John Speed

John Speed, born in 1551 Cheshire – died on 28 July 1629 in the City of
London. He was an English cartographer and historian.  He is England’s
best-known cartographer of the Stuart period, but his first maps were
printed in the reign of Elizabeth. He was an almost exact contemporary
of Shakespeare, whom he hated, and his cartographic career overlapped
that of Christopher Saxton who was half a generation older.
John Speed is the best known antique English cartographer, because his
maps are the showiest. His maps attract superlatives such as “visually

Speed was born at Farndon in Cheshire. Farndon is on the banks of the
Dee and very close to the Welsh border. It has a Welsh name: “Redynfre”.
Speed was christened in St Chad’s Parish Church in the village. Holt is
the village on higher ground just over the river in Wales. Farndon is
due south of Chester and north east of Stoke on Trent.
John Speed was the natural son of his father: Samuel Speed, and mother
Elizabeth Cheynye (born in 1530 aged 21 when her son was born). His
parents later married. It is said that John went into the tailoring
business of his father, but in fact John Speed was made a freeman of
the Merchant Taylor’s Company on the 10th of September 1580 through
patrimony not profession. No professional training or occupation is
written in the records of the Company. He was 29 years old when entered
into the Company. Speed removed to London, some say as a tailor, other
say not.
While working in London, Speed came to the attention of eminent people
who, for some unspecified reason (and here biographies become very
vague), were drawn to him and prepared to back him financially. One was
Sir Fulke Greville (one source gives him as: Sir Fulk Revil). Fulke
Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, 13th Baron Latimer and 5th Baron Willoughby
de Broke KB, born 1554 – died, 1628), known before 1621 as Sir Fulke
Greville. He was an Elizabethan and Jacobean poet, dramatist,
and politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between
1581 and 1621, in which year he was raised to the peerage. Greville was
a capable administrator who served the English Crown under Elizabeth
and James I as Treasurer of the Navy, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and
Commissioner of the Treasury, for which service he was made Baron
Brooke. Greville was granted Warwick Castle in 1604, and set about
improving. Greville was the biographer of Sir Philip Sidney. He inclined
towards Calvinism which makes it all the more surprising that he
embraced Speeds decorative art and cartography. Greville saw the Canaan
map and realised Speeds potential. He became his patron and made him an
allowance: enabling Speed to devote his whole attention to historical
and cartographic research. Speed’s first map, Canaan, was produced, some
say, when he was still tailoring-in 1595. By 1598, Speed had enough
patronage to engage in full-time scholarship. Greville introduced Speed
to the Court and the Queen granted him the use of a room in the Custom
House. Why Speed, a tailor turned scholar should have attracted such
attention is not certain.
In 1575, Speed married Susanna Draper in London. They had children:
Sarah Speed, (The later Dr.) John Speed, Samuel Speed, Anne Speed,
William Speed and two other children. The Speed family was comfortably
Speed presented Canaan and other maps to the Queen in 1598. In
1611-1612 he published his maps of Great Britain, with which his son
John assisting him to survey English towns.
Speed died age about 78, in August 1629, only one year after Greville.
He was buried alongside his wife in London’s St Giles-without at
Cripplegate Church formerly on Fore Street but now in the Barbican
Estate and used much by the Guildhall School of Music.  Later, a
memorial to John Speed was erected behind the altar. His was one of the
few memorials in the church that survived bombing during The Blitz. The
cast for the niche in which the bust is placed was provided by the
Merchant Taylors’ Company, of which John Speed had been a member.” .
Speed was a failed historian and a successful map maker but his Atlas of
Britain was conceived as an adjunct or appendix to his History. It was
with the encouragement of William Camden ( English antiquarian,
historian, topographer, herald, and author of Britannia) that Speed
began his “Historie of Great Britaine”, published in 1611. The atlas was
called “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine” and that was
tellingly autobiographical for what he added to cartography after the
sober work of Saxton was “theatre”. He had access to historical
cartography, certainly Paris, Rudd and Saxton: but certainly  not Morden
as suggested by some, for Morden post dates Speed by many years. His
historical work is not highly regarded compared compared to his
map-making, of which his most important contribution is arguably
his town plans, many of which provide the first survey of those towns:
some appeared as plans others as views, there were border pieces to his
county maps. While compiling his atlas, Speed appealed by letters
to Robert Cotton, and English Governmental official asking for
assistance in gathering necessary materials. Cotton admired and helped
Speed: he was an elected Member of Parliament for Newtown, Isle of
Wight in 1601 and made a Knight in 1604. He helped devise the
institution  Baronet a crude device by which the King could raise funds
without giving seats in the House of Lords: Cottons immersed himself
in the study of old documents and came to see the King as a danger to
Parliament. Fearing him to be a radical the King confiscated his
library in 1630. The Cotton Library is of great importance for Old
manuscripts and often cited. Cotton must have been drawn to Speed’s
history and historical maps.

