Elizabethan: John Norden, cartographer

I love maps. I spend a lot of time looking at them as I write, so I might as well blog about them. Today we’ll look at one of my favorite lesser-known Elizabethans, John Norden, surveyor, cartographer, and writer of devotional literature.

A good grounding in groundwork

A bit of Norden’s map of Essex

John Norden  (c.1547–1625) was a gentleman from Somerset who took two degrees from Oxford in the mid-sixteenth century. He became a surveyor, which one would think would have been a decent job in those days. Henry kicked the church out of England, after which Elizabeth kept the peace for 45 years, making it possible for a lot of land to change hands over the course of the century.

Surveyors did more or less what they do today: they measured fields, counted assets, and studied records to determine holdings and details of leases. In the sixteenth century, the surveyor would also convene manorial courts so he could question tenants in person about current and customary leases and other land-related rights.

It’s interesting that Norden felt it advisable to get a masters degree for this career. It attests to the increasing professionalization of intellectual work over the course of the sixteenth century. You wanted a university man, a specialist, to survey your estate, not your cousin Sir Joe of Wherever. He’d need geometry and astronomy, naturally. He’d also have to be fluent in Latin and perhaps even French. I don’t know if he spent any time at an Inn of Court or Chancery, but he must have been able to navigate a variety of legal documents, so it would have been a sensible choice.

He yearned to wander

Norden settled in Middlesex with his wife and two sons, about whom I have no further information. They must have been able to get along without the pater familias, however, because Norden traveled much of the time.

A bit of Norden’s map of Middlesex. Note that London is just a narrow band hugging the Thames. The red circle surrounds Paddington and Hyde Park, for perspective.

He was in Plymouth when Antonio, the defeated King of Portugal came to England with his retainers seeking support. Norden rode with them to London and was greatly stimulated by their many intelligent questions along the way. They wanted to know everything about the country through which they rode, including the etymology of names of towns.

Those inquisitive Portuguese planted an idea in Norden’s fertile mind which he struggled to bring to fruition for the rest of his life. His great dream was to write a comprehensive description of each of the counties of England, including a detailed map.

He might be hailed (although he isn’t) as England’s first gazetteer. Others were compiling histories of counties, like William Lambarde’s Perambulation of Kent. But they didn’t make such beautiful maps.

In 1593 Privy Council authorized Norden to travel through the country “to make more perfect descriptions, charts, and maps.” He carried a letter of authorization requesting assistance from local justices of the peace. He walked the deep and muddy roads, risking illness, sometimes being set upon by outlaws. He talked to farmers and townsfolk about their crafts and customs and copied inscriptions from monuments. He probably did his walking May through September, spending the rest of the year at home writing and drawing his meticulous maps. Between 1591 and 1596, he produced 6 long manuscripts and 10 maps.

What Norden loved was “the delightful learned vagabondage.” His maps were the first to show roads. They had marginal numbers along the sides to enable one to find things and they supplied a simple scale; both novelties imported from the Continent.

Too far ahead of his time

frontispiece_speculum_britPoor Norden never found the support he needed to complete his masterwork. His Speculum Britanniae (Mirror of Britain): the First Parte: an Historicall, & Chorographicall Discription of Middlesex, was published in London in 1593 and the second installment, Speculi Britaniae Pars: the Description of Hartfordshire, appeared in 1598, but that was it for the Mirror. He published a few more maps and some odds and ends, but he couldn’t complete the work without significant support.

The Privy Council rarely extended actual cash. Their idea of support was to encourage other nobles and wealthy persons to pony up. Alas, most opted not to pony. What Norden could have done with Patreon or Kickstarter!

Although I’m not sure how well this sort of appeal would play to a modern audience. Here’s a bit of a note Norden wrote to Lord Burghley, wailing about his lack of backing:

“…both my desires and ability being smothered with the noysom vapours of penurie and obscurytie… and now, after so manie years, and so much sorrowe, I, as one swallowed up of inevitable daungers, yelde fourth my finall imploration of your Lordships’ remembrance of my poore selfe and sillie suite… lingering hope, dismall delaies, and bitter povertie.”

It’s typical of the day, but it didn’t work with Burghley. Nor did it work with Robert Cecil, the Earl of Essex, or King James. Norden continued to do surveying work right up until his death in 1625. He supplemented that income by publishing devotional works, of which he wrote some 24 books. Christian literature remains a solid market, but in those days, there were pitfalls. One of his works became a rock to throw at the Earl of Essex by Lord Cobham, a friend of Robert Cecil’s. That cost poor John a shot at L30/annum, a sufficient sum. You did not want to find yourself anywhere in the hostile zone between Essex and Cecil at the end of the sixteenth century. No sir!

Norden was 400 years too early for crowd-funding and 300 years ahead of the craze for gazetteers, which Wikipedia defines thus: “A gazetteer is a geographical dictionary or directory used in conjunction with a map or atlas. They typically contain information concerning the geographical makeup, social statistics and physical features of a country, region, or continent.” The ones I’ve seendorset-guide-pitt-rivers also have pictures and brief blurbs about historical buildings.

I used the Shell Guide to Dorset, by Michael Pitt-Rivers, years ago when writing my first novel (an historical romance.) It is chock-full of information of all sorts; really fun for armchair traveling. You can find them in big old university libraries like mine, or in antiquarian bookshops, like the Antique Map & Bookshop in Puddletown, Dorset, on whose website I found the photograph.

Another good excuse to browse in old bookstores when traveling…









Kitchen, Frank. 1997. “John Norden (c. 1547-1625): Estate Surveyor, Topographer, County Mapmaker and Devotional Writer.” Imago Mundi, Vol. 49 (1997), pp. 43-61.


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