Early Cartography and How Ossett-born Christopher Saxton Mapped the Counties

What does Cartography have to do with Kirklees, you might ask… well, only that one of the greatest English cartographers of the 16th Century was born in Dewsbury Parish. The story of Christopher Saxton will unfold later, but first I thought it would be good to have a look at the history of map making and how Saxton came to be involved in one of the most important projects of the Elizabethan world.

  • 12 inches – 1 foot,
  • 3 feet -1 yard,
  • 22 yards – 1 chain,
  • 10 chains -1 furlong,
  • 8 furlongs – 1 mile.

…not to mention the rods poles or perches…the things we had to chant in school in the 1950s and little did we know their connection to map-making, though they still stick in the mind. But already we get ahead of ourselves! Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

Early Surveying and Mapping

Map-making has been around for longer than most of us would imagine. Around 2,500 BC, the Egyptians made ground plans of property using simple tools like set squares, plumb lines and measuring rods and string lines. They could even draw maps which accurately delineated towns, roads, rivers and coastlines. However, surveying tools did not improve much for a couple of thousand years and attempts at drawing world maps also depended upon exploration beyond the countries they already knew.

Reconstruction of Eratostene’s Mappa Mundi
18th Century reconstructed Dioptra

The Greeks eventually recognised that the earth was not flat, but spherical, and they were able to make calculations of the earth’s circumference, but still nobody had been all the way round it. A Greek philosopher called Anaximander, who died about 546 BC and whose pupil may have been Pythagoras, is credited with drawing the first map of the world, representing the entire inhabited lands that the Greeks knew about. Maps of the whole world as it then known, were called Mappa Mundi and one by Eratostene (see illustration) was compiled around 250 BC, and stretched from India in the east to the British Isles in the west.

Advances in surveying were very slow and measuring tools remained simple.

Then, around 100 BC, Heron of Alexandria described the principle of a “dioptra“, the forerunner of the “theodolite“, which enabled horizontal and vertical angles to be measured.

Claudius Ptolemy (died about 170 AD)

In the second century AD, a Roman citizen named Claudius Ptolemy lived in the Province of Alexandria, in Egypt, which was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy devoted his time to the study of astronomy and mathematics. He devised astronomical models and mathematical tables that would enable him to compute past or future positions of the planets. He also created a star catalogue with forty-eight constellations. In fact measurement was his “raison d’être”, all kinds of measurement.

All this seems a little far off the drawing of the first county map of Yorkshire, but Ptolemy’s pioneering work also included the study of cartography, or map-making. His next well known work was a “Guide to drawing the Earth”, known as the “Geographia”.

Claudius Ptolemy World Map – Published with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland (click to enlarge)

In “Geographia”, Ptolemy improved on the work of other scientists of the Greek and Roman world. In the second part of his work, he provided a catalogue of about 8,000 localities that he had collected from others. This was the biggest database of the time, and 6,300 of the localities had co-ordinates assigned, so they could be placed on a grid that spanned the globe and made the basis of a world map. Finally, Ptolemy gave detailed explanations of how to draw maps of the whole world and of the Roman provinces using such co-ordinates. The task of the Geographer was, in his words:

…to make a survey of the earth in its just proportions…the exact position of any particular place and the positions of the various countries, how they are situated with regard to one another, how situated as regards the whole.

Claudius Ptolemy

When he died, Claudius Ptolemy’s “Geographia” was lodged in the library in Alexandria and there it remained, possibly forgotten, for more than 1000 years.

Roman Measurement

Around the time of Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century AD and during their occupation of Britain, the Romans conducted the first complete survey of the parts of the Islands that they controlled, which was based on Ptolemaic methods.

To measure distances, the Romans counted marching paces, or strides. A double pace was 5 Roman feet and a standard foot was the measurement of the foot on the statue of Marcus Cossutius in Rome.  A “mille” or Roman mile was 1000 of these double paces.

One and a half Roman feet was a Roman cubit. Two Roman cubits (3 Roman feet) were later to become a Saxon “Gerd” or yard, so a Roman mile (5000 Roman feet) was 1,667 Saxon gerds, rather shorter than a modern mile.

