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James Pepper reading

The Cartographer


John Speed is an English cartographer you are likely to have heard of

as his maps have been reproduced more than any other early maps

"The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine"

Maps of England, Wales Scotland and Ireland as well as maps of the English and Welsh Counties, the Islands and the Irish Provinces

Engraving of John Speed the Mapmaker

If you go through the little village of Farndon in Cheshire today you are unlikely to see anything to draw your attention to the fact that John Speed was born there. Perhaps, given time, much will be made of the event but today, as in 1552, the happening is, and was, taken as an every day event and John was called John after his father and as soon as he was old enough sewed up the similarity by following in his father's fashion, the trade of a tailor.

He showed an interest in cartography at an early age and to pursue his interest he moved to London to work as an engraver and mapmaker. At the age of 18 John Speed was admitted to the freedom of the Merchant Tailor's Company in London. He rented somewhere to live and a garden in Moorfields for twenty shillings a year.

At the age of 20 he married and continued his manual employment in the business of garments. Doubtless he was well employed for these were the days of Queen Elizabeth when colour and style in dress left a vivid and interesting image in our island history.

Undoubtedly a fine family man, John Speed could apply only his spare time to history and mapmaking, for tailoring brought in the money to bring up his brood of twelve sons and six daughters. His son Samuel in later years became implicated in a plot against Cromwell and was forced to flee the country for the West Indies where he joined some buccaneers and later became a sea chaplain.

Perhaps we would not have seen the fine maps of John Speed if a courtier of good literary taste and discernment had not used his influence to further the careers of talented men. The courtier was Sir Fulke Greville, the first Lord Brooke, a lifelong friend of Sir Philip Sydney.

Thus is was in 1598, with Speed at the age of 48, that Queen Elizabeth gave him a Waiters room in the custom house and at last Speed was able to pass onto us what had been in his mind.

He first devoted himself to writing a history and preparing a series of county maps of England and Wales. Between 1605 and 1610 he collected material including manuscript maps, coats of arms, portraits, drawings of antiquaries and rubbings of coins which he passed onto Jodocus Hondius in Amsterdam who engraved most of the maps for the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain. During this time Speed must have travelled extensively in the British Isles acquiring information for his unique series of town plans that appear on his maps, which are the earliest recorded plans for many of the towns featured, Proofs of his maps were issued between 1608 and 1610 and in 1611-12 all 67 maps were published in atlas form under the title The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain.

It was a most successful publication. Many copies sold and further editions were to appear for over one hundred years. Speed also prepared maps of the countries of the world, These appeared in A Prospect of the most famous parts of the World.

Maybe you will find a suitable memorial to John Speed at St. Giles, Cripplegate where John Speed finally came to rest on the 28th July, 1629. He was aged 77 and had suffered blindness and gall stones in a none too enlightened era. The good work he did, however, lives after him and the pleasure derived by discerning collectors who own one of more of his original maps is adequate evidence of his being one of the virile hard-working and inspired stars of the Elizabethan era.

"The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine"

"The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain" was the culmination of Speed's life's work. It consisted of maps of all the counties in England and Wales, as well as maps of Scotland and Ireland. The atlas also included detailed descriptions of each county and its history, making it a valuable resource for historians as well as cartographers.

John Speed was a pioneering figure in English cartography and his work had a lasting impact on the field. His maps are still studied and admired today for their accuracy, detail, and beauty. Speed's legacy as a cartographer and historian has earned him a place in the annals of English history.


How to Date John Speed Maps

A very good way to date a John Speed map is by the style of the woodcut initial that starts the descriptive text on the reverse side of the map. The style changes with each change of publisher


1611 - 12

The letter M on verso of John Speed map

Style of the woodcut initial on verso

The first edition, fine dark impressions, very often on thick paper. Sometimes have large blank margins at the top and bottom. English text on verso of each map, much of the content being taken from Camden's Britannia. Published by John Sudbury and George Humble although the name of Humble only appears on some of the maps. Printed by William Hall and John Beale


Another good early edition with dark impressions. English text reset on verso. Published by John Sudbury and George Humble, Printed by Thomas Snodham.


A rare edition and the only one to have Latin text on the verso of each map. Good dark impressions Published by John Sudbury and George Humble.


Edition with English text on verso.


The letter N on verso of John Speed map

A good edition published by George Humble alone although the name of John Sudbury who was now retired continues to appear on some of the maps. The first edition to include the map of the Invasions of England, Wales and Ireland. The English text on verso was reset for this edition. Printed by John Dawson. The first edition in which the Prospect of the World was added. Printed by John Dawson.

1631 - 2

Published by George Humble. Reset English text on verso. Published with the Prospect by John Dawson.

Letter S  on verso of John Speed map

Style of the woodcut initial on verso


This edition was printed by John Legatt and published by William Humble, the elder son of George Humble. English text again.


More editions by William Humble

1662 - 5

Letter W on verso of John Speed map

Style of the woodcut initial on verso

The only edition to be published by Roger Rea who changed all the imprint panels to accommodate the names of Roger Rea the Elder and Younger. The date of 1610 which had continued to appear on some of the maps is now changed to 1662 on some maps. Printed by Mary and Samuel Simmons.

