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Book of the Month

June 2002

Atlas of the Counties of England & Wales

Christopher Saxton, London: c.1579

Sp Coll Hunterian Di.1.12

The June book is a Tudor atlas of 35 coloured maps depicting the counties of England and Wales. Originally published as a collection in 1579, this volume is a landmark in British cartography and printing. Christopher Saxton was responsible for producing the maps and his work provided a new standard of cartographic representation in Britain. This atlas formed the basis for all succeeding county maps for over one hundred years.

Detail from map of Wiltshire 

Dubbed 'the father of English cartography', little is known about Saxton's personal life. Born in Yorkshire between 1542 and 1544, his yeoman family were probably clothiers and farmers. It is likely that Saxton was apprenticed in cartographic draughtsmanship and surveying to John Rudd, Vicar of Dewsbury (1554-1570) and Rector of Thornhill (1558-1570/78). Rudd had a passion for maps, and was engaged at some time in the 1550s in making a 'platt' of England; in 1561 he was granted leave from his duties to travel further to map the country. It is suggested that Saxton accompanied  him on these travels, at which time he would have been about 17 years old.  Saxton was definitely employed by Rudd by 1570. 
The idea of making a survey of the kingdom and its parts in a consistent format developed in the mid Sixteenth Century. Although the first English map of Britain by Matthew Paris had appeared in about 1250, it was not until the mid Fifteenth Century that the principles of mapping were fully understood. The craft of cartography was boosted by the Italian invention of printing maps from copper plates in 1473, while advances in scientific learning helped the Dutch and Flemish to become the masters of map making by the late 1500s: in 1564, Gerard Mercator, the Dutch cartographer, published a detailed map of the British Isles on eight sheets; his friend Abraham Ortelius first published a map of the world in 1570. 

Map of England & Wales: 'Anglia'

These pioneering maps were made possible thanks to developments in draughtsmanship and surveying. Such techniques emerged in part as a result of the practical needs of military engineers: military surveyors were well able to draft plans and topographical maps to scale by the 1540s. Graphic estate surveys also became increasingly popular as  the replacement of open fields meant that land boundaries had to be defined. Thus, a large number of treatises on surveying appeared, while military textbooks were published explaining the use of the cross-staff for surveying lengths and distances as well as heights. Such interest lead to the construction of increasingly sophisticated surveying instruments resulting in a new accuracy in mapping.
Saxton came to London at an unknown date and was chosen by Thomas Seckford to survey and map the counties of England and Wales. A court official, Seckford worked closely with William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was possibly behind both Rudd's and Saxton's mapping projects; he certainly had a keen appreciation of the political value of maps, making his own sketches of politically sensitive areas such as the Anglo-Scottish borders.  He evidently took great interest in Saxton's work as it progressed: the maps were sent to him as each plate was engraved, and once the survey was complete he bound up these early proof maps with some other maps and plans of relevance. This volume still exists and is in the keeping of the British Library. 

Map of Cornwall

Arms of Seckford with early motto Pestis patriae pigrities (detail from map of Cornwall)

It is Seckford, however, who is generally thought to have financed the undertaking. His involvement is reflected in the appearance of his mottos and coats of arms on every map. The project was further authorized by Queen Elizabeth I, to whom the work was dedicated. As a result of this backing, Saxton received a considerable amount of administrative assistance and financial reward: on March 11, 1574, he was granted a lease of land at Grigston Manor in Suffolk in consideration of his expenses 'in the survey of divers parts of England' . Moreover, on July 20th, 1577, Elizabeth granted Saxton a licence for the exclusive publication of the maps for a ten year period.

As the work's patron, it is not surprising that a portrait of Elizabeth should be found as a frontispiece to the volume. Two versions of this portrait appear in copies of the atlas, both depicting a seated queen flanked by bearded male figures who represent geography and astronomy. In our copy, however, this portrait has been replaced by a different engraving of Elizabeth. This was probably added at a later date in an attempt to make good the copy. The original might have been removed deliberately, or possibly our copy was compiled at a time when the portrait was being redrawn and so was not available for inclusion. Our copy also lacks the table of cities and coats of arms usually found as part of the preliminaries. The index, however, is present. The only part of the atlas printed in moveable type, the index occurs in several different settings: ours is setting 'D', the most common, and is associated with the 'definitive' 1590 version of the atlas. 

