Chapter Excerpt by Peter M. Barber

The following was excerpted from Peter M. Barber's chapter, "The British Isles," in the July/August 1998 issue of
Mercator's World® magazine.

Mercator credits a "friend" with creating his 1564 map of the British Isles. Who was this mysterious mapmaker?

By Peter M. Barber

Gerard Mercator's lifetime spanned the period in which the British Isles were, for the first time, mapped with something approaching scientific accuracy. This was a process of enormous psychological importance for the British. It found expression in the visual arts – with Elizabeth I, for instance, being depicted standing on a map of England and Wales – and in Shakespeare, with the dying John of Gaunt in Richard II describing England in language springing from familiarity with Britain's cartographic image. Above all, the accurate mapping of Britain gave the educated a new perception of their own country.

Tudor England was increasingly aware of its distinct character politically, religiously, and culturally. In the 1530s Henry VIII and the English Parliament had broken the old ties to the papacy and enacted laws underpinning the notion that England was now an "empire" in its own right, owing allegiance to none but the king, pursued an idiosyncratic doctrinal course different from anything found in mainland Europe.

Scholars, often employed by the king and his advisers, tried to buttress this new sense of independence by seeking precedents in the country's distant past Under the reign of Henry's son Edward VI (1547-1553) and his younger daughter Elizabeth (1558-1603), these trends gathered strength. His eldest daughter, Mary (1553-1558), the Catholic daughter of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, tried to put them in reverse, however, by reconciling England to Rome as a faithful province of the Roman Catholic Church, which had formerly reigned supreme throughout western European Christendom.

Mercator depicted Britain on at least seven occasions during this period: on his double-cordiform world map of 1538, his globe of 1541, his 1554 map of Europe, his eight-sheet map of Britain of 1564, his world map of 1569, his revised map of Europe of 1572, and posthumously in his sixteen British maps in the atlas of 1595. Collectively, they mirror the evolving cartographic discovery of the British Isles, but because Mercator is not known ever to have crossed the Channel, his personal contribution was indirect. For the most part he sought out, through reading or by correspondence, information gathered by others. In the case of the 1564 map, he apparently uncritically engraved the manuscript of another.

The eight-sheet map of the British Isles, dedicated to Mercator's patron, the duke of Cleves, is in many respects the most intriguing of all Mercator's depictions of Britain. Only four examples are now known. Those in France and the two in Italy survive in their individual sheets. That in the "Atlas of Europe," acquired by the British Library in 1997, has been put together from several copies, with the loss of some information panels. The example in Breslau, "discovered" in 1889, had been assembled as a single map. It disappeared in the closing stages of the Second World War but survives as a photographic facsimile published in the 1890's.

Insofar as the 1564 map has received any attention as a complete entity, the focus has been on the degree to which Mercator was actually responsible for the map and the identity of its actual creator. Mercator notes in one of the information panels that the map had been sent to him by its creator, "a friend," with the request that it be engraved. The search for this "friend" has degenerated almost into a parlour game as historians of cartography have run up long lists of candidates of varying degrees of plausibility, without apparently taking any notice of the most glaring puzzle: Mercator's reason for indulging in this tantalising behavior in the first place.

It may be possible to identify Mercator's friend with greater certainty, however, if the attempt is made to analyse the reason behind Mercator's qualms about engraving such an (in his words) accurate map, his disclaimer of responsibility for its intellectual content, and his failure to name its actual creator. This mystery if further compounded by the similar reticence of Ortelius – normally the most open of men in this respect – when he came to publish a reduced version of the map in 1570. The time, then, is more than ripe for a complete reappraisal of the 1564 map.

A Catholic Bias

The map impresses first because of its size. The Breslau copy measured 890 by 1,286 millimetres (thirty-five and three-eighths by fifty and five-eighths inches), making it the largest and most detailed rendering of the British isles to have appeared in print up to then. There are some 2,500 geographical names: 1,250 for England and Wales, 800 for Scotland, 350 for Ireland, and even 100 for France. Though the scale varies from sheet to sheet, the overall scale has been estimate at between 1:823,680 and 1:1,150,000, with the greatest geodetic accuracy in the southeast of England. It has also been judged remarkable for the improved coastlines that it displays when compared with earlier, and indeed several later, printed maps. It is particularly noteworthy as the first printed map to show the Llyn Peninsula and Cardigan Bay in Wales.