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Imprint of Roger Rea on John Speed maps


A popular edition published by Thomas Bassett and Richard Chiswell. The impressions are lighter but the margins are usually wider than the previous editions. There were some specimens printed on a thick paper The English text on verso was reset for this edition, A number of interesting maps of North America and one of the Holy Land were added to the Prospect for this edition.

circa 1690 - 95

A rare edition by Christopher Browne who erased the imprint of Bassett and Chiswell on the maps of Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Yorkshire and replaced it with "Christopher Browne, at the Globe near the West End of St. Paul's Church London". In the past 25 years we have only offered one complete series of these maps, featured in our Catalogue 14 in 1971.

1710 - 43

An edition published by Henry Overton whose imprint appears on the maps. The roads, following Ogilby's survey, were engraved onto the old plates for this edition. Plain on verso.


A rare edition and the last edition published by Dicey & Co. Pale impressions. Plain on verso.


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List of Maps

British Isles
England and Wales
Saxon Heptarchy
Invasions of England and Wales (added in later editions)
Holy Island, Farne Islands, Guernsey, Jersey
Isle of Man
Isle of Wight
Yorkshire West Riding
Yorkshire North and East Ridings




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Born in 1552 Died in 1629

The story of how stock of the London map trade was acquired or passed from one to another is a fascinating one. The relationships between surveyors, mapmakers, engravers, publishers and mapsellers is often complex. I hope the following helps to illustrate the history of John Speed's map plates and a few other relationships.

The Story of the Copper Plates

John Sudbury
fl. 1599 - 1618
George Humble
(fl. 1603 - 40). Died in 1640

The business bequeathed to George Humble's Son.

William Humble
(fl. 1640 - 59)
Published many editions of the Speed Atlas

Peter Stent
fl. 1641 - 1662. Acquired stock from William Humble but not the Speed plates. Published the series of anonymous county maps in 1650. Died in 1665

William Garrett. Publisher
His daughter married John Overton Purchased the Speed plates from William Humble in 1658 - 9. Did not use them but soon sold them to Roger Rea the elder and younger.

Roger Rea, the elder and the younger
(fl. 1660 - 67) Purchased the John Speed plates and published atlases in 1662 and 1665

Thomas Bassett (fl. 1659 - 93) and Richard Chiswell (fl.1639 - 1711)
Purchased the Speed plates from Roger Rea and published an atlas in 1676

Christopher Browne
(fl. 1688 - 1712)
Purchased the Speed plates and published an atlas. Sold the Speed plates to John Overton.

John Overton (fl. 1665 - 1707) Married the daughter of **William Garrett
Acquired stock of Peter Stent in 1665
Acquired Speed plates in 1700 from Christopher Browne. Disposed of his stock to his son Henry Overton in 1707.

Henry Overton (fl.1707 - 49)
Reissued the series of anonymous maps in 1708. Published Speed Atlas in 1713 and again in 1743

Cluer Dicey (fl. c.1740-0)
Acquired the Speed plates and published the last edition in 1770.

Hand Colouring

You may come across a few John Speed maps with colouring described as early. The publishers, however, did not advertise or sell the atlases coloured unlike some of the 17th century Dutch map publishers. No doubt you would have had to employ a colourist before the maps were bound into the atlas. The majority of John Speed maps arrived in the 20th century in an uncoloured state. Modern colouring is quite acceptable and many present day collectors like their John Speed maps to be coloured. There are those, however, who would prefer to have a specimen as it was when published. It is really a matter of personal taste. The quality of the modern hand colouring is in my opinion extremely important and poor unattractive modern colouring can greatly reduce the value. I have seen some very very poor modern hand colouring and it makes me despair. So many John Speed maps have been hand coloured in the last 90 years. Perhaps there will be a move by collectors to favour uncoloured specimens one day as they are condsidered to be rarer. Who knows.

Did you know that many of the coats of arms on John Speed's maps are colour coded?

If you look carefully at the coats of arms you will see small engraved letters on different parts. The letters were chosen from traditional mediavel French.

OR (Gold) is lettered O
Bleu (Blue) is lettered B
Gules (Red) is lettered G
Vert (Green) is lettered V
Argent (Silver) is lettered A
Purpure (Purple) is letterd P

