Speed maps

400-year-old atlas of Britain to go on display

John Speed‘s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine is regarded as one of the world’s great cartographic treasures. Each page is coloured and illustrated by hand, with the county maps featuring drawings of famous battles, local coats of arms and historic sites.
The atlas was first published in 1611-12 and acquired by the Cambridge University Library in 1968. To mark the 400th anniversary, the university has digitised each page and put them online for the public to view.
Anne Taylor, head of the map department at the library, said: These hand-coloured proofs are one of the library’s greatest treasures.”
Accompanying each map is a description of the county, and in Cambridgshire’s case it is less than flattering. “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,” it reads.
The atlas was an immediate success on publication, with the first print of 500 copies selling out. Many editions followed and Speed became the most famous cartographer of the age.


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