400th anniversary of great cartographic treasure

Thursday 21 April 2011, 16:10

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Published 400 years ago, the first comprehensive atlas of Great Britain is being celebrated by Cambridge University Library.

John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine is one of the world's great cartographic treasures. Published in 1611/12, it marked the first time that comprehensive plans of English and Welsh counties and towns were made available in print. Its influence was so great that it was used by armies on both sides of the English Civil War.

The maps were printed from copper plates which were engraved, in reverse, by highly skilled artisans. Maps were printed from these plates from time to time to check for errors - hence the Library's set of proofs. The library is home to one of only five surviving proof sets, all of which differ in their composition.

To celebrate its 400th anniversary, Cambridge University Library has digitised each of the proof maps and put them online at www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/maps/speed.html.

Anne Taylor, Head of the Map Department at the University Library, said:

"Although the Library holds several copies of the published atlas - including a first edition - it is the hand-coloured set of proofs produced between 1603 and 1611 that is one of its greatest treasures.

"It was bought by the University Library in 1968 after the government refused an export licence for the proofs to be sold abroad. We know it as the Gardner copy after its previous owner (Eric Gardner). It really is a rare and delightful item."

The county maps were the first consistent attempt to show territorial divisions, but it was Speed's town plans that were a major innovation and probably his greatest contribution to British cartography. Together they formed the first printed collection of town plans of the British Isles and, for at least 50 of the 73 included in the Theatre, it was the first time these towns had been mapped.

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Read more about the maps of Wales on Wales Online.

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