Mapping English History in the “Universall World”

Kyle Pivetti, University of California, Davis

When the rebels of Henry IV Part I (1597) pore over a map of England, dividing the land they expect to win, they may as well lick their lips. “Come, here’s the map,” Glyndwr says, “Shall we divide our right, / According to the threefold order ta’en?” (3.1.67–68). Shakespeare’s audience surely squirmed as they watched the emergent infant English nation separated with surgical precision. If the play traces the deep divides between lords and king, the map shows that those ruptures now appear in the geographical spaces of England itself. It’s a device Shakespeare repeats again in King Lear (1606), with just as much impact for those concerned for England’s status as a collective whole. Any spectator familiar with the history of Brutus or the early Elizabethan tragedy Gorboduc (1561) would know what comes of such division: civil war and tragedy. The map simply makes that anxiety of division and cultural rupture visual.

But King Lear and Henry IV Part I share another similarity in their use of maps. Both plays begin in English history, with moments repeated and collected by chroniclers like Holinshed. The maps, like the history play itself, make accessible those pasts in ways that tell of national anxieties—and of national ambitions.

Early modern cartography, of course, served a practical purpose. Maps illustrated the geography of England and the world at large, and any traveler would defend their pragmatic uses. Yet the explosion of early modern mapmaking, from Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales (1578) to John Speed’s Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (1627), coincided with a burgeoning antiquarian interest to the degree that mapmakers often presented their works as historical texts. When Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World first appeared in 1614, the associations between the two fields were made apparent in the book’s frontispiece. In this engraving, we see the figure named “instructor of life” standing atop two defeated bodies, marked “death” and “oblivion.” Tellingly, the “instructor of life” holds aloft an image of the globe marked with the signs of cartography. Mapmaking and history come to serve the same purpose; they defeat “oblivion” and its attendant death. Gerhard Mercator’s famous Atlas follows the same pattern in its frontispiece from 1635. Like the etching in Raleigh’s history, this image shows history holding aloft an image of the globe. “Oblivion” is again crushed underfoot. “Historia Mundi” or “History of World” thus supports “The Geography of the World,” for both academic endeavors partake in the same project. They envision the entirety of the globe, in time and in space.

Acts of Recovery in William Camden’s Britannia (1586)

Let’s now turn to a specific example to see how the language of global cartography underlies the efforts of those writers who sought to uncover the “true” facts of England’s pasts. In Britannia (1586), William Camden, one of the most influential antiquarian scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rejected the Arthurian myths that had traditionally made up English history. In their place, he stressed the historical evidence that one can see in the countryside. This volume became a foundational work of historical scholarship in the period, and from the beginning, Camden describes the project in the same language we see in Raleigh’s frontispiece, as we see in this English translation of 1610. “Abraham Ortelius the worthy restorer of Ancient Geographe arriving heere in England,” Camden reports, “dealt earnestly with me that I would illustrate the Ile of BRITAINE, or (as he said) that I would restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britain to his antiquity” (4). To “illustrate” England is to engage in a historical recovery. By mapping the countryside, Camden will rescue those collective pasts that have faded from the national consciousness. He rejects the mythologizing of his medieval predecessors in favor of what is guaranteed by the real artifacts in England’s landscape. The frontispiece to Britannia therefore foregrounds a map of the British Isles; in the geography of England one can uncover real clues to what happened there in generations past.

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Of particular note is the small detail of Stonehenge, a unique feature of the landscape that promises access to ancient British ancestry. When Camden repeats this image in a larger engraving, we see English gentlemen wandering through the stones, acting as if they were modern tourists listening intently to an audio tour. In the lower corner, early versions of archeologists uncover the bones of “antient Kings” (254) and mimic the acts of recovery that Britannia as a whole accomplishes. The cityscape of Ambrose that rises behind the stones completes the narrative: Stonehenge marks early British civilization just as the early modern city marks its futures. One need only read the text inscribed in the landscape to see a story of the emergent English nation.

