Christopher Saxton

Christopher Saxton – cartographer


Christopher Saxton was born in Yorkshire wither before or after 1543. He was an English cartographer who produced the first published county maps of England and Wales. He has been called “Father of English cartography”: which he might have been if one forgets Ptolemy, Paris and Rudd. Saxton was probably born in Sowood, Ossett in the parish of Dewsbury, in the West Riding of Yorkshire in either 1542 or 1544. Sowood is now remembered as a lane and avenue in a residential district called South Orsett. It is more or less exactly half way between Dewsbury and Wakefield and today the M1 passes close to its east. The family, logically, must have come from Saxton, which is close by: it lies north east of Leeds, south west of York and roughly equidistant between the two- about 25 miles from his place of birth. Christopher Saxton died in about 1610. Therefore he live through all or parts of the reigns of Henry VIII (last 7 years), Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, James I and VI. His family were artisan-yeoman: weavers of stuffs and farmers, changing between the two seasonally. After his birth, his family moved to the hamlet of Dunningley near Tingley in the parish of Woodkirk where the Saxton was still being recorded in a parish entries of 1567. Dunningley is remembered as a Lane and Tingley is near Morely, 5 miles north of Ossett and half way between Ossett and Leeds.


He attended the boys’ school in Wakefield which later became the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. This is now between Albion Street and Westfield Street off Northgate in the north of the town. He then studied surveying at Cambridge University under the patronage of Thomas Seckford a wealthy employee of the Lord Treasurer. Whether William Cecil already knew of his connections to Rued and his potential to further the Tudor courtier’s instruments of political control is not known. If Seckford was involved, and he was Cecil’s aid.


It is likely that Saxton was apprenticed in cartographic draughtsmanship and surveying to John Rudd, Vicar of Dewsbury from 1554 to 1570, and Rector of Thornhill from 1558 to the 1570’s.(Thornhill is 2 miles south east of Dewsbury, near Middleton- a cartographer.. Rudd had a passionate interest in maps, and in the 1550;’ made a plate of England:”platt” in Tudor spelling, of England.

John Rudd’s dates were c. 1498 to  1579. Rudd died in Durham in the very year that Saxton’s Atlas was published. As well as various benefices, Rudd held a prebend at Durham. He and his wife Isabel (whom he had to renounce during Mary’s reign) had at least three daughters and three sons, of whom John followed his father into the church. Being a cleric he was forced to put aside his wife during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor. The younger John became Vicar of Shephall in Hertfordshire. There, his memorial takes the form of a map cartouche, so perhaps one should infer that he continued his father’s interest in cartography. If one wishes to explore the links between Rudd’s work and the Lord Burleigh Atlas series, the Durham map might be a plate to study: for Rudd surely made extensive cartographic notes of the county.

In 1561 Rudd was granted leave from ecclesiastical duties to travel about and map the country: a project which he did not complete. It is probable that Christopher Saxton was his assistant on these survey expeditions, at which time he would have been about 17 or 18 years old. Saxton is usually described as having been Rudd’s “servant”.  Saxton was indisputably employed by Rudd by 1570 and Rudd passed his stick surveying techniques to Saxton (see notes on cross staff use below) while at the same time suggesting the possibilities of a more scientific and complete survey of the country. Rudd was his catalyst and inspiration. Looking at Rudds “Vecta or Wyght Map” it very much has the appearance of a naval chart of the 16th century with the villages and hills added as symbols. He adds clusters of trees for woodland and uplands look like molehills. His village symbol is a church. There are no roads.


Saxton came to London at an unknown date, probably 1569-70, when chosen by Thomas Seckford to survey and map the counties of England and Wales. Seckford, it will be remembered had been patron for his University studies. Seckford probably summoned Saxton to London.


Saxton married and had three children: Robert, his son, was born in 1585, when Christopher was already about 42 years old, and was his father’s assistant in 1601, when his father was 58. Robert drew a map of Snapethorpe in Wakefield when it was surveyed by his father. This strongly suggests that the family retained property there. Robert was commissioned to survey Sandal Magna in 1607. Sandal is also close to their ancestral home; it is in South Wakefield, there is a 15th century castle there. It is the district west of Oakenshaw Lane and the river.


