Spotlight On: Maps – transcript

Transcript for Spotlight On: Maps

Hello, I’m Rose Mitchell, map archivist at The National Archives, which has one of the world’s largest map collections with over 6 million maps and more added every year. They range from as far back as the 14th century to the 20th century, from places all around the world, from here in Kew to Timbuktu and beyond. The maps reflect British government business.

They also relate to other records here, such as letters and reports, which together tell a bigger story than either can alone. Maps capture historically significant events, such as battles, journeys of exploration, and important business matters, such as treaties.

They also allow us to see small places in England as people saw them in centuries past, as we shall see. Maps come in different formats: roles, volumes, loose sheets of paper, and a common format is the one we see today, which is a portfolio with the map stitched into it for its better protection. Before we look at the map, notice the unique reference on the cover so we can use our catalogue to find it.

So let’s look at our map and see what it shows. Many of our maps are hand-drawn and unique, such as this beautiful 17th century map. It dates to 1608 – we know from the related papers and court case for which it was made – so Shakespeare was alive at this time. The place shown is Aldbourne Chase, which lies in White Horse country north of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. The map was drawn because of a dispute about the royal rabbit warren, which laid within the chase. It was made by one of the commissioners – local men asked to go to the disputed land and put questions to witnesses – so the mapmaker would have actually seen this area he shows first hand.

The point of making the map was to show the fields and boundaries, so there’s a plan of the underlying land showing the shape of the fields. But the map has several other layers. It conveys its message by spatial means, text used in specific ways, pictures and a decorative framework. Notes written across the fields such as here tell us their size, who owned them and which ones were in dispute. This was all helpful to show the court in London, who were far away.

The mapmaker brings the area to life with colourful pictures of animals that graze there and different types of trees and plants in fields and woods. Each tree is drawn with its canopy in the shape of its leaf, such as the oaks. The cattle, sheep and horses are shown eating grass, lying down, and hiding in the bushes. The decorative border has the running pattern of fruit and flowers, including pinks, Shakespeare’s streaked gillyvors, peapods, grapes and acorns. This is similar in style to contemporary Jacobean embroidery.

The mapmaker wrote ‘south’ at the top – our modern convention of north at the top of the map had not yet become standard. By the early 17th century, it was common practice to include a scale on local maps, and this mapmaker used a scale bar with dividers in this decorative box to show that he’d made the map to scale.

There are several ways in which this map is useful for understanding more about the reign of James the First. Firstly it gives us a contemporary view rather than modern interpretation, so it’s got intrinsic value as a historic source. Secondly, the visual nature of the map could communicate clearly what was where more directly than a description in writing alone at a time when few people could read. Although the map does not show any people they are implicit in its making and use. We even get a sense of how people moved through the landscape, taking animals to graze or fetching wood. Thirdly, the map records a complex pattern of ownership and land tenure and underlines the importance of land use and management, boundaries, common land and access rights, not just to the local economy but also to bodies in London.

The National Archives has this map along with other maps and papers of higher law courts, which heard cases from all over the land. This is the commission or court order which specified that a map should be made and that it should show ‘all such necessary things as you shall think best for the more manifestation of the truth of the said matter’. And then here in this list of questions we have question seven. Local witnesses were asked, being shown the map, whether they thought it was a ‘true and perfect plot’, and plot was a name often used for a map at this time, that it showed the lands and their boundaries well.

For me, this map along with these papers certainly brings us the more manifestation of this place one summer over 400 years ago. In a court case like this, remember that a map may show only the land claim of one party – one for the other party might look quite different. Maps were made for a particular purpose rather than for general reference, so they don’t show lands around those in dispute. There are not maps like this for every place, only where there was a reason to make them.

Where there is a historic map, it can allow us to travel back in time and see particular places as people did then – in this case with plants and animals that were found in this locality in 1608. This is just one of our many maps, all with their own stories, which give us a perspective on history.