More Maps: John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine


Photo Credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Back with more historic maps which may be useful for generating class discussion on how such sources illustrate perceptions and views of the British and Irish in the wider world.

Today we’re highlighting the first atlas to cover the British Isles as a whole, as well as the first work to make comprehensive plans of many English and Welsh towns available in print. English historian and geographer John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was published in 1611/1612, with a print run of approximately 500 copies. Each of the English and Welsh counties and the four provinces of Ireland was separately depicted, along with a larger view of Scotland.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Speed used previously compiled sources to inform his Theatre, but he made the maps and other elements himself.  The maps are rich with details of local history, fashions, and features, all of which would be useful in the classroom to provide a view of life in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

With the publication of the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, Speed was well on his way to becoming the best-known mapmaker of his era.


Photo credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Cambridge University Library has a remarkable digital resource utilizing one of their five proof copies of Speed’s atlas.  It can be found here.

Additional Sources:

Annie Taylor, “A Theatre of Treasures,” Cambridge University Special Collections.

Ashley Baynton-Williams, John Speed Biography Part I, Part II, and Part III.

“Mapping the Origins of a Masterpiece,” University of Cambridge.

More Maps: Matthew Paris’ Great Britain

Earlier this summer I looked at using maps as primary sources for class as a way to generate discussion and highlight worldviews of the time periods and cultures in which the maps were created.  One of my favorite maps, and one that would be an excellent source in British History courses, is Matthew Paris’ Map of Great Britain, produced in 1250.  This map is now in the British Library.


Matthew Paris, Map of Britain (1250) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Not only is the map visually appealing, particularly in its use of color, drawings of miniature battlements and city walls, and ability to seize the imagination, it is also the oldest surviving map to show such a high level of detail and accuracy.  Over 250 places are identified on the map, with Scotland clearly set apart by Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.  I particularly enjoy the depiction of the Firths of Forth and Clyde sharply cutting through Scotland to almost meet.  Scotia and Wallia (with an elaborate Mount “Snaudun”) are identified by name, along with areas such as Devonia and Sufolck. The side bars identify the nearest land in each direction.  London, in the bottom center of the map, appears to have all roads leading to it (notice how the towns line up above it) along with a snake-like Thames.

We can see that the land depicted on the map is distorted, but even with this it was still extremely accurate for its time.  As the British Library site describes, Paris’ depiction was likely based on both travelers’ accounts and Ptolemy’s geography.

Matthew Paris was a monk at St. Alban’s Abbey in England, where he lived all of his adult life.  He was an historian, writer of chronicles, and artist.  Paris drew four maps of Britain, of which this is the most detailed.

Just think about the Hereford Mappa Mundi from my previous maps post.  As Simon Garfield emphasizes in On the Map, Matthew Paris created his map of Great Britain about fifty years before the mappa mundi was produced, making Paris truly stand out as a unique mapmaker of his time.

Postcard from Rosslyn Chapel

131 Rosslyn chapel

Rosslyn Chapel – photo credit: L. Flewelling

I was just thinking about this trip to Rosslyn Chapel the other day – it was the first day trip I went on after moving to Edinburgh, with one of my (now) very close friends.  The town of Rosslin is about 20 minutes outside of Edinburgh.  At the time, it wasn’t all that long after the publication and film adaptation of the Da Vinci Code, which prominently featured Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel dates to the 15th century, and as you can see was under extensive restoration at the time I visited.  The restoration project has been complete since 2013 and you can now see the chapel fully without scaffolding.

Rosslyn Chapel website

121 Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Postcard from Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Harlech Castle – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Perched on a near-vertical cliff at the edge of the Irish Sea, Harlech Castle was completed in 1289.  The fortification was part of the ring of castles built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales.  The castle was captured and used as a headquarters by Owain Glyndŵr as he rose up against the English in the early 15th century.

Cadw: Harlech Castle

22 Castle from a distance edit

Castle from a distance – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Postcard from The Church of Holyrood in Southampton, England

Postcard from The Church of Holyrood in Southampton, England


Ruins of The Church of Holyrood, Southampton – Photo credit: P. Dumas

The plaque on the front wall of the church reads:

The Church of Holyrood erected on this site in 1320 was damaged by enemy action on 30 Nov 1940. Known for centuries as the church of the sailors the ruins have been preserved by the people of Southampton as a memorial and garden of rest. Dedicated to those who served in the Merchant-Navy and lost their lives at sea.