John Speed’s Theatre and the Competition with Dutch Cartographers

Camden’s project of recovery expands dramatically in the work of his disciple John Speed, who stretches beyond the bounds of the English isles to view the world as a whole. In The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1610), Speed takes up Camden’s initial work, recording in detail the geographies of England and Ireland. And at times, the pages actually look like a high school history book. For instance, in the map titled “The Invasions of England and Ireland,” Speed draws armies into the landscape, depicting the locations of the battles alongside explanatory notes. Ringing the island is a visual account of the Spanish Armada, drawn in successive stages breaking apart. History arises in the map itself.

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In Speed’s later volume, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (1627), we find this earlier text has been paired with a systematic study of the globe that proceeds chronologically through the continents. The world began, Speed suggests, with Asia, thus his atlas will begin there and draw the history of the globe in its geography accordingly.

Unsurprisingly, the volume opens with a depiction of the world, and while this map is attributed to Speed, most historians suggest that it was added by the printer. This drawing, though, reveals an important implication behind Speed’s work: he depicts a world marked throughout with English history. We see, for instance, the route by which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, and a note informs readers that “Twice in our age hath these straights beene passed by English men.” One cannot help but notice “New England” displayed prominently in the still incomplete depiction of the New World. And the map’s history proves even more telling since it borrows heavily from the maps of Speed’s Dutch competitor, Jodocus Hondius. This cartographer was himself well known at the time for his depictions of the globe, and he played a key role in establishing the Netherlands as a source for quality maps. The allegorical frame of Speed’s map is the same as that surrounding Hondius’ earlier world map, associating both atlases with the essential elements of creation. The map attributed to Speed thus plagiarizes the Dutch original, but it rewrites that vision of the globe as a specifically English one.

When Hondius’s son Henricus Hondius produced his own world map in 1630, he returned the favor. The younger Hondius’s drawing plagiarizes that of the Speed text, yet Hondius replaces the small portrait of Drake with that of Julius Caesar. Speed’s English globe, taken from the Dutch original, in turn evolves into a globe of earlier Roman history known best by the cartographers of Amsterdam. The point is that these mapmakers competed over representations of the globe, and their competitions began in different geographical histories that pointed to different colonial futures.

Maps of the Nascent British Empire

For Camden, the space of Britain was the world, but his language simultaneously suggests that the world is British as well. He asserts that nobody would deny the glory of his nation, “For Nature took a pleasure in the framing thereof, and seemeth to have made it as a second word, sequestered from the other, to delight mankind withal” (4). On the one hand, the island is unique in nature. On the other hand, Camden claims that it holds a universal charm known to all. The whole of mankind will see that England serves “for the ornament of universall world.” In looking at England, then, one can see the whole of the world; alternatively, we might conclude that in looking at the world, we can see Britain everywhere. John Speed makes that conclusion strikingly clear in his History of Great Britaine (1611), a text whose pages continue directly from the maps of The Theatre. Speed writes, “the ile of GREAT BRITAINE doth raise its self first to our sight, as the Bodie of that most famous & mighty Empire, where many other Kingdomes and Countries are parcels and members” (155). The volume of English history, that is, concludes with a global Empire. The “second world” of Camden here transforms into the world itself, and readers only need to look to the map for confirmation.

The project of early modern mapmaking, then, encompasses more than just geography. History is written into these maps, and the maps will grow to envelop the globe as a whole. The whole of the world, we might conclude in these texts, is already written into British history. Shakespeare’s maps deal explicitly with a fear of English dissolution, but his vision of the local past points to an imperial future. Prince Hal names Agincourt himself in Henry V, assigning that location a point in future maps only after it has been incorporated in English history. But while the geography serves its purpose in the historical drama, the period’s maps tell us those two endeavors were not so different to begin with.

Suggested Reading

Barber, Peter. “England II: Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, 1550–1635” in Monarchs, Ministers and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe. Edited by David Buissert, 57–98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Delano Smith, Catherine and Roger Kain. English Maps: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Harley, J.B. and David Woodward. The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Helgerson, Richard. “The Land Speaks,” In Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Lestringant, Frank. Mapping the Renaissance World. California: University of California Press, 1994.

Sanfrod, Rhonda Lemke. Maps and Memory in Early Modern England: a Sense of Place. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Schmidt, Benjamin. “Mapping an Empire: Cartographic and Colonial Rivalry in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and English North America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54.3 (1997): 549–578.