The Romans also made foot rulers divided into 12ths called  “unchiae “or inches.

The Compass

From the 3rd or 4th Century AD, the Chinese knew how to design very early compasses, each made from a magnetised needle set in a floating cork, which would always sit in a north-south in orientation. The natural progression from this was to set the needle above a compass card on which were marked the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west with their subdivisions. The compass became the most useful early instrument for navigation…but the compass was not used in the west by land surveyors for another thousand years.

Map Making in the Renaissance Period

A Compass Rose on a printed map 1375

Fast-forward to the 1450s and the “Gutenberg Press”, the printing press designed by Johannes Gutenberg. Of course, it wasn’t the first printing press – the Chinese had been printing for centuries, but it was Gutenberg’s invention that revolutionised the way that knowledge was disseminated in the West.

And guess what? Ptolemy’s work on cartography was now rediscovered in Alexandria and copies of it were printed and circulated throughout Europe, beginning in 1472. In the late 15th Century there were many new centres of learning, the Universities, where the study of science, astronomy, mathematics and surveying now proliferated. Almost magically, there occurred the perfect coming-together of new surveying techniques and instrumentation, advanced mathematics and the printing press…and Ptolemy’s work became central to the advancement of the science of cartography. Maps of all kinds quickly became both accessible and popular.

Portolan Map of the Black Sea by Battista Agnese

The Spanish and Portuguese used Ptolemaic methods to map out their “New World” discoveries. They used Portolan charts for navigation, which were nautical charts that accurately depicted coastlines and harbours. Portolan charts were created by using a mariner’s compass to plot position in relation to the sun’s altitude.

Spaniard, Diogo Ribeiro, was one of a group of cartographers who were providing Portolan maps for Spanish naval exploration. Ribeiro became Royal Cosmographer to the King of Spain and “Master in the art of creating maps, astrolabes, and other instruments”. He also created the Padrón Real, which was the map template used on all Spanish sailing ships and which he constantly improved, as knowledge increased.

He also made a world map, the Carta Universal, in 1527, although the coastlines of the Americas are not finished, as exploration had not yet defined them accurately.

Ribeiro Carte Universal 1527

Gemma Frisius

But land surveying needed to catch up. In 1533 a Dutchman named Gemma Frisius (a physician, mathematician, philosopher, cartographer and instrument maker) published his treatise on triangulation in surveying. 

The so-called “triangulation”,  method required a known distance between the first two survey points, forming a baseline. This can be measured using rods or chains of known length.

From each end of the baseline, angles are measured to the next position, using a theodolite, so forming a triangle with a known baseline and two known angles. From that information, by using trigonometry, the position of the third point on the triangle can be determined.

After the first baseline measurement, no further distances are required. Everything is worked out by triangulation, using mathematics. Other scientists including Sebastian Münster, embraced the idea of triangulation and the method quickly caught on.

Everything you measure must be measured by triangles.

Sebastian Münster

With Ptolemy’s methods, plus triangulation and new surveying equipment, map-making came on in leaps and bounds.

Tudor Cartography

John Dee

Queen Mary Tudor had commissioned an Atlas of maps to be made during her reign and these would almost certainly have used triangulation in their construction. After Mary’s death, her Atlas was presented to Queen Elizabeth…but it was emblazoned with the coat of arms of Mary’s husband, King Philip of Spain, Elizabeth’s enemy. It was clear that Elizabeth must commission new maps.

Queen Elizabeth I

There were many men of science to whom Elizabeth could turn for advice, one of whom was already in her service. John Dee was a Tudor mathematician who had entered Cambridge University in 1542 to study Greek, Latin, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. He also had a belief in astrology, which was not uncommon at a time when other unusual subjects, like alchemy were commonly studied.

