​The fascinating history of maps

Agas Map - The History of Map
At Promenades Travel we believe that maps are very important when it comes to understanding events from the past. They give you context, they give you position, they provide the ‘setting’ for an event – be it a clash of arms, the founding of a monastery, the writing desk and window of a great author.

Maps themselves have a fascinating history. The first to gain prominence in England were maps setting out the religious world, known by their Latin name Mappa Mundi, with the most famous drawn on calf skin around 1300 and still on display in Hereford Cathedral. 

Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (above), which you’ll visit as part of our Wye Valley tour, shows the whole known world of the time and features Jerusalem in the centre, with Britain tucked away in the bottom left corner. 

Earlier maps do exist, and they include The Cotton Map (below), which dates from around 1000 AD and lays out the Roman Empire – the name comes from its discovery in the library of Sir Robert Cotton. 

The Cotton Map

The earliest known map to solely focus on Britain was created by Matthew Paris in the 1250s, and it depicts features including rivers, towns and even Hadrian’s Wall. The Gough map, which was the first to include the country’s roads, was produced a century later. 

It wasn’t until the 16th century that town maps began to appear as, until this point, most towns were too small to require a plan. The first town plans would include buildings in elevation, creating incredible drawings by men  such as William Cunningham and Ralph Agas (below). 

Around the same time Christopher Saxton was commissioned by Elizabeth I to produce a series of English county maps (below). They lacked lines of latitude or longitude and had no roads, but they did make an attempt at geological features with noticeable hills. 

In the early part of the next century, John Norden, William Smith and John Speed used Saxton’s maps as the basis of their own plans, but introduced new features that added to the accuracy and usefulness of his earlier attempts. 

John Speed published his atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, in 1611, and this was the first comprehensive plan of English and Welsh towns available in print. Buyers could choose between black and white, or a hand-coloured version that made these maps even easier to understand. 

Speed continued to refine his plans with later improvements including town plans and hundred boundaries to signify different administrative areas. He was also famous for his illustrative flourishes, such as monsters in the seas, that made his maps particularly popular.

John Norden was the first to overlay his maps with a grid with reference numbers, and he created a triangular table of distances so that people could easily see the number of miles between any two towns. Both of his 17th century innovations are still found in road atlases today. 

The challenge of mapping long roads and routes between cities was taken on by John Ogilby who developed the idea of a strip map (below) using a scale of 1 inch to 1 mile, which he managed by drawing the map as a series of imaginary scrolls with the start town at the bottom of the left most strip and the road heading to a town at the top, which then drops down to the bottom of the next strip for the process to begin again. 

Even as they developed in accuracy and ingenuity, maps played very little role in the wars of the Middle Ages – indeed it is Napoleon who is often credited as the first general to use maps for military campaigns. 

Most battles fought in the British Isles, whether during the Middle Ages or the English Civil Wars, took place on battlefields that were small enough to be surveyed in full, so maps weren’t needed to manage the flow of fighting and the organisation of men.  

In terms of navigating around the country and finding the opposing army, it wasn’t practical to march an army from place to place as maintaining supply lines would prove impossible, so armies would rely on scouts to bring news from town to town and pass messages among allies.

Most routes were well established, so if an army knew another was on the move it was easiest to head to a favourable point along that route and simply wait for their foe to arrive.   

Another tactic used by generals was to tell their opposition exactly where they were in the hope of drawing them into battle, although some commanders would tempt their enemy into a game of cat and mouse, trying to wear them out and frustrate them before finding a place to do battle on more favourable terms. 

The advent of the map style we still use today came at the end of the Jacobite Risings in 1745, when the victorious British Government realised they didn't have an accurate map of the Scottish Highlands to track down their remaining enemies. 

A military survey produced a map using a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards (below), and the success of this led to further surveys under the supervision of the Board of Ordnance. The map design was developed and recognised for the technical skill and high standards with which they had been created – these were the first Ordnance Survey maps.

Roy map of Scotland

Today, maps help us to understand how battles from the past played out. A great example of the this is the stunning Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1639-51 by Nick Lipscombe, which uses 156 detailed maps based on the latest historical and archaeological research to tell the story of the English Civil Wars.

By looking at maps we can paint a picture of the terrain that faced opposing armies, helping to see how its rises and falls, habitation and natural features would have influenced their decisions, and then form ideas on how a battle would have played out.

We produce detailed and evocative maps for each Promenades Travel tour – because we want our customers to know where they are and where they are going. How they are going to get there is down to us and our minibus drivers and guides!

A map can be functional or figurative – detailed or expressive. We try to make our maps useful – showing days and venues from our itineraries – but also we want to make them creative and inspiring and works of art in their own right – a perfect marriage of form and function!

Take a look at our maps. Let those place names inspire you. In the last year we have all had to travel much more in our minds and our imaginations than we once did. This may not be altogether a bad thing. But it makes us more hungry to see it all with our own eyes, to look at what is on the other side of the hill, to wonder what might have happened if.

Click on the images below to see our tour maps and more about each tour:

The English Civil Wars
English Civil Wars tour map

The Jacobite Risings
Jacobite Risings tour map

Medieval Churches of the Cotswolds
Cotswolds Churches tour map

Hearts of Oak
Hearts of Oak tour map

The Wars of the Roses
Wars of the Roses tour map

Image credits
Mappa Mundi: credit WolfgangW., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Cotton Map: credit the British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Agas Map, The Church of St. Bartholomew the Great: credit Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Saxton's map of Southamptonshire: credit Christopher Saxton, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
John Ogilby - The Road from London to the City of Bristol (1675): credit John Ogilby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
1747-55 Map of Innerleithen area: credit Roy Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-55, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons