Monday, January 27, 2014

Mapping England

by Patricia Bracewell

I am fascinated by maps, especially maps of England, which is where my historical novels are set. Frankly, I am in awe of anyone who can draw a map, and when I look back at ancient maps I am astonished at what was known about the world, including ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, and how it was portrayed.

In his fascinating book, On the Map, Simon Garfield calls maps “a challenge of the imagination” and cites Eratosthenes as drawing one of the first maps of the world in 194 B.C. The map has not survived, but the descriptions that accompanied it have been used to re-create it. The island of Brettania appears on this map at the world’s very edge, in the upper left hand corner.

Eratosthenes World Map, Britain in upper left corner

Eratosthenes’ depiction of Brettania doesn’t look quite like our modern image of Britain, but it’s an island and it has a recognizable shape. In the 1st century A.D. Tacitus described Britain’s outline as a double headed axe. One wonders if he was looking at Eratosthenes’ map.

In 731 A.D. St. Bede added some details about the island when, in his Ecclesiastical History, he claimed that Britain was 800 miles long and 200 miles wide. This would be repeated by the scribes who began writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 9th century. Today, if you drive from Dover to John o’ Groats you’ll cover about 746 miles, so Bede wasn’t too far off in his south to north reckoning. As for east to west, given the dimensions that Bede claimed, the axe shape described by Tacitus would have morphed into a skinny amoeba. We’ll have to forgive him for that one. Britain’s actual shape stymied map-makers for centuries.

On the Anglo-Saxon World Map from about 1000 A.D. the island looks like a parenthesis, curling around Ireland there in the lower left hand corner. 

Anglo-Saxon World Map, 1000 A.D., Britain lower left corner

On a map drawn by Matthew Paris in about 1255 A.D., Britain is shaped rather like a robot, with Scotland as a broad head on a very short, skinny neck.

Matthew Paris' map of England, 1255 A.D.

But Matthew Paris wasn’t attempting to give the world an accurate picture of the shape of Britain. His map was an itinerary that would take a traveler from Dover to Newcastle. The cities one would see along the way run up the center of the map like a railway line: London, St. Albans, Northampton, Leicester, Newark, Pontefract and Durham. Most maps of this era were itinerary maps – useful things to get you from A to B by the most direct route.

In about 1290 A.D. the creator of the Hereford Mappa Mundi – an astonishing map, drawn on a single piece of vellum 5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, thus making it the largest world map from this period – seemed to regard Britain much the way that Bede did. The island looks like a skinny, single cell organism with Wales and Scotland about to split off. Author Simon Garfield calls this map a storyboard, filled with over 1100 place names, figures and inscriptions from the bible, Greek philosophy, ancient historians and Christian saints. It is a visual history of mankind.

Detail from Hereford's Mappa Mundi, 1290 A.D.

Less than a century after the Mappa Mundi was hung on the wall of Hereford Cathedral, though, another map appeared that was an enormous leap forward in cartography. It was, in fact, revolutionary. The Gough Map, measuring about 4 feet by 2 feet, presents a recognizable England, with cities, towns, rivers and lakes beautifully detailed. Who made it and why are something of a mystery although scholars have been trying to answer those questions ever since Thomas Martin presented this “most curious and ancient map” to the Society of Antiquaries in 1768. The map has been dated to about 1370 A.D., but scholars think it may be a copy of an older map from as early as 1280 A.D. This is based on the map’s detailed depiction of Wales – perhaps gained during Edward I’s 13th century wars against the Welsh. By contrast, there is very little detail in Scotland, much of it inaccurate, as if they didn’t really know what Scotland looked like but they had names of places and vague descriptions to work from.