Division into Books

  • Portrait of John Speed

    Portrait of John Speed

  • Titlepage for John Speed Theatre Book 4, 1616

    Titlepage for John Speed Theatre Book 4, 1616

  • Titlepage for John Speed Theatre Book 3, 1676

    Titlepage for John Speed Theatre Book 3, 1676

  • Leinster by John Speed

    Leinster by John Speed

  • Montgomeryshire by John Speed

    Montgomeryshire by John Speed

  • Denbighshire by John Speed

    Denbighshire by John Speed

  • Essex by John Speed

    Essex by John Speed

  • Surrey by John Speed

    Surrey by John Speed

  • Cardiganshire by John Speed

    Cardiganshire by John Speed

  • Anglesey by John Speed

    Anglesey by John Speed

  • Yorkshire North and East Ridings by John Speed

    Yorkshire North and East Ridings by John Speed

  • Map of Flintshire by John Speed c.1710 with later hand colouring

    Map of Flintshire by John Speed c.1710 with later hand colouring

  • Map of Nottinghamshire by John Speed, 1646

    Map of Nottinghamshire by John Speed, 1646

  • Map of North & East Ridings of Yorkshire by John Speed, 1646

    Map of North & East Ridings of Yorkshire by John Speed, 1646

  • Map of Bedfordshire by John Speed, 1646

    Map of Bedfordshire by John Speed, 1646

Text on Verso of Maps

  • Yorkshire North and East Ridings John Speed text 1646

    Yorkshire North and East Ridings John Speed text 1646

  • Merionehshire John Speed text 1646

    Merionehshire John Speed text 1646

List of Maps in the 1611 Edition of The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine


  • John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1676 engraved by Robert White

    John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1676 engraved by Robert White

  • John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1611

    John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1611

  • John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1614

    John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1614

  • John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1743 engraved by Robert White

    John Speed Theatre Frontispiece 1743 engraved by Robert White

The impressive engraved frontispiece makes a statement of great power and is a fitting start to The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. It is interesting to note the slight changes in the new engraving by Robert White for the 1676 edition published by Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell. The basic layout of the figures of a Roman, a Saxon, a Dane and a Norman remain. The title label is now arched instead of square and there are changes to the engravings on the plinth showing London and a sailing ship..


Thirty-three of Speed's maps bear the signature of the engraver of the plates, Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612). The engraving took place in his studio in Amsterdam. Other maps may have been engraved by Abraham Goss but none bear his name. Speed must have spent much time gathering together material to produce the maps including drawings of buildings, antiquities, portraits and the unique town plans that were so cleverly woven into the design of each map by the engraver to produce a beautifully balanced piece of artwork.

It appears the the engraved plates were sent to London for printing where the text for the atlas was also printed. Proof impressions of the plates with no text on verso do exist. You may be lucky to find one of these one day. I have only two in my own collection, Caernarvonshire and Flintshire. There are a few sets in existence including the British Museum, Royal Geographical Society and Cambridge University Library.

There are 66 maps in the Cambridge University Library set. It is known as the Gardner set after the former owner Dr. Eric Gardner (1877 - 1951) These maps are viewable online in the Cambridge Digital Library

  • John Speed map of Flintshire Proof c.1611

    John Speed map of Flintshire Proof c.1611

  • John Speed map of Caernarvonshire Proof c.1611

    John Speed map of Caernarvonshire Proof c.1611


Modern Reproductions

There are modern reproductions of John Speed maps that the collector should be aware of. It is unlikely that once you have handled an original map by John Speed you will be caught out by these reproductions but do take care when purchasing framed maps as it is more difficult to see the features.

I get two or three telephone calls a month about John Speed maps from people who have found them in their loft or been left them. Very often they are from a series of reproduction maps that have been sold widely for many years. They are very easy to spot and usually I can answer a telephone callers concerns by a few questions, such as. What is the paper like that the maps are printed on? If the answer mentions parchment then the answer is simple. It is a modern reproduction of little or no value. The map has no text on the back and no centre fold and the overall colour of the paper is brown. These maps have been sold in their thousands. I remember seeing them back in the 1970's in stationers shops and perhaps Smiths, folded into paper wallets with a transparent panel on the front showing part of the map. The fold lines are usually still evident.

I do see these maps appearing in auction sales. One was catalogued John Speed, British, 1552-1629, Middle-sex described with the most famous Cities of London and Westminster; vignette to lower right reads 'Described by John Norden, Augmented by J Speed, Solde in Popes alley against the Exchange by George Humble', sheet size 35.5cm x 48cm, frame 45.5cm x 58cm

In heavily worn condition. Heavily stained dark brown throughout. Previously folded in four with prominent horizontal and vertical creases visible. Ruckling and undulation to the sheet. Has not been inspected out of the frame.

The auctioneer's estimate was £80- £120. Opening price - £30. To a map collector their value in my opinion is nil. I can only caution you with the words caveat emptor

So what to look out for when deciding if you have found an original or a reproduction Speed map
  • Original maps were printed on laid paper. Reproductions are printed on a paper with a flat surface and having no character
  • Original maps have a centre fold and evidence on verso of how the map was bound into the atlas
  • Original maps were printed by an inked copper plate pressing onto the paper. You should be able to find evidence of the edge of the plate where it has left an indentation just outside the printed area. Reproductions will not have this as they are printed by morden technics and lithography
  • Hold the map up to the light. You may see some watermarks but certainly lines showing it is hand made laid paper. Reproduction maps will have an all over similar texture and colour.
  • Original John Speed maps were never printed on a paper that resembles parchment so that is a simple way to identify.

Pepper Street


01244 336004

International 44 1244 336004

Richard and Nelson

I have been buying and selling antique maps since the early 1960's during which time I had a gallery in Watergate Street, Chester for 30 years. I am now able to offer through my websites a personal service to map and print collectors.

The maps of the famous English cartographer John Speed

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