Dee graduated in 1546 from Cambridge and decided to travel around Europe. He eventually arrived in Louvain, Belgium on 24th June 1548, where he had the opportunity to study mathematics and cartography with both Gemma Frisius and Gerardus Mercator. Mercator, the Flemish cartographer, was the man who devised the cylindrical projection of maps that was used by sailors and he also described a way of projecting a globe in two dimensions. After working closely with Frisius and Mercator, John Dee returned to England in 1552, bringing one of Mercator’s navigational instruments with him.

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Dee was engaged to teach her mathematics and he became her science advisor. As her tutor, he was also in an ideal position to influence Queen Elizabeth in other ways, especially to inform her about the progress being achieved in cartography. His friend Mercator had published his first map of the British Isles on eight sheets in 1564, but there were a number of errors and omissions. It was time for a proper survey.

John Rudd – Vicar of Dewsbury and Rector of Mirfield

Elizabethan Cartographer

We come now to Dewsbury, Yorkshire, where, in about 1554, John Rudd (1498 – 1579), a graduate of Cambridge University, became the Vicar of Dewsbury and Rector of Thornhill. He also held a stipend of about £33 annually, as a member of the Chapter at Durham Cathedral, a tidy sum in those days.

Rudd was an accomplished cartographer and was known to one of Queen Elizabeth’s most prominent Ministers, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Cecil saw a great advantage to the Queen and her Government of having accurate new maps drafted and preserved. Queen Elizabeth agreed with Cecil and, in 1561, John Rudd was given leave of absence for two years, in order to draw up a new map of England. The Queen herself wrote to the Chapter at Durham, requiring the Chapter to pay all Rudd’s expenses for the project.

Rudd was already in his 60s and it seems he may not have completed his task, as no Rudd maps from this period have survived. However, during those years, Rudd is thought to have taught his young apprentice, Christopher Saxton, the skills of surveying and map-making.

Christopher Saxton – Born Ossett (Dewsbury Parish)

When Christopher Saxton (c1540-c1610) was born, probably at Sowood in Ossett, the township of Ossett was still in the Parish of Dewsbury. In his youth, he became the assistant and student of the Vicar of Dewsbury Parish, John Rudd. Saxton later settled in the hamlet of Dunningley, in West Ardsley (Woodkirk), just off the Dewsbury to Leeds Road, not so far from his birthplace of Ossett. The Saxton name is recorded there in 1567.

Saxton must have developed all the right kind of qualities to become a good surveyor in the field, including the ability to measure accurately, the understanding of mathematics to make calculations, health and stamina, diligence and determination. Seeing these qualities in Saxton, John Rudd may well have introduced him to William Cecil as his likely successor… perhaps Saxton had already surpassed his master in his skills as a cartographer.

William Cecil centre, Thomas Seckforde centre left with tall hat.

During the early 1570s, William Cecil himself introduced Saxton to Thomas Seckforde, a prominent lawyer, who was “Master of the Queen’s Requests” Seckforde was persuaded to become Christopher Saxton’s sponsor and paymaster…what an incredible achievement for a young man, of Yeoman stock, from a small township in West Yorkshire!

In 1574, Christopher Saxton was given a grant of land in recognition of work that he had already done, perhaps the work that he had carried out with John Rudd. Saxton was now commissioned by William Cecil to make the first detailed maps of all the counties of England and Wales. In March 1576, the Queen’s Privy Council issued an order to provide a “placard” (document) to Christopher Saxton, which was signed by Cecil and ten other Councillors:

A placart to Christopher Saxton, servant to Mr Seckforde, to be assisted in all places that he will come, for the view of mete places, to describe certain counties in Cartes (maps), being thereunto appointed by Her Majesty’s Bill under her signet.

This placard would be shown to dignitaries of market towns when Saxton travelled around the country, to allow him access to the places he needed to measure and to ensure he was given the assistance he required.

Saxton’s Methods

Frontispiece of a Saxton Atlas

No primary source of information survives on how Saxton conducted his surveys and complied his maps. To have completed the surveys of 52 counties in little more than three years, including the drafting of the maps, was an amazing feat. He may have had access to earlier work, perhaps the work of John Rudd, and would understand Ptolemy’s methods, as he used the strict Ptolemaic ratio. It is thought that the set points of the original Roman survey, detailing the positions of Roman Towns and Monasteries, using Ptolemy’s methods, may have provided a starting point.

