The Story of Map Making

A packed house at our October meeting, which was held jointly with the Royal Geographical Society, welcomed Richard Stone who took us through a history of map making. Richard stressed that he was an historian, not a geographer, with an interest lying in what maps reveal to us about people and places in history. The earliest maps were either humanist, attempting to reflect what actually existed "on the ground" or religious, seeking to put a special dimension on biblical teaching. Very few maps were what we might call today "local maps" for, at a time when most of the inhabitants could not read and knew their immediate locale intimately, there was little need for them.

We started in AD150, with a fascinating world map drawn by Ptolemy. What was quite surprising, was the very accurate representation of the disposition of land and sea in what was then the known world. Moreover, Ptolemy had actually managed at that early date to master the skill of transposing land from a curved surface (the earth) onto a flat piece of paper. His skill and insight was not bettered for 500 years. Many will be aware of the world map in Hereford Cathedral, the Mappa Mundi. Dated to the 13th century, its authorship is still a mystery. The most likely answer is that it was drawn up by a monk, but who and where is unknown. As a religious map, we find it hard to understand - but not to a monk. For to him it was logical to place the east, where the sun rises, at the top of the map and Jerusalem at the centre. Moreover, the concept of scale was not understood. Scale should reflect importance, not true distances. Prior to the Mappa Mundi, few national maps existed. The Anglo Saxon culture did not require them. Theirs was a descriptive culture when describing places (ie. the village by the trees below the hill). The consequence of this is that many of our older place names, although much corrupted, are named after geographical features.

The date 1250 saw historian Matthew Parris write a series of historic chronicles, supported by a map of England and Wales. Interestingly, river routes and settlements are dominant, for the main travel arteries at this period would have been our waterways. Around 1350 came the Gough or Bodleian Map. Its authorship is unknown, but it was decidedly more accurate than earlier attempts, showing 600 settlements, many of Edward I's castles and three thousand kilometres of river routes. Pilgrimage routes were included, plus a larger amount of detail for East Anglia, leading some scholars to suggest that it was probably drawn up by a monk from a monastery in that area. By the end of the fourteenth century, vellum was being replaced by copper plates for map preparation. Their ease of reproduction brought about by improved printing methods meant that there was a surge in map making, most probably for use as defensive aids rather than for travel. Thomas Cromwell's orders of 1539 required landowners to draw up coastal maps, particularly in southern England, reflecting accurately the headlands and defensive weak spots, with proposals for their reinforcement.

As Richard took us into the seventeenth century, the map makers' skills were developing. Fine, detailed maps of our larger towns and counties were now being drawn up by a small group of highly skilled individuals. Christopher Saxton published the first county maps at this time, backed by a wealthy patron. This was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief minister who gave added impetus to map making, by commissioning, through private agencies, the first comprehensive series of thirty-four county maps, which were prepared in the space of four short years from 1574. Again, this work was motivated by both security and military considerations. These maps were updated over the next 200 years, adding features like roads and distances. Next on the scene comes John Speed, who continued the updating and improvement work. John Ogilby (1675) produced the first "itinerary maps", where a single route was rolled out for the traveller's guidance, showing towns, river bridges and crossroads as well as accurate distances. Ogilby also published more conventional maps, including a massive one of London, scaled at one inch to ten feet and covering ten square metres. The detail, as one would imagine was incredible. Richard showed us a number of maps of London from this period, with readily recognisable features. So, the eighteenth century saw a progressive improvement in and sophistication of cartography, culminating in the establishment of the Ordnance Survey in 1791. With the Napoleonic War raging and fearing invasion, ministers wanted accurate maps of Britain. Who better to draw them up but the artillery, where distance measurement skills for firing shells were already developed. From here came our standard map scale of one inch to one mile. Although some map-making continued privately, its cost and sophistication meant that the Ordnance Survey became our prime provider of maps of all scales, as it still does today.

Richard's talk was of necessity a whistle-stop tour, but what was fascinating was the insight that it gave us into the motivation for map-making, whether military, religious or just plain vanity from a wealthy patron who desired one of these new-fangled maps!

Roger Hockney
October 2017