The Gough Map, @ 1370 A.D., with East at the top

The Gough Map looks a bit odd to our modern eyes because east is at the top. This was a convention of the time, and it’s where we get our expression “oriented”. Once one gets used to seeing Scotland on the left, everything fits into place. And the Gough Map is a thing of beauty. England is set in a pale green sea, and the mapmakers’ broad rivers of green give us an indication of just how important river travel must have been in medieval England. Cities are marked with red-roofed castles, multiple buildings and walls; smaller towns have one or two buildings which seem to indicate their size; monasteries and cathedral cities have crossed spires. Rivers, cities and towns are named; Hadrian’s Wall, which would have dominated the landscape until its stones were taken for farm walls in the 18th and 19th centuries, is outlined in red from coast to coast; the names of London and York are printed in gold.

Detail of London from the Gough Map

There are red lines connecting cities and towns, and next to each the mileage between is written in Roman Numerals. This is a clue to how this map may have been used and why it was made. Most scholars agree that it must have been a royal project, given the time, effort and expense that would have gone into its creation. Perhaps it was used by servants of the crown – soldiers, couriers, tax collectors – as an aid in governmental administration. I can’t help wondering if it was a gift made for the king so that he could hold his realm in his hands. It’s impossible to know for sure.
Note the figure (priest?) who seems to be walking on the river

With the Gough Map, Britain finally had a recognizable shape, with major towns, rivers, forests and mountains noted. At last the people of Britain had a picture of where they lived. It had a long-lasting impact, because the outline of the island as represented on this map would be used as a model by European cartographers for the next 200 years.

When I look at it, I cannot help but wonder if the Gough Map really is the first or even the second of its kind. Granted, it is not completely accurate; there are errors due to lack of knowledge and in some places puzzling erasures. But it seems to me that it would be difficult to create such a remarkable portrait of Britain on the first attempt – to suddenly jump from Matthew Paris’ itinerary map of 1255 to one that looks like this. In the intervening century, how many other maps were sketched, perhaps partial maps of regions of England, that would have gone into the knowledge and understanding that it took to create this one? How much, I wonder, have we lost to the ravages of time and of men?

Crone, G.R.: Early Maps of the British Isles, Royal Geographical Society, London, 1961.
Garfield, Simon: On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Gotham Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2013.
Millea, Nick: The Gough Map, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2007.

Patricia Bracewell's novel, Shadow on the Crown, is the first book of a trilogy about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy. (There is a map in the book!) Shadow on the Crown is available in paperback as well as in e-book and audiobook format. The second book in the trilogy is slated for publication in 2015. For more information, please visit her website, and look for her on Facebook at PatriciaBracewell/Author.


  1. Thank you for a wonderful post bringing this wealth of maps together. I, too, love poring over maps - the UK Ordnance Survey series holds a massive amount of historical data. Currently on my desk is a hybrid Roman/modern York map which has been a boon in researching the second in my trilogy of paranormal thrillers.

    I wish you well with your own trilogy.

    1. Thank you Linda. I agree, Ordnance Survey maps are completely engrossing. Best of luck with your trilogy. I'm going to take a look at your website.

  2. I, too, am fascinated by maps and in writing my 11th century medieval just now, I am buried in them. I found it interesting to note how prominent the rivers were on the maps you show. So different from today. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Regan, I'm glad you like the post. Are you using David Hill's 'Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England' or are you writing post-Conquest?

    2. Pat, I've been pulling maps from sites online. So far I have 20, from 900 to 1086. My book is set in 1068, primarily in North West England near the Lune River, but I include the Battles of Exeter and York though I take a few liberties on the schedule for those. (It's a romance and I need some of the events that year to work with the story.) But I'm in the maps nearly every day trying to figure out routes, distances, etc. It's a challenge but I love it. I will check out the Atlas you recommended.

  3. Oh, Pat. I just looked up the Atlas. It's expensive and given the number of books I buy, prohibitive for me.

    1. Regan, I own a copy (bought it used, pbk) and it is a wealth of info. Try a library, or see if you can find a used copy for sale. Worth a look, I promise.

  4. Great post. I'm with the others in loving maps. I am trying to find a large map of Europe in the 1550s for my Tudor Enigma Series.

  5. Thank you for the recommendation of David Hill's atlas. I'll look into it today. Maps help me to work things out in my head, but especially to understand how my characters might have perceived the world. Thank you for the lovely images. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.