Guest Contribution: Saxton, Speed and Early Mapmakers




Extracts from the lecture at the Herefordshire Record Office on 8 April 2010



This lecture was part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of John Speed’ s map of the county of Herefordshire in 1610. Speed, however, was not the first person to create and publish a map of the county or to survey places within the county.


Maps are made for a variety of purposes but the early maps usually have one of two functions - land surveys (single maps made for landowners to describe their property and its boundaries) or maps for a wider public, spreading knowledge of countries, the seas and travel, and published in multiple copies for sale. In both kinds the map was made to illustrate the written word.


Beginning with the map of Bringewood Chase in 1577 (in The National Archives) some of the features of land surveys may be noted - their pictorial character and accuracy, their value in showing the extent, usage and improvement of land, their decorative features and the surveyors' equipment. Herefordshire landowners were slow to commission surveys of their estates and most of the surveyors came from outside the county. Not until the very end of the 17th century in a map of Cwm Maddoc in Garway by John Pye of Kilpeck, a lawyer, estate steward and himself a man of property, do we have a named Herefordshire surveyor producing a map of the quality long found in other parts of southern England.


Going back to the same beginning date of 1577 another land surveyor, Christopher Saxton from Dunningly near Wakefield in Yorkshire was the first person to make maps of all the English counties, the pioneer whose footsteps were to be followed by John Speed and others. Today we all marvel at Information Technology. In the mid-15th century people marvelled at the invention of its forerunner, printing, spreading from Italy to Germany, the Low Countries and Britain. For the first time multiple copies  of books and maps could be produced.


Henry VIII was so attracted by them that he had maps hanging on the walls of his palace. A young man in his royal household, William Cecil, later becoming Elizabeth I's first minister for almost 50 years, was similarly addicted. One of the earliest Herefordshire maps of about 1600 is of his family's ancestral estate at Walterstone. Since at least the 1560s he had been considering the value of reliable maps of the counties for the administration of government and defence of the realm - setting out the geography of the country and identifying its towns and villages where loyalists and enemies might be congregated. After casting about for someone who might carry out the mammoth task of surveying all the counties of England and Wales the name of Christopher Saxton, then aged about 30, was put forward in 1573.


Saxton was paid through a government quango, the Court of Wards and Liveries, awarded a coat of arms, and granted property and a ten-year monopoly of sales of his maps. Cecil, by then Lord Burghley (1571), provided him with a warrant to call on mayors and magistrates for guides and assistance in finding high points for his observations. He was required to mark the places, rivers and hills (drawn as molehills, for there were no contours on English maps until the mid-19th century), the seats of the gentry (shown as parks fenced for deer, a privilege granted only by the Crown) but not the roads for Burghley was concerned only with the setting of places, not how to journey between them. As each county map was engraved a proof copy was sent to Burghley on which he personally noted the names of the influential county gentry, for example in west Herefordshire, Syssil (Cecil) of Alltyrynys, Skidmore (Scudamore) of Kentchurch, Parry of Newcourt and Poston, Baskerville of Eardisley and Pontrilas.


It was a remarkable achievement for one man and it was an immediate success. The maps, originally published loose in 1517 were gathered as an atlas in 1579, issued and re-issued to meet the demand for the next two centuries. And of course after his monopoly expired they were copied and plagiarised by others.

Among these the chief was John Speed. Unlike Saxton, Speed was not a surveyor but a London antiquary, interested in compiling biblical genealogies, history and maps, mixing with the elite historians and collectors like William Camden and Sir Robert Cotton. In 1596 he began compiling his History of Great Britain with a supplementary atlas of maps entitled The theatre of the empire of Great Britain . His History was based on Camden's Britannia of 1586 and The Theatre on Saxton's maps. His maps were so similar to Saxton's that he even copied some of Saxton's mistakes (like the misreading of Cledol for Clodock). The only new features are the local government boundaries of the hundreds and the inset maps of the county towns. The decoration, however, is more lavish than Saxton and uniquely on the map of Herefordshire he drew a pair of self-portraits.


The Theatre was also an immediate success. Engraved by Jodocus Hondius of Amsterdam the book bears the imprint of 1611, though the maps of Scotland and Ireland are dated 1612. After Speed's death in 1629 the copperplates were acquired by other London map publishers who reissued the maps, with their own variations, until the 1770s.


Speed may have copied Saxton's county maps, but the plans of the county towns were genuinely his own work and in 50 out of 73 cases, including Hereford, were the earliest maps of these towns. The surveys were carried out in bursts of activity in the late summers of 1606-08. In 1606 he set out from Winchester in mid-August and, riding via Dorchester, Monmouth, Hereford, Brecon and Cardiff, reached Carmarthen only three weeks later, having spent only about three days in each town. He probably arrived in Hereford on Wednesday/Thursday 27/28 August and dated his draft 1st September. We know, from the scale bar that he paced out the street measurements and can guess that he may have asked if he might climb up the towers of the cathedral, parish churches and castle to get an overall view. He did not attempt to draw every house accurately, but only the principal buildings and landmarks. The street houses were filled in by the engraver like wallpaper.


What we see is the medieval town with its suburbs lining the radiating roads outside the city gates before the destruction caused by the Civil War. The published plan is in fact much less accurate than his larger original draft made at the scale of 50 paces to 1-inch, now at Merton College, Oxford. For examples, in his draft he differentiated between the round and square bastions of the city walls, marked the pillared town hall in High Town. the county gaol in St Peter's Square, the privy on the Wye bridge, the chapel at the Castle, the barbican of the Castle on its mound, the walls around the Bishop's Palace and the unusual two-storied chapel of St Katherine and St Mary.


There are other variations between Speed's original drawing of 1606 and Hondius's engraving of 1610, published in The theatre of the empire of Great Britain in 1611-12. Among these dates this year is a good one to mark the anniversary of the first map of Hereford city. It would not be replaced until the Isaac Taylor plan of 1757.

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