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Description

Striking, Politically-Charged Map of the British Isles from the World’s First Atlas

Fine example of Vrients’ map of Britain and Ireland, which first appeared in the 1606 edition of Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first modern atlas of the world.

Vrients’ map is one of the most elegantly engraved and distinctively designed maps of the British Isles to appear in a commercial atlas.

In 1601, Antwerp publisher Jan Baptist Vrients took over publication of the Theatrum, after Ortelius’ death in 1598. Vrients gradually added new maps but did not necessarily replace existing plates. Among the new maps was this print of England, Wales, Ireland, and much of Scotland.

The map includes a genealogical table for the English Royal Family, at the right side, which traces the lineage of James I and VI directly from William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. Other details herald more noble ties. A Poseidon-like figure, astride a hippocampus, holds the arms of the House of York. A mermaid bears the arms of the Isle of Man, while the coat of arms of Scotland is installed near the Firth of Clyde (here Dunbreton Fyrth). A crowned lion holds the Irish flag with its harp, a reference to English colonization of the isle.

Vrients’ map is based on an anonymous 1594 predecessor (Shirley, 177) and Jodocus Hondius Sr.’s 1592 map which also had a genealogical table (Shirley, 164).

The map includes both modern and ancient names for cities and sites across the isles. In the bottom left is a clever table that lists the number of towns, churches, parishes, rivers, bridges, and other features in each county.

The Reformation and the states of this map  

As noted in Van Den Broecke, there are three states of the map, which have to do with the title of James I and VI at the top of the family tree. This is the second state of the map. The states are as follows:

  • 1A: James’ medallion on the tree reads, “Jacobus Magnae Britanniae, Franciae, et Hiberniae Rex,” while a dedication on both sides of the medallion embellishes the title further to call James the “Most Invincible Ruler of Great Britain, France, and Ireland.”
  • 1B: A slip is pasted over the dedication to James I. The text on the slip reads "Unum qua ad Dominum Britannia tota redisti, Una tibi ô redeat sic quoque prisca fides". 
  • 2: Dedication removed and the circle below now reads "1603 Iacobus Magnæ Britanniæ Rex".

The Latin translation of the phrase included with state 1B is indicative of the religio-political climate that fueled these changes. It translates as, “You, Britain, who have come together wholly under one Ruler, May you also return to one ancient faith.”

It is true that James’ ascendance to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 meant that Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland all now had one ruler. Additionally, James’ mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had been married to King Francis II of France, who briefly ruled before dying of an ear infection. The claim to rule France, however, was a convention that English rulers had adopted since 1340 and which they would continue to use until 1801.

James ruled over a Protestant England, but this was a recent shift. Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) created the Church of England as part of his attempt to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This development thrust him to the forefront of the Protestant Reformation, which saw many worshipers across Europe leave the Catholic Church for a variety of reasons. The status of England’s faithful was thus pushed into an uproar for the next few decades. Henry’s son, Edward VI, was raised as, and ruled as (r. 1547-1553), a Protestant. His half-sister, and Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary I, had been raised a devout Catholic and she sought to undo the changes to the Church that her father and brother had enacted. She died in 1558, however, which brought her half-sister, Elizabeth, to the throne.

Elizabeth ruled England as a Protestant for over forty years (r. 1558-1603). She never married and had no children. This meant that her successor was likely to be James, already King of Scotland, and son of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin and a Catholic. James had been baptized a Catholic in December 1566. Mary, unpopular among her largely Protestant nobles, was compelled to abdicate in favor of her son when he was only thirteen months old. James was taken from his mother, who never saw him again, and thereafter was raised in the Protestant Church of Scotland, the Kirk.

