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Welcome to Episode 217 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Transoceanic travel was a staple of European endeavors for the 16-17th century, with both Elizabeth I and James I spending massive amounts of money and effort to work with trading companies and explorers who traveled to other continents for trade, commerce, and colonization during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In order to reach these new and exotic places, as well as to be able to return again after the new places had been found, the sailors and explorers relied mainly on navigation by the stars and the wind to get to their destination. However, this time in history is when printed maps and manuscript charts started to be used as a fall back for navigation, and in some cases for political propaganda. It was the maps of John Smith that the Pilgrims consulted to get to the New World, and when Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the 16th century, a hand illustrated map of his journey was created in the 1570s. Shakespeare references a “map of the world” in Henry V, and a “map of ports, piers, and roads” in Merchant of Venice, along with 14 other references to maps and “mappery” in his plays. Here this week to help us understand how mapmaking worked for Shakespeare’s lifetime, exactly who it was that were employed as cartographers, and whether or not the maps sailors relied upon were accurate, is our guest and former Head of Map Collections at the British Library, Peter Barber.

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Peter Barber was Head of Maps and Topography at The British Library between 2001and 2015.  He has written and edited several books on old maps meant for the general public as well as contributing numerous academic articles and chapters to journals and scholarly publications.  He is particularly interested in maps from before 1800 and their historical, political, courtly, cultural and psychological contexts. He continues to research and write and to contribute to and advise on radio and television programmes and series about historical maps.

I’ll be asking Peter Barber about:

  •  Was cartography an established profession for the 16th century?
  • Was a reliance on maps on board ships the traditional form of naval navigation for the 16th century, or was the use of charts and maps considered the new method of plotting a course for this time period?Are medlars native to England?
  • We know that the Pilgrims relied on maps created by John Smith when they traveled to the New World in the 1620s, and of course John Smith was among the travelers for that journey as well. Peter, was it customary for the map maker to travel with explorers for the purpose of creating the maps along the way?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Peter Barber recommends:

Jeremy Black Mapping Shakespeare  (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

PDA Harvey, Maps in Tudor England  (London: British Library, 1993)

Sarah Tyacke (ed.), English Map-Making 150-1650   (London: British Library, 1983).

Jeremy Black Mapping Shakespeare  (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

PDA Harvey, Maps in Tudor England  (London: British Library, 1993)

Sarah Tyacke (ed.), English Map-Making 1500-1650   (London: British Library, 1983).

A few additional resources you might find useful:






This post expands! There’s more details inside including maps of the 16-17th century England, portraits of Elizabeth I and more. Become a patron to unlock these bonuses. Here’s what’s inside this week:

Map Making Was not an Established Profession

The most famous maps of Elizabethan England were created by people who were employed on a regular basis in other professions.

This map of Florida and the Caribbean from 1594 was drawn by Theodore de Bry, who was an engraver, goldsmith, editor, and publisher. He is remembered today for his drawings and maps of European explorations to the Americas in the 16th century.

Map of Florida and the Caribbean from 1594. De Bry, Theodore, Grands and Petits Voyages (First Latin Edition, Third Issue), 1590 – 1634.Public Domain. Source

Ralph Agas (1540s-1621), is one example of someone who did make his career in maps, but even he was not officially a map-maker. He was an estate surveyor (and that only after abandoning his ordination in the Church). Ralph Agas is remembered for his elaborate depiction of Oxford:

Part of Ralph Agas’s map of Oxford (1578). North is at the bottom. | Map by Ralph Agas, file by the Bodleian Library | Derivative works of this file:  Ralph Agas map of Oxford 1578 Jesus marked.jpg | Public Domain | Source

His most famous attribution is probably the “Woodcut Map of London”:

Visscher’s view of London, 1616 | Restored version of File:London panorama, 1616.jpg. Rotated and cropped, dirt and scratches removed, histogram adjusted, colors balanced, partial desaturation. | Public Domain | Source
This map is featured on the “Visscher’s Coffee Mug” that is available to Patrons of our Book Club.

The Woodcut Map of London has long been attributed to Agas, but more recent scholarship questions his involvement in making the map. You can read more on this map in these publications:

Marks, Stephen Powys, ed. (1964). The Map of Mid Sixteenth Century LondonLondon Topographical Society. Vol. 100. London: London Topographical Society. pp. 21–2.

Bendall, Sarah (2004). “Agas, Radulph [Ralph] (c.1540–1621)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/207.