Mercator might well have feared that publication of this amount of detail could alarm his friends in England. Such a map appeared to offer foreign Catholic rulers vital information about landing places. Through locating the homes, which would otherwise have been just names, of their allies in England, it would also have enabled them to assess the chances of successfully stirring up internal rebellion. Evidence abounds of the anxiety, bordering on paranoia, of English leaders in the 1540s and 1550s at the possibility of accurate maps getting into the hands of their enemies and being used for invasion purposes. In their detail and accuracy, after all, the coastlines show a substantial improvement on earlier printed maps. Perhaps this is why Mercator did what he could to hint that he had only engraved and printed the map under duress.

Mercator could not have known, however, that his map would probably have struck the more influential of his English contemporaries, who frequented the English court, as much less novel and somewhat less threatening than he thought. These men were accustomed to manuscript maps of similar and even greater precision and had been produced for defense purposes at the command of Henry VIII and his successors. Such maps were restricted to use and display at court and were no available to anyone beyond the royal court (at least in theory) Compared to these manuscript maps, some of which still survive in the British Library and the Public Record Office, Mercator's map is in some respects regressive, and this is an important clue in identifying its actual creator.

The map is also strangely conservative in terms of its content. This is particularly apparent in its omission of the bishoprics (or dioceses) that Henry VIII had created after the break with Rome. Given the continuing importance of religion and of religious organisation in everyday life in terms of the enforcement of orthodoxy, private morality, taxation, judicial authority, and political loyalty, these omissions are deeply significant. It is barely conceivable that by the 1560s, two decades after their formation, any well-informed man of the sort who mush have created such a detailed map could unwittingly have ignored Henry's bishoprics.

It is unlikely that Mercator himself would have censored the symbols for the new bishoprics simply to pacify the Catholic authorities of the Holy Roman Empire, since he could have achieved this end far more easily by simple omitting the symbol for dioceses entirely. While the omission of the Henrician bishoprics may have smacked of popery to the English Elizabethan establishment, the converse was not true. Even the Catholic Queen Mary had ultimately tolerated their continuing existence, and by the 1590s Mercator felt able to include the new bishoprics in his final maps of England, presumably without fear of official reprisals.

In view of Mercator's protestations in 1564 that he did no more than engrave and print the map that had been sent to him, one has to conclude that the exclusion of Henrician bishoprics was a politico-religious statement by the map's creator. This feature alone could potentially have been sufficiently embarrassing to have merited his disclaimers of responsibility for the content of the map, give Mercator's need for friendly relation with leading members of the Anglican establishment if he was to keep abreast of the latest information about English discoveries overseas.

Conservatism is further to be found in the handwriting of the original draftsman of the map. The map as published is, of course, in Mercator's excellent italic, which, by the 1560s and largely through Mercator's influence, was rapidly being adopted as the standard hand for maps. An analysis of place-name corruptions, however, suggest that the originals were written – perhaps not too clearly written – in a specifically British early-secretary hand with a distinctive m, r, and particularly w that Mercator or an earlier copyist had had difficulty in reading. While some of the place-name corruptions (such as Rygaet or Humbaer for Humber) may show the influence of the Flemish language, others (such as Motherham for Rotherham, Kythryn for Ruthin, Kyppo for Ripon) suggest difficulties with the r. Likewise, Pepibery for Pembury and Hernyngboro for Hemingbrough suggest similar difficulty with the m. Perhaps most telling of all, the substitutions of Crabsey for Crawley, Calbode for Cawood, and Corobridge for Cowbridge suggest difficulty with the characteristically rounded w. From this it might be concluded that the creator of the map was British and paleographically as well as religiously old-fashioned.

