map’ is a woodcut bird’s-eye view of Norwich dated 1558, which thus forms the earliest surviving printed map of known date of any English town. The author, William Cuningham, was a distinguished physician and astrologer who included the map as one of several woodcuts illustrating principles of map-construction in The Cosmographical Glasse of 1559, one of the first treatises on practical map-making published in England. Cuningham’s view was subsequently redrawn by William Smith for book III of the Civitates of Braun and Hogenberg (1581), and for Smith’s own manuscript account of England of 1588. Norwich was then the second or third largest city in England, and a short verse, concluding the description in the Civitates, reads:

Norwich may rightly pay respects to London’s prior claim, 

And offer reverence to York of venerable fame, 

But doubt if justice bids her yield to Bristol all the same.

Map of Norwich

William Cuningham, Map of Norwich, published in The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Nauigation, (London: 1559)

Cuningham's Cosmographical Glasse is celebrated for its woodcut map of Norwich, which is understood to be the earliest surviving printed map of any English town

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The earliest depiction of a town known to be engraved on copper by an Englishman was the bird’s-eye view of Cambridge by Richard Lyne. This is commonly found with the second edition of Historia Cantebrigiensis Academiae (1574), which was published by John Caius in the course of the simmering controversy as to whether Oxford or Cambridge was the older university. The book was requested by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, himself a former Cambridge scholar. Parker employed both Lyne and Remegius Hogenberg, the brother of Frans Remegius also engraved some of the plates for Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of England and Wales (1579), as well as another bird’s-eye view of an English provincial city, that of Exeter in 1587. John Hooker, the surveyor and author of the view, was Chamberlain to the City of Exeter. In this capacity, he was responsible for the safety of the city’s official records, arranging for the care of the orphans, and surveying the city’s property. He was also an antiquary and historian of national stature, who revised and edited the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, in addition to publishing numerous works relating to his native Exeter. His survey was probably inspired by both his works as an historian and his status as an official. The view, the latest on which Remegius Hogenberg’s name appears, was later copied by Speed for his Theatre.

Isca Damnoniorum (Exeter)

Isca Damnoniorum ... Latine Exonia, Anglice Exeancestre vel Exestre at nunc vulgo Exeter ... Opera et impensis J. Hokeri ... hanc tabella[m] sculpsit R. Hogenbergius. [London?], 1587

Hooker’s bird’s-eye view of Exeter reveals the compact nature of the Tudor city as well as its close connections with the surrounding countryside

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Held by© British Library

The Cheshire-born herald and topographer William Smith (c. 1550–1618) contributed much to the urban mapping of England with his manuscript The Particuler Description of England’ of 1588. This unfinished work, apparently designed for publication, was arranged by county and contained brief geographical descriptions of the major towns, forests and castles, together with general notes on history, fairs and parliamentary representation. It included eight prospects (Winchester, Colchester, Salisbury, Chester, Oxford, Stafford, Lichfield, and Coventry) and seven bird’s-eye views (Canterbury, Rochester, Bath, Cambridge, Bristol, Norwich, and London) as well as a view of Stonehenge. While all the prospects appear to be Smith’s work, only the plan of Bristol was definitely based on his own original survey.

Plan of Canterbury

A plan of Canterbury by William Smith.

A 'portature' of Canterbury from William Smith's Particuler Description of England.

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For a printed compendium of town plans of Britain, the public had to await the appearance of The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611–12) by John Speed. The Theatre contained plans of over 70 of Britain’s more important towns and cities as insets to the county maps. Of these, a large number are believed to have been surveyed by Speed himself. Forty-five of the plans carry the ‘scale of pases’ (paces) referred to in the introduction to the Theatre as being visited by ‘mine owne travels, and into them for distinction sake, the scale of pases … five foote to a pase I have set’. Speed provided many British towns with their earliest known printed plans. Nine of his plans, of Cork, Dublin, Galway, Enniskillen, Lancaster, Limerick, Richmond (Yorkshire), Shrewsbury, and York, subsequently appeared in book VI of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, first published in 1617. Speed himself freely copied from William Smith for his plans of Bristol and Norwich, from Lyne for Cambridge, from Hooker for Exeter, from John Norden for plans of Westminster, London, and Chichester, and from various other sources besides.

The West Riding of Yorkeshyre

John Speed, The West Riding of Yorkeshyre with the most famous and fayre Citie Yorke described, from The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611–12). Maps C.7.c.20.

This map of Yorkshire was published in the first atlas of the British Isles, John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain

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John Norden (c. 1550–1625), a contemporary of William Smith, seems also to have considered the potential value of a systematic survey and mapping of the major towns of the realm. His books on English counties were intended to form part of a Speculum Britanniae (‘Mirror of Britain’), and in his manuscript description of Northamptonshire (1591) he urged ‘the most principall townes Cyties and castles within every shire should be briefly and expertly plotted in their estate and forme as at this day they are.’ He failed, however, to obtain continued support for the Speculum and subsequently earned his living as an estate surveyor working for a number of prominent landowners, including James I and his sons Henry and Charles (later King Charles I) when they were Princes of Wales. Norden’s manuscript ‘Description of the Honor of Windsor’ (1607) consists of a set of plans, one of which incorporates a map-view of the town of Windsor; the detail emphasises the close links between estate survey and urban cartography.

Description of the Honor of Windesor

John Norden, Plan of the Little Park of Windsor, with Windsor Castle and the town of Windsor, from Description of the Honor of Windesor (1607). Harley MS 3749, ff.5v-6.