Detail of a map from 1630 with the “Fisher logo”. The signature is both the fisherman drawing and the text “by C.J.Visscher in the Kalverstraet in Amsterdam. | Public Domain| Source

Claes Janz Visscher and his family were professional draughtsmen, a profession that Peter mentions in our episode today. Peter explains that the map maker was usually someone who had seen the location in question, or otherwise made the general outline of the map itself. After it was created, the map was finished into a print by a draughtsman.

The map maker was given a set of details instructions and exactly what he should raw, map, and why, etc. he didn’t play any part in navigating on board ship apathy from anything else in many cases these map makers were of a higher social class and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for them to do something as menial as navigation. However, an experienced pilot after retirement might turn to making charts at that pint, but even then it wasn’t as simple as that because on the babies of his trips draw up the data for a chart, he would present the chart to the whomever that commissioned it, but only after that chart had been copied out by a professional draughtsman, particularly after 1590, the people along the banks of the river thames. This causes confusion, called “john smith’s map” but in fact it’s not, it ‘s a copy made by the professional draughtsman made by the former pilot

Latin: Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica Ac Hydrographica Tabula | Map of the World by Visscher, 1652 | Public Domain | Source

Map of 1602 by Edward Wright

 In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says “he does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.” Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602, and in this same year, there was a brand new map created that included augmentation of the Indies. Shakespeare is making an intentional reference to very current events with this line in the play. Peter explains,

There was a map that’s now extremely rare, Edward Wright combined the Mercado projection (familiar on modern maps) with the traditional hydrographic sea chart that contained what’s called rhumb lines, which look like sort of compass lines out of a compass, and in fact, they do sometimes trace winds, but if you want imagine it the lines of Mercado projection were superimposed on the lines of the —published in 1599, so the Shakespeare play comes out in 1601/1602, very contemporary. This map, is one of the most important maps produced by an english person at that point in Shakespeare’ s lifetime. 95% of the maps of the printed maps Shakespeare would have been familiar with are now lost and many he used are totally lost.

Quote by Edward Wright about this map in his publication “Certain Errors of Navigation” from 1599 “Thou hast here gentle reader a true hydrographical description of so much of the world as hath beene hetherto discouered, and is comme to our knowledge. which we haue in such sort performed, yt all places herein set downe, haue the same positions and distances that they haue in the globe, being therin placed in same longitudes and latitudes which they haue in this chart, which by the ordinarie sea-chart can in no wise be performed. The way to find the position, or course from any place to other herein described, differeth nothing from that which is vsed in the ordinarie sea chart. But to finde the distance; if both places haue the same latitude, see how many degrees of the meridian taken at that latitude are contayned betweene the two places, for so many score leagues is the distance. If they differ in latitude, see howe many degrees of the meridian taken about the midst of that difference are conteyned betweene; them and so many score leagues is the distaunce.” (Spelling errors are true to the original). Elsewhere: “I haue contented my self with inserting into the worke one of the best generall mappes of the world onely, untill the comming out of a very large and most exact terrestrial Globe, collected and reformed according to the newest, secretest, and latest discoveries, both Spanish, Portugall, and English, composed by M. Emmerie Mollineux of Lambeth, a rare Gentleman in his profession, being therein for divers yeeres, greatly supported by the purse and liberalitie of the worshipfull marchant M. William Sanderson.”

A map of the world by the mathematical adaptation of the Mercator Projection computed by Edward Wright and used to flatten the information on the c. 1592 globe made by Emery Molyneux and thus generally known as the Wright–Molyneux Map. Possibly charted in 1599, published in 1600 as an addendum to Vol. I of the 2nd edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Nauigations… Source: The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation…, 2nd ed., Vol. I, London: G. Bishop, R. Newberie, & R. Barker, 1598, endpiece. Hosted as “Thou Hast Here…”ImagesCreating Shakespeare, at The Newberry, Chicago. Author: Edward Wright, after the c. 1592 globe of Emery Molyneux | Public Domain | Source

Places to learn more about Edward Wright and his significant influence on English astronomers and mathematicians:

Bernard Capp (2004), “Heydon, Sir Christopher (1561–1623)”Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press

A.J. Apt; B. Harrison (2004). “Wright, Edward (bap. 1561, d. 1615)”. Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyOxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30029. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

“Wright, Edward (WRT576E)”A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge..