The bibliographical history of all the surviving copies of the atlas are complicated. The survey began in 1574 and 34 county maps were subsequently printed separately until completion in 1578. The general map and all the county maps were first issued as an atlas in 1579. However, copies did not emerge as a single issue and some are clearly earlier than others; even the order of the maps varies from atlas to atlas.  Three maps (Anglia, Norfolk and Northamptonshire) underwent revision after their initial incorporation into the atlas and therefore exist in two different states.  Our copy has a mix of states in these maps, making an attempt to date it accurately difficult - it might even be an example of a  copy assembled from separate sheets acquired at various times.  

Frontispiece portrait of Elizabeth I 

Map of Norfolk 

The map of Norfolk was the first to be completed and it bears the date 1574. Possibly experimental, this is the only map in which the hundreds are designated by letters on the map, with a key to the letters and names of the areas in the top right hand corner. Other features, however, are common to the maps which were to follow. The title appears in Latin in an embellished cartouche in the top left corner. Other decorative features include the Elizabethan ships, fish and sea monsters inhabiting the sea. Although the map obviously had a functional use, these details were not irrelevant but were incorporated as an integral part of the map - the map was intended to be ornamental as well as practical. 

Map of Kent/Sussex/Surrey/Middlesex

Map of Dorset

Twenty-four of the maps depict individual counties while ten show groups. The groups usually portray two counties, although some show more, as in this map of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Middlesex. There is no apparent rationale behind the decision to portray some counties in groups. Similarly, there are  incongruities of scale between the maps and of orientation and style. The size of each map also varies; while the average size is 397 x 510 mm, the map of Yorkshire is exceptionally large and requires folding to fit in. Each map is engraved on a single copper-plate, again with the exception of Yorkshire, the size of which necessitated two plates. Several engravers were employed to create the plates, several of whom were Dutch or Flemish, as is only to be expected in a period when cartographers from the Low Countries excelled in the art. Thus, Remigius Hogenberg, Cornelis de Hooghe and Lenaert Terwoort between them engraved fifteen of the maps. Saxton, however, also employed some Englishmen to work on the maps, although their style reflects continental training. Augustine Ryther, for instance, was responsible for engraving 'Anglia'. The addition of colour was at the discretion of individual owners and therefore does not follow any universal pattern. Again, colour was applied primarily for visual attraction.

Detail from map of Somerset 

Detail from map of Denbigh & Flint

The main geographical features found on the maps comprise relief, including water, vegetation, settlements and notable buildings. A small building with a spire represents  a village, while more important towns are indicated by groups of buildings, as may be seen by Bristol and Wrexham here. Hills and mountains are also pictorially defined. According to Evans and Lawrence, the 'aim was to convey an impression of topography rather than to provide precise information on the location and altitude of individual summits'. Rivers, streams, parks and woodlands are also depicted carefully. Woods are shown by small tree-symbols, with clusters representing forests (as  in Kingswood forest). Parklands, meanwhile, are enclosed with ring fences (as in Holt Park). Despite some discrepancies - such as in the coastline of Cornwall  -  the maps are impressively accurate and detailed. 

This is all the more remarkable considering the relatively short space of time it took to complete the survey. Although Saxton may well have drawn upon material gathered earlier (such as by Rudd) there is  evidence to show that much of the work was completed thanks to personal field observation. In Wales, for example, he was accompanied by locals who would assist him in naming the towns and villages which he saw from his surveying vantage points.  Although none of Saxton's working notes survive, the method of survey used was probably an early system of triangulation.

Saxton's authorship acknowledgement, with compasses and scale (detail from map of Monmouthshire)

Saxton went on to produce a large wall map of England and Wales in 1583, and by the late 1580s he was established as a professional land surveyor. As the first man to survey England and Wales, his contribution to the development of cartography is unquestionable. The importance and influence of the atlas is demonstrated by the fact that the maps were re-issued and adapted continually until about 1778, almost two hundred years after their original appearance.


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Julie Gardham June 2002