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Map Maker Biography: John Speed (1552 - 1629)



First career 

Historian, geographer, cartographer John Speed is one of the first English born cartographers of note and probably to this day the best known. Born at Farndon, Cheshire in the north of England in 1552, Speed’s first profession was as a tailor working in his father’s haberdashery business. Though he worked and earned his living as a tailor, his serious interests were in the fields of history, geography, cartography, antiquities and genealogies, and he spent whatever time he could spare in study, in travels about the countryside, and in the recording of his observations.

The fashion industry was a profitable business at the time, for Henry VIII had spent lavishly on both his wardrobe and accoutrement and his daughter Elizabeth I carried on in the same resplendent style, as did her successor James I. Their sumptuous fashion preferences furnished abundant work and profit for craftsman in all fields related to the production of clothing and accessories. Designers and suppliers, tailors, glove and shoe makers all benefitted. Lace and other decoration of fabrics from pearls to gemstones were in great demand, as were ruffs, cuffs and elaborate collars.

Speed did well in the couture business, but despite his success and expertise in the field, whenever time allowed, he dedicated his time and energy to his other interests. Once established in London he was afforded ample opportunity to indulge in these interests and he soon became a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Here his talents and acumen gradually became known to his colleagues, and with the publishing of his first known cartographical work, a four sheet wall map of Canaan in Biblical Times, he came to the attention of fellow Society member, Sir Fulke Greville, who quickly became Speed’s patron. Greville’s patronage freed Speed from his work in haberdashery and he could finally afford to concentrate solely on his true interests. 

Speed the cartographer

Greville was a wealthy, highly educated and influential Elizabethan aristocrat, a statesman active at court, a scholar, dramatist and poet of the elite class who was well liked by both Elizabeth I and James I. His recognition of Speed’s talents and potential was invaluable to Speed in myriad ways, for Greville’s circle included the most illustrious literati of the day, with such luminaries as Sir Francis Bacon, William Camden and Robert Cotton, to name but a few. Speed’s inclusion in Greville’s circle brought him into contact with people of similar interests who could well afford to finance the plans Speed had been formulating, as he himself claimed he had been, for most of his adult life. His goal was to publish a great atlas, an atlas with maps, but resembling an encyclopedia including history, heraldry, genealogies, and more - a grandiose idea, one to which his new acquaintances would dedicate their own erudition, money, time and efforts.

Greville’s connections at court were such that Elizabeth I herself granted Speed a sinecure which included the use of a room in the Royal Customs House in London in which to work. Having secured not only Greville’s patronage but also that of the recently enthroned James I, and with the encouragement and support of Camden, Robert Cotton, and others, Speed began to actively pursue the idea of creating the first complete and accurate atlas of the British Isles, which would eventually be published as The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. The atlas began with the idea of mapping the counties of Britain, some initial sketches for which may be seen in the Library of Merton College, Oxford. 

Speed’s Atlas

Speed’s ambitious project took shape quickly, and by 1606 he had published a series of maps of English counties, under the nomenclature noted above - The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. Similar in design to the Theatrum orbis terrarum of Abraham Ortelius, the publication was groundbreaking, providing some of the first known detailed maps and plans of towns and provinces in the realm. Indeed his Theatre was something of an encyclopedia containing unique maps, historical information, and myriad scientifically annotated antiquarian sites. As these were the first known maps of many of these places, it is commonly believed that Speed himself did much of the surveying work for them.

As with many if not most maps, Speed’s work had political aims as well as cartographic. His patrons were all supporters of the Crown who hoped to depict the political stability accomplished by the Houses of Tudor and Stuart following the numerous civil wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Speed used the county of Lancashire to frame portraits of the protagonists, and to depict the reconciliation accomplished in the marital alliance when Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York, establishing the Tudor dynasty. Their progeny included the monarchs of England best known to foreigners aside from Elizabeth II – Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I - reminding viewers of the map of the strengthening of the monarchy under the Tudors. 

Speed's map of Lancashire is one of the most sought after of his maps, due in part to its panels displaying the portraits of all the kings of the houses of Lancaster and York. Additionally, it is one of the most sumptuous of all his maps. The bird’s eye view is the earliest known plan of the city and is thought to have been surveyed by Speed himself. Text on the verso summarizes the history of the region and briefly describes its topography.

Speed’s maps document the serious nature of his earlier studies, as they are to a remarkable degree finely and accurately detailed, maps which balance his desire to provide modern plans of counties, with his strong personal interest in depicting and describing the antiquities of the countryside. They depict extant remains of both the Roman era and prehistoric, and provide a wealth of information on those sites. He also depicted sites of famous battles and other important historical events. The maps are a tribute to Speed’s hard work, his skills and interests, a feast of information combined with myriad kinds of beautiful decorative embellishments.

Speed himself was not an engraver, but one of the finest professionals of the day, Jodocus Hondius, engraved the maps in Amsterdam. After engraving them, he would send proof sets to Speed to be checked, thus ensuring that the maps would meet with the high standards of both of these two brilliant mapmakers. The results were of such quality that Speed’s maps were used as reference for other atlases for more than two hundred years.

Some of Speed's maps

 America with those known parts in that unknowne world both people and manner of buildings discribed and inlarged by I.S. Ano 1626.

This iconic map by John Speed is important, beautiful and one of the most iconic maps of America ever made. Surrounded by decorative vignettes illustrating the indigenous peoples and cities of the Americas, the map is the first atlas map to depict California as an island and to depict the east coast of North America in accurate, scientific detail.

The Turkish Empire 

This stunning map dated 1626 depicts the territories in the early years of the 17th century of what Speed called the Turkish Empire. The Empire was in fact the great Ottoman Empire, one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in world history, ruling large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years.

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