This plan by John Norden describes the royal estate at Windsor

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Manuscript plans have long been made for military purposes, and maps of strategic fortresses and ports in England survive from at least 1530. Dover had been a major concern of government since the 15th century, its strategic importance being matched by the destructiveness of the sea and the port’s tendency to become blocked by shingle collecting at the foot of the cliffs. By 1600 the principal harbour works were concentrated to the west. The plan of 1595 represents one of many attempts to portray the state of the harbour and surrounding fortifications, and can be attributed to either Thomas Digges or John Hill. Digges (c. 1543–95), a Kentish squire, was acclaimed by contemporaries as one of the leading English mathematicians of his age, and was concerned with the popularisation and practical application of the latest advances in the field. This found expression in a series of works on surveying as well as in maps and charts. Digges had been appointed Surveyor General of the works at Dover in 1582. By 1590 Hill was also working as surveyor there and was active as a servant of the Crown until about 1610.

Another port of strategic importance to England was Flushing (Vlissingen). Its deep-water harbour made it a haven for enemy ships, whether Spanish ships threatening England or Dutch ships mounting a commercial challenge to England overseas. At the same time, it dominated the mouth of the Scheldt and thus controlled access to Antwerp, a major Spanish-held military and commercial base. Flushing was occupied by English troops in 1585 under the terms of the Treaty of Nonesuch, as a security for the eventual repayment of English aid to the Dutch rebels against Philip II. In early 1588, however, Flushing itself was threatened by Philip’s commander in the Netherlands, the Duke of Parma, and this event clearly occasioned the plan. Robert Adams, the surveyor (1540–1595), was a skilled architect, draughtsman, military engineer and map-maker who rose to be Surveyor of the Queen’s Works. His father Clement (1519? –1587) had been one of England’s earliest native-born engravers as well as a noted scholar. The amount of decoration on the map-view, which in technique owed much to foreign example, suggests that it may have been intended for presentation to Lord Burghley or even Elizabeth I.

Plan of Flushing (Vlissingen)

Robert Adams, Plan of Flushing (Vlissingen), 1588. Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.105.

This plan of Vlissingen (known historically in Britain as Flushing) is by Robert Adams, an architect in Elizabeth I's Office of Works

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Not until the late 17th century, however, did printed plans become available in which accuracy as well as artistic skill was paramount. One such example was a plan-view of the city of Bristol, executed in 1673 by James Millerd. Millerd, a mercer and Guardian of the Poor, received the gift of a silver tankard valued at £10.7s.6d. from the Corporation for his plan, described as ‘the largest, exactest and handsomest that ever was yet drawn of this city’. The plan was revised and reissued at least four times, in 1684, 1696, c. 1710, and between 1728 and 1730. The rapid expansion of the city in this period acted as an incentive to Millerd to amend and reissue his map in order to maximise the recovery of his initial expenditure in a local and therefore limited market. The successive states of the plan are thus a valuable source of information to the local historian.

An exact delineation of the famous citty of Bristoll

James Millerd, AN EXACT DELINEATION OF THE FAMOUS CITTY OF BRISTOLL AND SUBURBS : thereof together with all the High wayes, trough fares, streets, lanes, and publick passages, therein Contained, Composed by a Scale Ichnographically Descibed. / Engraven. & Published. by Ia: Millerd. Cittizen & Inhabitant there., [Bristol] : James Millerd, [1673?] Maps K.Top.37.32.2

James Millerd’s plan-view of Bristol was revised at least four times as the city underwent rapid development at the turn of the 18th century

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Millerd’s map was surpassed in accuracy if not in beauty by Ogilby and Morgan’s plan of London, published in 1676 as a consequence of the Great Fire ten years earlier. In order to settle boundary and property disputes and to portray the new buildings, the Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen commissioned as ‘sworn viewers’ or surveyors, John Ogilby and his wife’s grandson, William Morgan. In preparing the survey, Ogilby was in close consultation with Robert Hooke, Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society. Hooke suggested the scale (100 feet to the inch) and advised on surveying and cartographic techniques. Ogilby was a former dancing teacher, Master of the King’s Revels at the Restoration of Charles II, and the King’s ‘Cosmographer Royal and Geographick Printer’, who had lost his house, shop and entire stock in the fire. The result of his efforts was London’s first true ‘plan’ – that is, a map on which all the detail, including streets and houses, is drawn to scale. Published in 20 sheets, it covered the area from Moorfields to the Thames and from Holborn to Whitechapel, and was accompanied by a booklet entitled ‘London survey’d: or an explanation of the large map of London’, which contained an outline of the city’s history and institutions, a table of streets and a description of the conventional signs used on the map. The ‘explanation’ also carried an advertisement, for both the map of London and Ogilby’s English Atlas, which cautions the reader that ‘because several counterfeit Books and Maps, notoriously false, especially of London, have been and others are Preparing to be Publish’d, you are Desir’d to Receive no Book or Map for Part of the Atlas or Survey, that hath not the Names of John Ogilby or William Morgan, or both’.

A large and accurate map of the city of London

A LARGE AND ACCURATE MAP OF THE CITY OF LONDON. : Ichnographically Describing all the Streets, Lanes, Alleys, Courts, yards, Churches, Halls and Houses &c. Actually Surveyed and Delineated, / By John Ogilby, Esq; His Majesties Cosmographer. 1677.

This plan by John Ogilby bears witness to the speed with which London recovered from the Great Fire, for by 1677 the city had largely been reconstructed

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This is an edited version of a text first published in James Elliot, The City in Maps (British Library, 1987).

  • James Elliot
  • Former maps curator, British Library

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.