Despite the apparent modernity of most of its coastlines and of the line of the principal rivers, the depiction of England and Wales on the 1564 map is conservative in its methods of construction, its content, and its rendering of place-names. It presents a somewhat patchy picture of a fertile and peaceful land with relatively few hills or forests, a Catholic land with a strong monarchy rich in palaces.

A Scottish Plotte

The depiction of Scotland on Mercator's 1564 map of the British Isles is an immense improvement on all earlier published maps. It presents the first reasonably realistic depiction of the west coast and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. The names of the regions are given and the realities of power are reflected in the names of the earls – ennobled local chieftains who dominated the kingdom from their castles (also named), forcing the Stuart monarchs for most of the time to play one faction off against another in order to maintain their own precarious sovereignty.

In 1973 D.G. Moir suggested the John Elder (who signed himself Eldar) was responsible for the depiction of Scotland on Mercator's map of 1564. It would be surprising if this were not the case. In 1543, when he was planning to invade Scotland, Henry had let it be known that he needed a good map of that kingdom. It was a chance that no ambitious Scot whose map-making skills were matched by his lack of scruple could afford to ignore. In an inordinately long and rambling memorial accompanying his now lost "plotte," or map, of Scotland that he presented to Henry VIII in that year, Elder justified betraying the "privities" of Scotland on the grounds that the faction of "papistical foxes," led by Cardinal Beaton, intended, with French assistance, to "drounde all Scotland in bloude."

Elder asserted that the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales, with the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, was the only way of averting the impending disaster and that the basis for an Anglo-Scottish union already existed. The Highland chieftains of Irish descent (Picts, or "Redshanks") were yearning to demonstrate their love for Henry and to emulate their Irish cousins who, following their rebellions, had been pardoned by Henry, created earls and lords, and sent back to Ireland with riches and gorgeous apparel. Elder then embarked on a lengthy description of how Redshanks got their names (because they went barelegged and bare-footed) and a discourse on their supposed origins, the meaning of their Irish names (particularly the prefixes Mac and O), and the mutual dislike existing between them and the Lowland Scots. To assist Henry, Elder

Can no les do then offer this plotte of the realme of Scotland unto your exsellent Maiestie, wherein your highnes shall perceave and se not onely the descripcion of all the notable townes, castels and Abbeis ther set fourthe and situat in ther propir places as they stand in every countie and schyre with the situacion of all the principall yles marched with the same callid Orknay and Schetland and of the out yles commonly named the Sky and Lewys but also your noble grace shall se the cost of the same, the dangers lying thereby with every port, ryver, loigh, creke, and haven there, so truly drawyn and se fourthe as my poore witt and lernynge can uttir and discerne.

Elder explained his personal familiarity with Scottish regions such as Caithness, the Orkney Islands, Aberdeen, and Glasgow. He also informed the king of his knowledge of "all the notable places there every where with ther lordis and masters names" and wrote in the principal earls' and lords' names next to their "common habitacion," and also those of the Redshank lords.

The depiction of Scotland on the Mercator map of 1564 illustrates Elder's words. Two large panels beneath the map contain an erudite Latin discussion of the origins of the inhabitants of Britain, but particularly of the Scots and the Picts. While the argument differs from that in the letter, it should be remembered that many years had passed and opinions (if the creator of the 1564 map was Elder) could well have altered with further reading. On the other hand, the whole map betrays the same type of quirky antiquarianism as the letter, showing "all the notable towns, castles and abbeys" with arguably "every port, river loch, creek and haven." Indeed, for the first time, Loch Lomond is correctly oriented, though its size (like the numerous minor islands in it and the Firth of Forth) is exaggerated. As in the letter, earls' names are placed apparently close to their seats, while the shires are also named.

Traces of Elder's own life can be found not only in the depiction of the principal islands around the Scottish coasts and, above all, the Outer and Inner Hebrides – conceivably plotted form memory and direct, repeated observation and from rutters, and for the first time bearing some relationship to reality – but also in the proliferation of place-names in the areas with which he was associated: St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Caithness.

