Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Genesis of John Speed's Maps of Battles in England and Ireland

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Genesis of John Speed's Maps of Battles in England and Ireland

Article excerpt

For a time in 1797 England had reason to fear that its naval supremacy had been lost and that it risked defeat by the armed forces of Revolutionary France. Just then, the London mapmaker John Enouy issued a map entitled 'The Invasions of England and Ireland'; its design implied that no invasions since 1066 had succeeded. The next year, the Directory governing France planned to unleash Bonaparte against Britain. To encourage this plan, the Paris mapmaker P. F. Tardieu issued a 'Map of the Landings Made in England and Ireland since William the Conqueror'; it suggested that many invasions of England had been successful.1 In commenting in these ways on current events, both the London and the Paris cartographers, and several more after them, based themselves on an early seventeenth-century English prototype, 'The Invasions of England and Ireland with al their Civill Warrs since the Conquest', by John Speed (1552-1629).2

Speed's precocious and unusual thematic map is well known. Its title features 'Invasions', as seen above, and this name imposes itself whenever the original heading is reproduced. But Speed was not centrally concerned with assaults on Britain from the sea; his map mainly displays the sites of battles in Britain itself, 'al their Civill Warrs', that is, battles mainly fought by Britons among themselves. A more appropriate title, combining invasions and civil wars, and in keeping with similar maps by two of Speed's contemporaries, is 'Battles' - the name for Speed's map that I shall normally use here.

The genesis of Speed's maps of 'Battles' has been discussed several times in recent years and deserves a fuller look. Speed's own printed explanation of what he was doing also needs examination. About twenty-five years separate the two versions of Speed's explanatory text from each other. Often quoted but not yet published in full, the two explanations are transcribed and compared as an appendix.

Speed started adult life as a tailor personally engaged in his craft, but he long worked on the side as an antiquarian and historian. He secured enough patronage by 1598 to exchange tailoring for full-time scholarship.3 The work for which he is best known, a chronicle-like Historie of Great Britaine (1610), was complemented by an atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1611-1612), whose great popularity necessitated many reprintings. These ambitious projects were not directly associated with the 'Battles' map in question here. The comparatively isolated 'Battles' map has often been reproduced and has come to be known- only in the last thirty-five years or so- to exist in three distinct forms:

1. the Cambridge version, a single sheet datable to 1601 (and compiled in the previous year), which announces battle sites by massed pikemen and billboards;

2. the Newcastle/Paris wall hanging, a four-sheet map datable to c. 1603, in which battle sites are shown by numbered tents, a much less visible and more sedate device than that of the Cambridge version;

3. the Danckerts engraving, a single sheet identical in content to the Cambridge map but with a later date, by a different engraver, and with much more skilled execution. Carried out in the Netherlands in 1626, it was published the next year in Speed's last atlas, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World.4

The widely circulated and familiar version of Speed's 'Battles' is the one splendidly engraved by Danckerts. Neither the first nor the second of the three maps listed above was known to map historians until recently; they were identified and brought to light only in 1969-70. The haphazard way in which the three versions gradually came to the attention of scholars has made it more difficult to interpret Speed's actions and motives.

The 'Battles' map is unlikely to have been 'an attempt to reduce the whole history of Britain to the visual level', but it certainly illustrates Speed's 'predilection for superimposing pictorial and anecdotal detail on a geographical map'. …

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