400-year-old Hunts map used by Civil War armies

IT was not just the (King James) Authorised Version of The Bible that was published in 1611, but a rather fetching map of ancient Huntingdonshire.

The Hunts map was one of more than 60 that make up the first comprehensive atlas of Great Britain, John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine – one of the world’s great cartographic treasures.

Published in 1611/12, it marked the first time that comprehensive plans of English and Welsh counties and towns were made available in print, and Cambridge University Library, home to one of only five surviving proof sets – all of them different – has digitised each of the proof maps and put them online at www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/maps/speed.html.

The library is also selling copies of the 60 plus images that make up Speed’s masterpiece.

Inset into the corner of each county map is a plan of its county town and each spare inch of space is used to illustrate famous battles, local coats of arms, as well as Roman and pre-historic sites.

The atlas, bought by the University Library in 1968, is now considered priceless. It contains a single sheet for each county of England and Wales, plus a map of Scotland and each of the four Irish provinces, and paints a rich picture of the countryside at the turn of the 17th century.

A slice of Tudor and Jacobean life in miniature, its influence was so great that it was used by armies on both sides of the English Civil War – which is of some significance to one of Huntingdonshire’s most celebrated sons, Oliver Cromwell, who led the Roundhead faction in that conflict.

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Anne Taylor, head of the map department at the university library, said: “Although the Library holds several copies of the published atlas – including a first edition – it is the hand-coloured set of proofs produced between 1603 and 1611 that is one of its greatest treasures.”

“It was bought by the University Library in 1968 after the Government refused an export licence for the proofs to be sold abroad. We know it as the Gardner copy after its previous owner, Eric Gardner. It really is a rare and delightful item.”

The text offers an affectionate portrait of Cambridge city and its university, but a rather less appealing description of the Cambridgeshire countryside.

“This province is not large, nor the air greatly to be liked, having the Fenns so spread upon her north that they infect the air far into the rest.

“The soil doth differ both in air and commodities; the fenny surcharged with waters: the south is champion, and yieldeth corn in abundance, with meadow-pastures upon both sides of the River Came.”

A university spokesman added: “The Theatre was an immediate success: the first print run of around 500 copies must have sold quickly because many editions followed and, by the time of the 1627 edition, the atlas cost 40 shillings “was a supreme achievement in British cartography. It made John Speed into one of the most famous of all our map-makers and became the blueprint for folio atlases until the mid-18th century.”