Though the spellings differ from those in the letter, this could easily be explained in terms of the lapse of time and the well-documented inconsistency in even an individual's spelling until recently. What is more telling, if the map is based on Elder's work of 1543, is the distinction drawn between "New Aberdeyne" on the coast and "oldaberdyn academis" inland, then, as now, the seat of the university. Only someone who actually knew Aberdeen is likely at that time to have known that there were actually two Aberdeens and that the university was housed in the old town, not in the new.

Off the coast of Elder's birthplace in Caithness, there is a wealth of navigational information of a type missing from the rest of map mentioned in the 1543 memorial: "Here be daungerous rockes called Pentlant skyres," and the nearby currents of "Sowna." "The Boyer," "The hopper," and "The Swell" are all named. The most revealing evidence of all for a link with Elder, however, is to be found on the isle of Islay and again in Sunderland near to where "dwelleth Ihan (sic) the grand," where the map shows the home areas of "Mac Foyn Cannagh" and of "Vrchard," both of whom are identified as "Lord of the Redshankes."

The outline of Ireland on the 1564 map is less accurate than that which Mercator had created ten years earlier. The depictions of a flat north coast showing no sign of Donegal Bay, the southwest coast of Munster (which entirely lacks its ruggedness), and the coast south of Cork are particularly weak – though the sequence of the main features, such as the coastal bays and loughs, is correct. Even on the southeast coast, non-existent islands are shown. The contrast between this and Mercator's 1554 map of Europe strengthens the impression that, as he implied, Mercator had little to do, editorially, with the 1564 map. It also suggests that the creator of the 1564 map was viewing Ireland from the vantage point of the English. He was concerned with control of the land from Dublin and the Pale outward rather than, as from a continental standpoint, the plotting of the jagged west coast, as found on Portolan charts for navigational purposes.

Elder Unveiled

The man who created the manuscript map supplied to Mercator in the early 1560s was almost certainly from the British Isles (note the English inscriptions in Scotland and the colonialist view of Ireland), and there is a strongly Scottish flavour to the explanatory texts on the map. They dwell at great and loving length on the origins of the Scots and Irish and the marvels of those lands, and only briefly on the origins of the English. To add insult to injury, the creator cites Polydore Virgil's doubts as to the truth of the legend that the English were descended from the Trojan Brutus, and he hardly mentions King Arthur – belief in both of whom was an article of faith for loyal English antiquaries in the reign of Elizabeth.

Mercator's friend was insular in his handwriting and conservative in his rendering of place-names, in his cartographic methods, and in his religious beliefs. The relative accuracy of the English and Welsh coastlines strongly suggest that he had enjoyed access to maps that were probably available only at the English court, and his emphasis on the numerous royal palaces in the vicinity of London implies that the finished map may originally have been intended for court circles.

The map itself was probably created in the early years of Queen Mary's reign: certainly after 1548, when Paolo Giovio's history was published, probably before 1556, when King's County and Queen's County in Ireland were created and before the Catholic dream of a complete restoration of the status quo in the 1520s in England had faded. There is a strong suggestion that by the early 1560s, the mapmaker had fallen from favour in England. Had the mapmaker been in favour, he would not have required Mercator's services.

The Mercator map as a whole, and not only the depiction of Scotland alone, could be argued to reflect Elder's background and personality. The heavy bias toward Scotland and its peoples and their origins in the general information panels and the dismissal of the Brutus and King Arthur legends would also suggest John Elder as their creator, given all that is known of nationality and interests. A man who had dwelt so lengthily in his address to Henry VIII on the Irish origins of the Highland Scots and their patronymics might also take a special interest in the correct form of the Gaelic names of the Irish chieftains shown on the Mercator map.

The Catholic emphasis of the map, the relative accuracy of the English and Welch coastlines, and the emphasis on the royal palaces around London – and particularly those associated with Queen Mary – can also be traced back to Elder. Despite his anti-papist fervour in 1543, he had trimmed his sails to suit the Roman Catholic wind the prevailed at Queen Mary's court. He became one of her most fervent defenders, publishing tracts defending her.

