See the First Atlas Created of a Country

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In 16th century Britain, cartography was an important part of accurately charting the lands of the country. Advances in surveying and engraved copper printing helped to elevate map making. In the 1570s, English cartographer, Christopher Saxton, created the first atlas of any country. Financed byThomas Seckford, a court official as a result of the guidance of Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), Saxton produced the first county atlas of England and Wales.

Surveying by Saxton began in England in 1574. By 1578, all surveying had been completed and in 1579, the atlas was published. Entitled, “Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales” the manuscript also contains maps of Scotland as well as the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia. The atlas is also known as “the Elizabethan atlas” because the maps bear the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth.

Scanned map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r.  British Library.
Scanned map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r. British Library.

The Atlas contains 35 maps that can be viewed online. The British Library has fully scanned the copy once owned by Lord Burghley, named the Burghley Atlas. The atlas was well-used by Burghley, with many of the pages containing his notes and observances.

Scanned map of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 90r.  British Library.
Scanned map of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 90r. British Library.

The atlas was well-used by Burghley, with many of the pages containing his notes and observances. The map of Essex is annotated with Burghley’s observances, “‘Heyghfeld fayre and fatt, Barndon park better than that, Coppledon beares a Crown, Copthall best of all’.”

Scanned detail from the map of Essex, 1576, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 36r.  British Library.
Scanned detail from the map of Essex, 1576, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 36r. British Library.

All of the pages of “Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales” can be accessed through the British Library by visiting Royal MS 18 D III.

More:

Surveying Lord Burghley’s Atlas – Medieval manuscripts blog. (n.d.). American Collections blog. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/03/surveying-lord-burghleys-atlas.html

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