The idea of a survey of the Kingdom in general and its parts in a standard format came from the Tudor Court in the mid Sixteenth Century. Arguably, if drawn out, the first map of Britain would have been that of Ptolemy dating from the 2nd Century and there are elements of the Romano-Egyptian’s work and toponyms which appear on subsequent maps right up to Morden. Ptolemy logged islands, promontories, river mouths and towns in a form of longitude and latitude. There is evidence that data was gathered from the Roman Navy and where that did not sail the geography can wildly deviate. The first English map extant is Britain by Matthew Paris which was draw in about 1250: and that certainly has features from Ptolemy- particularly the tendency for Scotland to run off east, north of the Great Glen. Paris seems to have depicted Northern Scotland as a separate island: “Scotia Ultra Marina”. In the mid Fifteenth Century, the principles of printed cartography were laid down, following the Italian development of printing maps from copper plates, which was first done there about 1473; the most important of those cartographers was Benincasa, one of the most active fifteenth century Italian chart makers, reproducing again nautical charts. Looking at his image of the British Isles a chart made for merchants and sailors, the coasts are emphasised and the interiors ignored. Particularly striking is his ring of “plotting points round the map with interlinking lines star bursting from them. If Rudd and Saxton saw this, that could have been the method they tried terrestrially. Advances in science helped the Dutch and Flemish to become the masters of map making by the late 1500’s: in 1564, Gerard Mercator, the Dutch cartographer, published an eight sheet detailed map of the British Isles. For his projection to work one had to use lines of longitude and latitude, not Benincasa’s “starbursts”. Abraham Ortelius, also from the Low Countries first published a map of the world in 1570. It looks very modern and his map of Iceland underlines how extensive both trade and surveying had become. It will be seen that cartography develops hand in hand with marine power. It might be argued – comparing Mercator and Ortelius with Saxton- that English Cartography was, in the 16th century, something of a provincial backwater of the craft.


Saxton began a survey of England and Wales sometime after 1570 and his first known maps are dated 1574. The Welsh survey began in 1577. In 1578, the whole survey was complete. As it was finished in about 7 years, it is probable that Saxton used some of Reverend John Rudd’s earlier work, or at least information he had gathered when travelling as an assistant to Rudd. Perhaps Saxton’s Atlas is essentially Rudd’s project improved and finished. It might be remembered that Rudd was alive until its completion. Saxton’s County sheet maps were printed and published before the completed survey was bound as an atlas in 1579. (one source says 1574 as the date of the atlas’s completion- but that is not credible and mistakes the first plate date for the publication date. Another source gives 1578 as the completion date. It was: “An Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales”  It contained 35 maps, each bearing the arms of Elizabeth  and Thomas Seckford,his patron, and an image of the Queen. Two versions of the Queen’s portrait appear, both show her seated supported by male figures: allegorical personifications of Geography and Astronomy. The maps show hills and fells drawn as graphic images- not definitely located in the landscape. Symbols show buildings, town and settlements, like Morden, towns are parks are not themselves “surveyed”. All the maps are dated with the exception of Northumberland. The final states were presented to William Cecil, the Lord Burghley, who bound them into his own atlas (with other maps and relevant pieces); this was possibly the first copy so gathered together and the first atlas in English cartography: some say “the first in in World cartography”, which presupposes that the likes of Benincasea, Mercator and Ortelius never did this- unlikely. In Saxton’s “Atlas” Five counties show the “Hundreds”: Cornwall, then the contiguous: Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. The atlas was a success, and a catalyst to other cartographers like  John Speed, John Norton, and Michael Drayton . They generally adapted Saxton’s work. Plagiarism seems an accepted part of cartographic evolution; perhaps injuriously, for mistakes are passes on as well as accuracies; and it is odd, therefore, that a few cartographers- Kitchin and Cruchley for example, are particularly singled out for “stealing”. The “atlases” were mainly privately bound for the order of the maps varies from one to another. Some were worked on after the publication of the atlas, these include Anglia, Norfolk and Northamptonshire, which exist in more than one published state. One map has four counties: Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Middlesex, and although historians contend there was no rationale to this grouping, there is some: All three were anciently outside Wessex and Surrey was technically the “Suthrige” of Middlesex. Saxton maps were engraved by Augustine Ryther, Remigius Hogenberg, William Hole, William Kip (whose name looks like “Wilhelmus Kiy” on the plate- for an open topped “P” is inscribed), Leonard Terwoort van Antwerpen, Nicholas Reynold, and Francis Scatter. Remigius Hogenberg, Cornelis de Hooghe (Cornelius Hogius) and Lenaert Terwoort of Antwerp engraved fifteen maps together. Augustine Ryther engraved at least one of the East Anglia plates. Kip engraved Durham, Westmorland and Cumberland: interesting these are geographically grouped, it is as if an engraver took a region. The addition of colour was at the discretion of individual owners and therefore does not follow any pattern. Colour was also added much to enhance Saxton maps at a later date and so now true cartographic historians incline strongly towards non-coloured examples, just as modern architectural historians incline towards mediaeval churches not “improved” by George Gilbert Scott Most of these map engravers were of Flemish or Flemish or trained there. There is no direct evidence that Saxton engraved himself- though his son did at a later date; some believe he engraved the Welsh counties and Herefordshire in the Marches. Scale size and orientation vary as does style, which leaves open the possibility of a few being apprentice pieces: perhaps his atelier had similarities with that of a painter such as the later Rubens. Yorkshire is the largest map and is printed from two plates. The average size of the atlas map is 20 inches by 15 1/2 inches; modern historians like to cite millimetres which Saxton would not have known. The maps were re-printed and adapted continually until about 1778, almost two hundred years after their original appearance. Some of his engravers were engaged in a smaller edition without the arms and image of Elizabeth: These are still named to both cartographer and engraver but usually not dated. Saxton published, in 1583, a 20 sheet map of England and Wales,of which two remaining copies are known, in London and Washington.