Elder is also known to have stood high in the esteem of Mary's Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Pole was an active patron of mapmakers, and in these years official support was given for the creation of a detailed map of England and Wales. Elder had a proven track record as a mapmaker and would have been a natural choice to have undertaken or masterminded the project, possibly in collaboration with Christopher Saxton's future master, the Durham cleric John Rudd. In pursuit of the objective, he would have been given liberal access to the manuscript maps at court. However, he and only he would have preferred outlines of the Scottish coast that by the mid-1550s most other mapmakers would have regarded as being relatively inaccurate.

The absence of any information on the map dating from after 1555 could be explained by Elder's later career. In May 1556, for no clear reason, he was granted a passport to leave England. He probable went to France and seems not to have returned to England for another six years, by which time the map was probably in Mercator's hands. In France he presented Mary, Queen of Scots, with an autograph letter and (in a display of indirect vanity?) a fanciful map of the New Utopia ostensibly by his eight-year-old pupil, Lord Darnley. This formed part of the manoeuvres of Darnley's mother, the ambitious countess of Lennox, at reconciliation with Mary-manoeuvres that, given the countess's English nationality, soon bordered on treason, and with which Elder was deeply involved

By the autumn of 1559, at a time when English relations with France and the ruling Guise-Loraine faction in Scotland were particularly fraught, his close association with Mary's uncle, the cardinal de Lorraine, the spiritual leader of the French Catholic faction and effective ruler of France under Francis II, led the English ambassador to Paris to brand Elder as being "as dangerous for the matters of England as any he knew" and to advise that a watch be kept on his acquaintances in England. Yet Elder was still thought of as being potentially useful to the English, in part because of his mapping abilities, and over the following years he cynically played the French off against the English.

At the turn of 1561-1562, he secured free passage through England en route for Scotland by hinting that Elizabeth I's leading counselor, William Cecil, could "draw some good service forth of him" despite French efforts to get him to act for them in Scotland. This primarily referred to a letter Elder was carrying, which was used by Cecil a few months later to incriminate the countess of Lennox. Once in Scotland, however, he demanded payment of the English pension, of which he had previously been stripped, warning that "if he speed not (i.e., is not successful), thinks he shall be welcome to the Scottish Queen." As Cecil's informant concluded, Elder "has wit to play the spy where he list," and although no further mention of him has been found in the records, it can be assumed that he did not become more reputable with age.

It is not known how or when the map reached Mercator. The most likely hypothesis is that it was sent by Elder from France shortly before his departure in December 1561, possibly accompanied by a recommendation from Elder's influential friend and paymaster, Cardinal de Lorraine. At the time, England and France were more or less at open war, with Elizabeth intervening to assist Huguenot rebels in Normandy.

A French background among the strongly Catholic and anti-Elizabeth Guise (Lorraine)-Stuart faction would help to explain why the largest single order to Plantin for the wall map of 1564 – at forty a full half of the maps that he sold – came from Paris. A date of 1561-1562, before Elder's fleeting return to England, would account for the map's outdated contents (for instance, in Ireland) and would have provided Mercator with ample, but not excessive, time to ponder the map and prepare it for engraving and publication in 1564 (by which time Anglo-French relations had improved and Anglo-Spanish relations were as good as they were ever to be).

Even if the map's impolitic content is ignored, by the early 1560s Elder could hardly have availed himself of official English support for publishing his maps or of an English engraver such as Nicholas Reynolds. That Mercator would not wish to be seen as being closely involved with such a relatively good, but potentially so embarrassing, map and would wish to conceal the name of so disreputable an author would also have been natural. Yet, in 1564, its obvious quality compared with the earlier printed maps and, possibly, pressure from the Catholic authorities must have outweighed Mercator's understandable qualms about meeting his friend's – and perhaps Cardinal de Lorraine's – request that he engrave and publish the map. The Scot, John Elder, would therefore seem to be the most likely person to have created the prototype of the map of the British Isles published by Mercator in 1564.

Peter M. Barber is deputy map librarian for the British Library in London.

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