Paul J. Lewi (11 February 2006), “Mercator, Wright and Mapmaking” (PDF), Speaking of Graphics: An Essay on Graphicacy in Science, Technology and Business, Turnhout, Belgium: DataScope, p. 24, archived from the original (PDF) on 15 January 2009, Edward Wright was born in 1561 at Garveston, near Norfolk, in a family with modest income (mediocris fortunae)

 Eli Maor (1998), “A Mapmaker’s Paradise (ch. 13)” (PDF), Trigonometric Delights, Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press, p. 165 at 176ISBN0-691-05754-0

16th century/17th century publications worth checking out:

Walter Bigges; Lieutenant Crofts (1589), Thomas Cates (ed.), A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Francis Drakes VVest Indian Voyage wherein were Taken, the Townes of Saint Iago, Sancto Domingo, Cartagena & Saint Augustine: With Geographicall Mappes exactly Describing each of the Townes with their Scituations, and the Manner of the Armies Approching [sic] to the Winning of them. [Begun by Walter Bigges, continued by Lieutenant Crofts, and edited by Thomas Cates.], London: Imprinted … [b]y Richard Field, dwelling in the Blacke-Friars by Ludgate.

Edward Wright, ed. (1605), The Safegarde of Saylers, or Great Rutter. Contayning the Courses, Dystances, Deapths, Soundings, Flouds and Ebbes, with the Marks for the Entring of Sundry Harboroughs both of England, Fraunce, Spaine, Ireland. Flaunders, and the Soundes of Denmarke, with other Necessarie Rules of Common Nauigation. Translated out of Dutch … by Robert Norman … Newly corrected and augmented by E[dward] W[right], translated by Robert Norman, London: By E. Allde for H. Astley

Mark Ridley (1617), Magneticall Animadversions … upon certaine Magneticall Advertisements lately Published, from Maister W. Barlow, London: [s.n.]: see Stephen Andrew Johnston (1994), “Practitioners and Mechanicians (ch. 4)

Thomas Blundeville; Henry Briggs; Edward Wright (1602), The Theoriques of the Seuen Planets shewing all their Diuerse Motions, and all other Accidents, called Passions, thereunto Belonging. Now more Plainly set forth in our Mother Tongue by M. Blundeuile, than euer they haue been heretofore in any other Tongue whatsoeuer, and that with such Pleasant Demonstratiue Figures, as euery Man that hath any Skill in Arithmeticke, may easily Vnderstand the same. … VVhereunto is added by the said Master Blundeuile, a Breefe Extract by him made, of Maginus his Theoriques, for the Better Vnderstanding of the Prutenicall Tables, to Calculate thereby the Diuerse Motions of the Seuen Planets. There is also hereto added, the Making, Description, and Vse, of Two Most Ingenious and Necessarie Instruments for Sea-men … First Inuented by M. Doctor Gilbert … and now here Plainely set downe in our Mother Tongue by Master Blundeuile, London: Printed by Adam Islip translated by Robert Norman, London: By E. Allde for H. Astley

Most Famous Map Makers Weren’t Actually English

Peter shares that most map makers for England were foreigners. Even maps made by Englishmen were printed abroad.

1633 Portrait of Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) by Peter Paul Rubens  (1577–1640) | Public Domain | Source

Best known at the time was Abraham Ortelius, worked in Antewerp 1570-1597, he brought out in a sense, the first modern atlases throughout the Europe and reformatted them into a book of maps people could buy, [it was] enormously popular. Well known, even though he wasn’t primarily a map maker. The outstanding Geradus Mercato, Ghehard Kramer (dutch/german) operated in netherlands/antwerp, in Germany in Cleves up to the 1590s when he died, he was special because he really felt he had a mission to produce accurate maps of the whole world, drawn to a standard scale based on the best information and highly critical of the work presented to him, unlike Ortelius who just republished what existed. 

Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570. | Public Domain | Source

They were important national mapmakers like Magini for the Italian states, but they were really important. Another person, Wagoner, first printed sea charts in 1584, so popular that this sort of book became known as a Wagoner, translated into English at the time of the Armada, and certainly Shakespeare would have known it. The Wagoner would have ben important–the adaptation into English was done by Antony Ashley, secretary to the privy council, at the time of the Armada. In terms of England, probably Christopher Saxon, but at least initially, his maps were regarded as confidential. After Armada, when the threat was less to England, his maps became more well known. He produced the maps of the counties of England but he didn’t map county by county, but instead grouped maps together. 20 years later, John Speed, borrowing materials, and he produced an atlas to illustrate a history, and that contained maps of all the english counties one by one. 1610/1611, towards the end of Shakespeare’s life, they are really beautiful with all sorts of illustrations, and Saxon’s maps were essentially a government commission and they are quite plain, with the coat of arms of the Queen and [Secford? not sure on spelling here] who paid for them. But John Speed in 1610, he was dependent on public sales and they were as pretty as they could be because he needed to sell them. Local county arms, arms of the earls of the county represented, illustrations of history, etc. very nice and now they are very sought after by collectors. 