Later in his life,John Dee,the Warden of Manchester Collegiate Church employed Saxton to survey Manchester’s parish boundaries in 1596 but no copy is known to have survived.

THE SMALL SAXTON COUNTY MAP. The example taken in this description is the Kip-Saxton “Durham” map. This series was attributed as follows: “CHRISTOPHUS SAXTON DESCRIPSIT, WILHELMUS KIP SCULPSIT”. William Kip and William Hole produced maps in this series. A standard plate size is 13 inches by 11 1/4 inches. The “Scala Miliarium” gives a 3/8 of an inch to the mile. Maps are numbered at bottom left: Durham is map 51. The title is in Latin; DVNELMENSIS EPISCOPATUS QUI COMITATUS EST PALATINUS ET OLIM PARS BRIGANTVM. (County of Bishops Palatinate- formerly part of the land of the Brigantes). Surrounding counties use that same form: NORTHVMBRIA PARS; WESTMORLANDIAE PARS; EBORACENSIS PARS. A half compass is engraved at bottom right by the scale. Latin is not extended to the toponyms within the county, except for the County Town. Rivers are “Were Flu”, Derwent Flu”, “West Alon Flu”, “Tees Flu” etc. Parks are enclosed fences and are not always named. Large towns show a graphic picture of a town, smaller places might sow an abbey or castle keep. Important places make an attempt to depict a building of the town such as the cathedral at MESMER (Durham). Villages are represented by a name and small circle- so standard as to have been probably punched. Even quite small tributary rivers and streams are named. There are no roads. The implication is that navigation was done by river bank or boat if the river was navigable. It also implies that Saxon mapped or surveyed “from rivers”. A fine three masted sailing ship is engraved in the sea- which is named simply “OCEANUS”. The sea is broadly stippled. The border shews no marking or longitude, latitude or grid. County borders are dotted lines- there are no other internal borders. The sheet which is about 16 1/2 inches by 12 1/2 inches is folded vertically in the centre and was therefore bound into a volume of about 12 1/2 inches high by 8 1/4 inches wide.


