For the nobleman wishing to experience life outside his four walls, consulting John Speed’s newly-published Theatre of Great Britain was the Tudor equivalent of plotting a route in Google Maps. Speed’s masterfully detailed compendium of county guides has been carefully restored in this handsome volume.
‘The whole country appeared to him an unending pageant,’ writes Nigel Nicholson in the introduction, something demonstrated by the sheer exuberance of each of Speed’s creations. The man seemed to loath wasted space and each map is replete with adornments, from plan views of prominent cities, to illustrations of battles fought in the region, to lists of local noble families and their crests or banners. There was a practical reason for such embellishments – each map had to fit on uniformly-sized pages and, with counties varying in size, the scale of each would change leaving ample space for decoration.
He would also provide written accounts of each location for potential visitors, sadly not reproduced here, although each county is accompanied for modern readers with summaries by Alasdair Hawkyard both of Speed’s travails and potted histories of each region. In a sense, Speed was more of an editor than cartographer. He, of course, had an undoubted talent for map creation, and certainly put in his due diligence travelling the entire country. Nonetheless, each of Speed’s creations relied heavily on the work of those that came before and this new volume makes sure to give Speed’s predecessors their due. Nonetheless, it was Speed that brought it all together and this is a fine tribute to the work of the ‘tailor from Sheffield’ who, in a sense, opened the country to us all.