Vrients lived and worked in Antwerp, part of the Spanish Netherlands. It had remained Catholic. Publishing a laudatory dedication to a Protestant king was likely to alienate possible customers in Spain, Italy, and other Catholic areas. To mitigate this, Vrients created another dedication and pasted it on—state 1B. Later, he removed the dedication entirely, leaving only the medallion with James’ name on it. This, too, was altered, leaving James as ruler only of Great Britain, not of Catholic Ireland or France (state 2).

The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (or "Theater of the World") is widely considered to be the first modern atlas, meaning that this was the first published set of uniform maps with supporting text gathered in book form. Previous bound map collections exist, for example the Italian Lafreri atlases, but these were sets of maps selected and bound together on demand. The Theatrum, in contrast, was the best available summary of sixteenth-century cartographic knowledge, covering much of the exploration of the world in the century following the discovery of America. 

The atlas was first published in 1570 in Antwerp. Ortelius’ atlas outperformed later competing atlases from other cartographic luminaries like the De Jode and the Mercator families. The broad appeal of the work is demonstrated by the array of languages in which the atlas appeared: in addition to Latin, the atlas was published with text in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English. Between 1570 and 1612, at least 31 editions of the atlas were published in seven languages. The editions grew over time, with the first edition having 70 maps on 53 sheets, and the 1612 edition having 167.

At the time of its publication, the Theatrum was the most expensive book ever produced. Ortelius created all the maps personally, hand drawing the rough sketches. Those drawings were then interpreted into prints by his engravers Frans Hogenberg, Ambrosius Arsenius, and Ferdinand Arsenius. 

After Ortelius's death in 1598, the copper plates for his atlas passed to his heirs. They, in turn, sold the collection to Jan Baptist Vrients (1522-1612) in 1601. Vrients added new maps and published the atlas until his own death in 1612. Vrients's widow then sold the plates to the Moretus brothers, who were the successors of Christoffel Plantin. Recent research has unearthed examples of the atlas with maps dated to 1640.

Reference
R.W. Shirley (1991) Early Printed Maps of the British Isles 1477-1650, Antique Atlas Publications, p. 112-113; A. Kelly "Maps of the British Isles, England and Wales, and Ireland", p. 221-238, in Van den Broecke, van der Krogt & Meurer (eds.) "Abraham Ortelius and the First Atlas". KAP
Abraham Ortelius Biography

Abraham Ortelius is perhaps the best known and most frequently collected of all sixteenth-century mapmakers. Ortelius started his career as a map colorist. In 1547 he entered the Antwerp guild of St Luke as afsetter van Karten. His early career was as a business man, and most of his journeys before 1560, were for commercial purposes. In 1560, while traveling with Gerard Mercator to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted, largely by Mercator’s influence, towards a career as a scientific geographer. From that point forward, he devoted himself to the compilation of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), which would become the first modern atlas.

In 1564 he completed his “mappemonde", an eight-sheet map of the world. The only extant copy of this great map is in the library of the University of Basel. Ortelius also published a map of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, prior to 1570.

On May 20, 1570, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum first appeared in an edition of 70 maps. By the time of his death in 1598, a total of 25 editions were published including editions in Latin, Italian, German, French, and Dutch. Later editions would also be issued in Spanish and English by Ortelius’ successors, Vrients and Plantin, the former adding a number of maps to the atlas, the final edition of which was issued in 1612. Most of the maps in Ortelius' Theatrum were drawn from the works of a number of other mapmakers from around the world; a list of 87 authors is given by Ortelius himself

In 1573, Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the title of Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. In 1575 he was appointed geographer to the king of Spain, Philip II, on the recommendation of Arias Montanus, who vouched for his orthodoxy (his family, as early as 1535, had fallen under suspicion of Protestantism). In 1578 he laid the basis of a critical treatment of ancient geography with his Synonymia geographica (issued by the Plantin press at Antwerp and republished as Thesaurus geographicus in 1596). In 1584 he issued his Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, a Parergon (a series of maps illustrating ancient history, sacred and secular). Late in life, he also aided Welser in his edition of the Peutinger Table (1598).