Map making became increasingly important in the reign of Elizabeth, and was spurred on by its usefulness as an instrument of political control. It was a “police state”. Accurate mapping of the whole country became a necessity for the Elizabethan State. Lord Burghley was the first to see the potential of maps and ensured that court officials under his thrall financed the commission of county maps. William Cecil (Lord Burghley)was Elizabeth’s Secretary of State He had been determined to have England and Wales mapped in detail from as early as the 1550’s. Map use became more common, with government officials referring to increasingly accurate maps using consistent scales and symbols. Another necessity for the government, was that one map might be aligned with its neighbour. Thomas Seckford of Woodbridge in Suffolk, financed the 1570-79 Atlas: his mottoes and coats of arms appear on every 1579 map. The Atlas project was authorized by Queen Elizabeth, to whom the works were dedicated, and Saxton received a considerable amount of administrative assistance and financial support: “administrative assistance means: “the requirement for land owners to cooperate with Saxton and facilitate his work”- it carries quite a big dose of Tudor menace. On the 11th of March 11, 1574, the Queen granted him a lease of land at Grigston Manor in Suffolk in “lieu of expenses incurred in the survey of divers parts of England’ . On the 20th of July in 1577, just 2 years before full publication and 3 years after the first maps were completed, Elizabeth granted Saxton a licence for the exclusive publication of his maps for a ten year period. Seckford, at court, worked closely with William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had overseen “from a distance” both Rudd’s and Saxton’s mapping projects; Burghley keen appreciation of their political value had led him to make his own sketches of politically sensitive areas such as the Scottish border.  He evidently took great interest in Saxton’s work as it progressed: the maps were sent to him as each plate was engraved, and once the survey was complete he bound up these early proof maps with some other maps and plans and documents of relevance to them. This volume survives in the British Library. 


The art of cartography may be 30,000 years old evidenced from engraved bones from Central Europe. They show migration and rivers. In later times it was a adjunct of astronomy, and accurate navigation by starts was developed in the Arab world for they had the two perfect conditions for it: a maritime trade and desert landscapes which required marine-like navigation ability. It was not until the mid 15th Century that the principles of terrestrial mapping were fully understood. Saxton’s surveying techniques remain largely a mystery but it must have been an adaptation of Rudd’s methods, and he must have had a notion of “linked vantage points”- a crude form of triangulation. Surveying techniques emerged as a result of the practical needs of military engineers, and particularly of naval charting. One might contend that terrestrial mapping was interpolated landward from sea charts, and Saxton clearly does this via river mouths and rivers. Military surveyors were well able to draft plans and topographical maps to scale by the 1540s. Graphic estate surveys also became popular as a consequence of enclosures. An open field landscape was changed into privately owned pastures and woods: land boundaries had to be defined. Military textbooks published at the time advocated of the cross-staff for surveying lengths, distances and heights. Increasingly sophisticated surveying instruments were built.

CROSS STAFF SURVEYING: In surveying the  cross staff or Jacob staff, is a single straight rod or staff made of wood or some other non-ferrous material, pointed at the bottom for penetrating the ground. It also has a screw base and occasionally a ball joint on the mount which is used to support a compass, transit, or other instrument. The term cross-staff may have a different meaning in early surveying. While the astronomical cross-staff was used in surveying for measuring angles, two other devices referred to as a cross-staves were also used: Cross-head, cross-sight, surveyor’s cross or cross , was a drum or box shaped device mounted on the top of a pole. It had two sets of mutually perpendicular sights:slits most simply- which crossed. This device was used by surveyors to measure offset angles. Better versions were furnished with a compass and spirit levels on the top. The French ones were frequently octagonal in cross section rather than round. The Optical square  was an improved version of the cross-head staff, it used a pair of mirrors at 45° to each other. This allowed the surveyor to see both axes at the same time. The craft of cartography was boosted by the Italian idea of applying intaglio printing from copper plates to map in 1473; it cannot really be called an “invention”. Also, advances in scientific learning, spurred by the demands of the shipping trade, helped the Dutch and Flemish to become the masters of map making by the late 1500s: in 1564, Gerard Mercator, the Dutch cartographer, published a detailed map of the British Isles on eight sheets; his colleague Abraham Ortelius published his Map of the World in 1570. There is evidence in Saxton’s map to suggest that much of the work was completed thanks to personal field observation. The lack of roads and detail of rivers indicate that waterways were his starting point for defining a landscape. In Wales, Saxton was accompanied by locals who would assist him in naming the towns and villages which he saw from chosen surveying vantage points. To whom one applied for topographical information became an important issue and led to a certain bias- seen into the 20th century: particularly, as here in Wales, in regions which were not anglophone. Saxton’s note books have not survive, the method of survey used, it has been suggested, was an early system of triangulation- that is: locking a point down by compass bearings observed from two or three places. If one considers the process of Saxton’s information gathering: personal tours with the cross staff and note book and letters from Seckford- back by implicit threats from William Cecil- requiring written details from the landowner, one has a piecemeal form of de facto plotting- added as interpolative detail to the navigation charts of the Dutch and Italian and the incomplete survey of Rudd.