Speed’s atlas: “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine” was
published in 1611-1612, One account contended that it “contained the
first set of individual county maps of England and Wales” which it
certainly did not: that honour fell to Saxton in his atlas of 1570-79.
Early editions of the “Theatre Of The Empire Of Great Britain” were
published by John Sudbury and George Humble. It included an  Ireland map
and a General Map of Scotland. In his introduction he claimed, in a
flowery style which was parodied by later cartographers even up to
Cruchley, that his purpose: “was to shew the situation of every Citie
and Shire-town by the help of the map and tables. Any Citie, Towne,
Borough, Hamlet, or Place of Note is shewn and it may be affirmed, that
there is not any one Kingdome in the world so exactly described as is
Great Britaine in this work. In shewing these things, I have sought to
give satisfaction to all.” (paraphrased)
The map plates were intaglio; copper plate engravings: which is not an
off-set process, so some engravers worked via mirrors, other were
proficient in engraved mirror-script which would print as positive text.
Etching may also featured on these plates as a cartoon or in some detail.
The pure engraving is cut cold with a burin; an etching cuts with acid.
Speed is said to have “copied, adapted and recompiled the work of
others,” and unlike Rudd and Saxton was no surveyor (thus it must be
assumed that they were his principal sources and he readily admitted
that this “groundwork” had not been his own). Speed, like Saxton before
him, laboured under exacting political restrictions and was used as an
instrument of State authority. Chance placed him at that time when the
two kingdoms were being unified under James I and VI and there was a
requirement to portray the first Stuart King of England as the Unifier
of the “Kingdoms of the British Isles.”. Having Cotton and the King as
patrons must have involved a certain dexterity.
Many, but not all, of the county maps have town plans on them. In 1627,
two years before his death, Speed published “Prospect of the Most Famous
Parts of the World” which was the first world atlas produced “by an
Englishman” say historians: which implies that others had done it in
England but were not English: probably Dutch. It cost 40 shillings.
The text of his atlas is found in both English and Latin. Most atlases
of the period used Latin and were to do so at least to the time of
Morden. Engraving was done in Amsterdam at the workshop of  Jodocus
Hondius, with whom he collaborated from 1598 to 1612.
He drew maps of the Channel Islands, Poland, and the Americas, the
latter published only a few years before his death. In 1629, the year of
his death, another collection of maps of Great Britain, prepared earlier
in the decade, were published.
Speed has been accused of being a Protestant or Puritan propagandist,
but the Court of James would not have tolerated anything else, and no
cartographer could have worked without its patronage. Speed was
particularly virulent in his condemnation of  William Shakespeare, who
he called “that Superlative Monster” and a “Papist”.
It is quite difficult to see what Speed was: perhaps he was first and
last a graphic artist with a eye to popularism. He was not a surveyor,
he had no use for the cross-staff. He did not travel to many of his
subject locations. He was not an engraver. His material was not first
hand. He was a packager, a showman, and- as his ability to attract
patronage to a migrant tailor shows- a self publicist. He produced
cartographic theatre and maybe he was quite conscious of that , for he
used the word in his atlas title and might have seen that other populist
William Shakespeare as, in some way, a rival- which would account for
him being so consistently rude about the playwright. I guess that the
dramatist Greville disliked Shakespeare and that Speed adopted his
opinions from him. Speeds works were show stoppers, by the standards
of Saxon, Rudd or the later Morden, they were extremely decorative,
bordered with multiple coats of arms and allegorical figures. The court
of James I praised him, but they did not use his maps for that slightly
menacing political control personified William Cecil, Lord Burghley,
the controlling “eminence grise” behind Saxton in the reign of
Elizabeth. It is quite difficult to study a Speed map: so much of the
plate is border, heraldry- the escutcheons of local nobility and
bishops, town and Dukedoms, pictorial cartouches, prose in panels,
allegory, vignettes of principal sites, border plans, compasses,
measures, knot-work edging. It is almost a pity he had to put a map in
the middle. It might be fair to call his work, “Highly decorative
embellishments of Saxton with town plans and colour”: a fairground
version of Saxton perhaps for a different kind of state and monarch.
He has been called The English Mercator: which he was not, neither as
surveyor nor mathematician; A personage of extraordinary industry:
which he was; “An Honest and Impartial historian”: which he definitely
was not; A faithful Chronologer: which, within his limitations, no doubt
he set out to be; “Our Cheshire Historian and Scholar”: certainly; “A
Great Cartographer”: well, in part perhaps. His great gift was to make
cartography appeal the the layman: cartography with embellishment:
sometimes embellishment with some cartography. and a map by him is
something to put in a frame or leave open on the library table rather
than to study.

Some of his map titles: rendered in Modern English:
The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain; The Chesapeake Bay Region;
Virginia; Maryland; the East Indies; The Russian Empire, Jamaica,
Barbados, A New Accurate Map of the World, A New Map of the Seventeen
Provinces (of Germany- but he meant the Netherlands); China; Canaan; A
New Map of the Roman World; Britain as it was divides in the time of the
English Saxons; Holy Islands, Poland; Guernsey, Farne (Lindisfarne) and Jersey;
a Map of the Isle of Man; The Invasion of England and Ireland with all
their Civil Wars since the Conquest; A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts
of the World.