Images in the Gallery (Not in order)

  1. Portrait of Giovanni Magini, unknown author. Portrait is dated 1582 at the bottom of the frame on the image itself. Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555-1618), Italian mathematician Public Domain. Source

2. The map of Muscovite Empire includes also the territory of old Livonia and the North-eastern part of the Baltic Sea. The map depicts the end of the 16th century – the beginning of the 17th century cartographers’ notion of the Baltic Sea coastlines geographic view, which is of interest to us. Even though in the territory of present-day Latvia only a few place-names are noted (Riga, Venda, Dunemborg, Duina fluu., and Cureti pop.) and the coastline is significantly misrepresented, the map is testimony to the increasing geographical knowledge in Europe about our land. The map is included in M. Quad’s atlas published in Cologne in 1608. This map is a copy of G. A. Magini’s map of Moscowy, which was first published in the 1596 edition of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography. | By Giovanni Magini, 1608, Public Domain | Source

3. Gegeente en … vant Landt of Portugal; from: Mariner’s Mirror (The first part of the Spieghel der zeevaerdt, of the navigation of the Western sea, including all the custs of Vranckrijck, Spaingen and the principal part of England, included in various sea caerten”, Leiden, Christoffel Plantin, 1584 ) Map by Waghenaer, Lucas Jansz, 1584. (Place names here are in Dutch). This is held at the University of Texas Library. Public Domain. Source

4. Insert from John Speeds County maps of Wales for first published in The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain by George Humble, 1610, Public Domain, Source Held at the National Library of Wales

5. Renaissance map of Wiltshire, UK, with a townmap of Salisbury and a view of Stonehenge, by John Speed, 1610, Public Domain, Source

6. A guide for Cuntrey men In the famous Cittey of London. A map of London by John Norden, 1593. This copy comes from the 1653 edition of Norden’s Speculum Britainiæ (Mirror of Britain), re-issued after his death. There is only one bridge across the Thames, but parts of Southwark on the south bank of the river have been developed. The coats of arms around the edge belong to the twelve largest city guilds. These arms collectively were known as the “Great Liveries”. Top right is the Merchant Tailors’ arms.

  • Medium: Engraving (229×241 mm)
  • Map scale: 4″ : 1 Statute Mile (1 : 15840)
  • British library shalf mark: Maps.Crace I, number 33

Public Domain | Source

7. A map of “Southamptonshire” from Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales by Christopher Saxon, 1579, Held at the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection  | Source | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

John Norden, also produced county maps but he didn’t cover the whole country. He comes as close as you can get in the 16th century to a professional map maker though he was much more, he produced estate maps, including some for King James I. He produced maps of the counties of England, which accompanied extensive written texts, gazetteers, for those counties, produced maps for the government of hot spots, of Northern Ireland because that’s where the trouble was, but he was not really a professional map maker, he was partly a religious preacher, and of the rest he was a writer.

Maps were signs of status, but even the Queen couldn’t read them

Peter points out that despite numerous portraits of Elizabeth I invoking the images of maps and globes, the Queen herself very likely could not read maps.

She couldn’t understand maps. She couldn’t read a map. Elizabeth knew about maps, but she was a woman who operated on words and texts meant something to her. With maps, she just couldn’t read them, couldn’t understand them, and there’s lots of people like that today and mentions of her with maps is that she’s giving the map to Lord Burleigh or one of her ministers, but perhaps the most telling index of how unaware of the potential of maps was what happened with the royal estates. Her wealth depended on the royal estates income, so we would have thought that she would have a vested interest in getting then maps to ensure she knew what she had and so that her agents could ensure that the leased lands were paid for by appropriate levels of rent, but she didn’t none of that, and there’s a reason why she wasn’t encouraged to do it, because her ministers, like Lord Burleigh, were actually busily encroaching on the royal estates, so through her lack of awareness of the potential of maps, she allowed the crown to be defrauded, and you can go further than that to say because he was lax, such damage was caused to the integrity of the royal estates that by Charles I in 1625, there wasn’t enough income from the royal estates to pay for his expenses and he had to go to Parliament which ends in his execution. If Elizabeth had known more [about maps] Charles wouldn’t have been executed.