Photo credit: P. Dumas


Photo credit: P. Dumas

Postcard from Arbroath Abbey, founded in 1178 and famed for the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath


Arbroath Abbey – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Arbroath Abbey was founded by King William the Lion in 1178, and was home to monks until the Scottish Reformation.  At that point, the abbey fell into a state of disrepair, and there are only a few areas that you can actually go “inside” today.


Arbroath Abbey – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Declaration of Arbroath, issued in 1320, was a letter to Pope John XXII asserting the independence of Scotland.  It seems apt to quote its most famous passage:

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

We visited there on a sunny January day as part of a larger postgraduate trip, which was truly wonderful.


Arbroath Abbey – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Historic Scotland: Arbroath Abbey

National Archives of Scotland: Declaration of Arbroath

Postcard from Dolbadarn Castle, Llanberis, Wales, the 13th century home of Llywelyn the Great

96 Dolbadarn Castle

Dolbadarn Castle – photo credit: L. Flewelling

After a day of climbing Mount Snowdon and touring the castles of Edward I, we broke through the trees and saw the charming remains of Dolbadarn Castle near Llanberis (we approached from the completely wrong side – it shouldn’t actually be that difficult to get to).  The castle was most likely built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (who I am particularly interested in for obvious reasons) in the 13th century and the remains are dominated by a 50 ft tall tower with the outlines of other rooms below.

Cadw: Dolbadarn Castle

Postcard from Iona, home to the monastery founded in 563 by St. Columba (Colm Cille) of Ireland

155 View of Iona

View from the ferry, approaching Iona from Mull – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Did you know that there are no cars on Iona?  And there is a nunnery as well as the famous abbey, and plenty of sheep!

165 Cross of St Martin

Cross of St. Martin – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Burghers of Calais


The Burghers of Calais in London – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Six figures clad only in sackcloth, barefoot and with nooses ringing their necks, huddle together awaiting their fate.  They appear fearful, resigned, determined, sorrowful, and despairing depending on each individual temperament.  These are the six burghers of Calais, who gave up their lives to save the people of their city.

I’ve been fascinated by Auguste Rodin’s statue of the Burghers of Calais ever since visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris when I was in high school.  Rodin, the prolific Paris-born sculptor, had been commissioned by the town council of Calais to portray the story of the burghers.  He started the sculpture with its six separate figures in 1885, and it was installed outside the Calais town hall in 1895.  Another casting of the sculpture appears in the gardens next to the Palace of Westminster in London.  Rodin took his inspiration from a close reading of the account of events from Jean Frossiart’s Chronicles, written in the fourteenth century and covering the history of the Hundred Years’ War up to 1400.

Prior to the Hundred Years’ War, the kings of England were also French feudal lords.  Friction between England and France developed over French encroachment on the English kings’ lands and French military aid to the Scots.  In the late 1320s, Edward III claimed a right to the French throne through his mother’s line, leading to cycles of intense warfare between France and England starting in 1337 and lasting for 116 years.

In 1346, the English defeated the French at the Battle of Crécy and subsequently captured Calais, a prospering seaport just twenty-one miles from the coast of Dover.  Edward’s troops laid siege to Calais, which held out as long as possible awaiting action by French King Philip VI.  After eleven months, with food supplies depleted, Calais was surrendered to the English.  Frossiart reports that Edward demanded the city give over six of its leaders to be executed, as well as the keys to the city and castle, in exchange for sparing the rest of the people of Calais.

These six burghers, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, agreed to sacrifice themselves for the people of their city and expected to be put to death.  Rodin’s sculpture portrays the humanity and heroism in their sacrifice.  However, as Frossiart tells it, the burghers were saved when Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, persuaded the king to show them mercy.

As the Hundred Years’ War wore on, the English lost all territories in France except for a single city, Calais.  The port city was an important bulwark for the English, who otherwise were on the defensive on the continent, as well as a hugely profitable center for trade.  Much of the city had been resettled by the English, with the French mostly driven out.  England lost Calais to France in 1558, when the city was captured by the Duke of Guise.

The city of Calais is featured in another prominent work of art relevant to British history, this time by London-born painter/engraver William Hogarth.  His The Gate of Calais, or, The Roast Beef of Old England, was painted in 1748.  The painting, now in the Tate Britain, contrasts Hogarth’s low view of the French with Britain’s wealth and power, symbolized by roast beef.