In a two part post Joseph Massey, Team Assistant, explores how the concept of ‘Great Britain’ hugely intrigued Jacobean cartographers, historians, poets and playwrights.

When James VI, King of Scots, ascended to the English throne as James I, his succession resulted in the Union of the Crowns as England and Scotland now shared a monarch. However, they remained independent kingdoms because the English and Scottish parliaments refused to legislate a formal union. Despite this on 20 October 1604, James declared himself ‘King of Great Britain’—though in reality England and Scotland remained separate countries until 1707.

black and white drawing of James VI & I of England and Scotland standing
James VI & I as shown on the map of Scotland in Speed’s ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain’ (1611-1612). Whitaker Collection 9 Fol., Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many people asked what was Great Britain? What did it mean to be British? Had Great Britain already existed in the distant past or was it a new and unprecedented creation? John Speed (1551/2-1629), a historian, cartographer and savvy businessman, took advantage of the new craze for all things British. In 1611-1612, Speed published two impressive folio volumes which served as companions to one another: ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ and ‘The History of Great Britaine’.

Speed intended the volumes to be treated as one work: the table of contents covers both; parts 1 to 4 are contained in the Theatre, parts 5 to 10 in ‘The History’; and the pagination continues across the two volumes. Many copies of the Theatre and History have been bound together as one book, as Speed intended. ‘The History’ is a history of Great Britain in name only—it is really a history of England, chronicling the reigns of each of England’s monarchs as previous histories, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles had done. Slapping the words ‘Great Britain’ on the title page made it more topical. ‘The History’ was obviously very popular as multiple editions followed the first print run of 500.

The ‘Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ is an atlas, combining maps and topographical descriptions. In his address to the reader, Speed uses the construction of a physical theatre as a metaphor for putting together his volume: it was a great effort ‘to build’ this ‘large and laborious theatre’; he was following in the footsteps of ‘many Maister-builders’ and had ‘laid my building upon other mens foundations’, so he felt unworthy ‘to hew (much lesse to lay) the least stone in so beautiifull a Building’.

black and white drawing of the title page of John Speed's 'The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine' showing five figures standing in arches
The title page of John Speed’s ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ (1611-1612). Whitaker Collection 9 Fol. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Speed explained the purpose of the volume thus: ‘to take a view as well of the outward Body, and Lineaments of the now-flourishing British Monarchy (the Islands) Kingdomes, and Provinces thereof in actuall possession’. Beginning with Britain as a whole he then covers ‘the Shires, Rivers, Cities, and Townes’. Speed was not concerned with the continental territories claimed by the English crown at this time, that is France, or Britain’s colony ‘in the new World of America’, Virginia, ‘whereby the borders of our Soveraignes command and most rightfull title may bee inlarged, & the Gospell of Jesus Christ further preached’.

So, what did Speed mean when he used the word ‘empire’? When we think of the ‘British Empire’ today, we typically think of Victorian maps coloured in pink to show Britain’s overseas possessions, such as Australia, Canada and India. Speed used the word to mean that Great Britain itself was a united, independent realm, an ‘Imperiall Monarchie’; he explains that ‘the British Empire’ contained England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

black and white drawing of British man standing with a spear
The British man shown on the title page of John Speed’s ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ (1611-1612). Whitaker Collection 9 Fol. Image credit Leeds University Library.

What is British about Speed’s ‘Theatre’? The title page conveys an impression of the power of the inhabitants of the ‘Empire of Great Britaine’. It depicts representatives of peoples who had conquered England: a Roman, a Saxon, a Dane and a Norman. Pride of place, however, is given to ‘a Britaine’, representing the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles. The Britain is naked except for a cloak that protects his modesty and a chain wrapped around his neck, arms and waist; he holds a spear in one hand and a shield in another, while a sword hangs from his belt. 

Speed further described and illustrated his thoughts on ancient Britains in ‘The History of Great Britaine’ as we will discover in my next post.