Cambridge in the sixteenth century

I love maps. I often start planning a book by studying a map of the setting. Shown here is the map of Cambridge in 1572 that I used in the writing of Death by Disputation. It comes from the Civitates orbis terrarum (Cities of the world), by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, published in Cologne in 1572. I found it at Wikimedia Commons. The yellow circle marks Bene’t College, which was the nickname used for Corpus Christi College until fairly recently. That’s where my Thomas Clarady and the real Christopher Marlowe lived and studied. (Tom would have said Bene’t, but I said Corpus Christi throughout, for clarity.)


The sixteenth century was an age of discovery; for Europeans, anyway. Expanding the known world meant making lots and lots of maps. Queen Elizabeth and her wise counselor, Lord Burghley, realized that England needed maps as well.  They encouraged Christopher Saxton to make maps of all the English counties. His Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales was finished in 1579.

In 1593, the Privy Council authorized John Norden to travel through the country “to make more perfect descriptions, charts, and maps.” Local JPs were requested to help him. He published a description of Middlesex that first year. Norden had a lifelong dream of making a complete survey of the country, shire by shire: the Speculum Britanniae, which you can download in pdf format if you like. Norden was described as “poor but honest,” unable to attract a great patron to aid him as Saxton had. Norden struggled along, spending 1000 marks of his own money, growing poorer and going into debt. Queen Elizabeth and King James in turn gave him bits of help, like paid surveying work., but what Norden loved was “the delightful learned vagabondage.” (Who doesn’t?) His maps were the first to show roads and they had marginal numbers along the sides to enable one to find things.

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