The best surveying tools would have been readily available. In the 1500s, Protestant Flemish instrument makers and metal engravers had come to London to escape the persecution they were suffering on the continent and they taught English craftsmen, like Humphray Cole, a goldsmith and engraver, who became the leading instrument maker of the time. Cole’s theodolites would become known to William Cecil and it is likely that Saxton would be supplied with Cole’s finest instruments.

It is believed that Saxton must have used the triangulation method described by Frisius. High points were required to take the sightings and there were many ruined castles and abbeys, church steeples and hilltops in England and Wales available. Added to these existing high points were the beacon hills. Queen Elizabeth was so worried about being invaded, that she ordered a system of beacons to be lit at high points, throughout Britain, to raise the alarm at first sight of an invasion, as they did during the Spanish Armada. Each beacon site was visible to the next ones in various directions and beacon wardens were appointed to guard the beacon sites, to make sure that an emergency wasn’t signalled by accident. The beacon sites would be perfect for using the triangulation method of surveying.

On 10th July 1576, a further, more detailed placard was issued in respect of Wales, which provides strong evidence that Saxton used triangulation:

An Open Lettre to all Justices of Peace, mayors and others etc within the several Shieres of Wales. That where the bearer hereof, Christofer Saxton, is appointed by Her Majestie under her signe and signet to set forth and describe Coates (Cartes) in particularlie all the shieres in Wales. That the said Justices shall be aiding and assisting unto him to see him conducted to any tower, castle, highe place or hill to view that countrey, and that he may be accompanied with ii or iii honest men such as do best know the countrey for the better accomplishment of that service, and that at his departure from any towne or place that he hath taken the view of said towne, so set forth a horseman that can speke both welshe and englishe to safe conduct him to the next market towne, etc.

Saxton completed his survey of England in 1577 and Wales in 1578. Proof copies of the maps were sent to William Cecil, who had them bound into a volume called an “Atlas Factice” in which he made spelling corrections in his own hand.

In July 1577, Queen Elizabeth granted to Saxton the exclusive rights to publish his maps for a period of 10 years. Originally printed by the sheet, the maps were eventually incorporated into the “Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales” published in 1579, the first atlas of any country, with the larger Yorkshire map as a folded sheet to enable a similar scale to others.

One of the best preserved copies of Saxton’s maps is kept at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and it is one of the finest hand coloured editions to survive. In 1972 these maps were reproduced in a book, which is readily available to buy from well known booksellers and internet auction sites. Mine cost just £3. Unfortunately, I have not found any Saxton maps in the public domain or with license to publish on the web. Saxton’s Maps formed the basis for improved maps published in the 17th Century by such cartographers as Speed and Blaeu. Featured here is the 1662 version of the West Riding map by Blaeu, from the National Library of Scotland.

West Riding Map by Blaeu, 1662
Published with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland

Christopher Saxton married and had three children. He continued to make maps and settled in Dunningley, in West Ardsley. John Dee, who became a warden of Manchester’s Collegiate Church, engaged him to survey Manchester’s parish boundaries in 1596.

Saxton’s son, Robert, born in 1585, was his father’s assistant in 1601 and drew a map of Snapethorpe in Wakefield when it was surveyed by his father. Robert was also commissioned to survey Sandal Magna, Wakefield, in 1607. 

Christopher Saxton died in about 1610 aged about 70. His work inspired other cartographers. John Speed’s Yorkshire maps were copied from Saxton’s county map of 1577, including his mistakes, with some added battle sites and Wapentake boundaries; the latter to aid government administration. Speed obviously didn’t have the financial resources to make a new survey. Jan Blaeu’s maps of 1645 were also based mainly on Saxton with added precision.

It was almost 100 years after the publication of Saxton’s maps before more accurately surveyed maps were made by John Ogilby and roads began to be included. By this time, surveying distances were measured in chains, and a surveyor’s measuring chain was 22 yards long. Just sayin’.

Revised and updated Sept 2023