The story of Mercator's Atlas of Europeindeed, the atlas
itselfhad been lost in time until it surfaced and was purchased,
unrecognized, in a Brussels, Belgium, bookshop in 1967.
It enjoyed a brief moment in the public light when it was offered for
sale at Sotheby's in London in 1979, where it was bought by the British
Rail Pension Fund.
The unusual atlas then spent most of the
ensuing years lying in a bank vault.
In 1996 it was again put up for auction but was withdrawn after reaching
a bid of approximately $1,243,000. In May of 1997, the British Library
announced that with the aid of a generous grant from the Heritage
Lottery Fund, the Library had acquired the unique atlas at a reputed
price of approximately $1,145,000. Currently on public display at the
British Library, the atlas is now available to scholars and the
public for the first time since Gerardus Mercator handed it over to his
patron, who was making a grand tour of Europe with the son of
William V, the Duke of Cleves, circa 1570.
Most of the history of the atlas prior to its rediscovery in 1967 is
lost in time. The only facts known for certain are provided on its
first page. In 1771 it belonged to the Cistercian monastery of
Mariawald in the duchy of Julich - some fifty miles from Mercator's
home in Duisburg. In that year it was repaired, rebound, and annotated by
Alan Ortmans, a monk who had taken his vows at the neighboring monastery
The library of Mariawald was dispersed in 1797-98 when the area was under
French rule, and the atlas was lost at that time. There is indication that
it remained in the family of Mercator's patron, Werner von Gymnich, for
many years. As for the rest, it is shrouded in mystery, but modern
scholars have pieced together clues and information that help in telling
its intriguing story.
The atlas is the work of Gerardus Mercator, the greatest cartographer of
early modern times. The telltale clues as to its compiler are too numerous
to leave this in doubt. It was compiled around the year 1570 by the careful
cutting and pasting together of multiple copies of Mercator's previously
published wall maps of Europe, Britain, and the world.
Recent study of the atlas at the British Library has resulted in some
astounding findings. Dr. Peter Barber, deputy map librarian at the British
Library, (and a contributor to the book in the facsimile edition) states
that the maps of the British Isles were almost certainly prepared by a
Scottish traitor to help France and Spain invade Britain and overthrow the
How astonished and dismayed the devout Protestant Mercator would have been
to learn that the 1564 wall map of the British Isles that he included in
his atlas - the first detailed and accurate geographical picture of those
islands - was a tool of invasion! The original maps were apparently drawn
by the Scottish cartographer John Elder, a tutor to Mary Queen of Scot's
husband and a staunch Catholic who longed to aid in the overthrow of the
Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
Elder visited the continent in the 1550s and later supplied the well-known
Mercator with his maps, in the hopes of aiding a Catholic invasion force.
He invited Mercator to publish the maps under the Mercator name, which the
latter did in 1564. Dr. Barber says, "What we have here is not a true map
of Elizabethan England, but a map of how Elder saw a Catholic England
under Mary Tudor."
Regardless of its religious or political origins, the Mercator Atlas of
Europe remains the most important surviving body of Mercator's work in a