In the second part of his two part post Joseph Massey, Team Assistant, continues to explore how the concept of ‘Great Britain’ intrigued Jacobean cartographers, historians, poets and playwrights.

Speed includes images of ancient Britains in Chapter 7 of his History, which focuses on ‘the portraitures of the ancient Britanes, of their nakednesse, painting and figuring their bodies’. The engravings are copies of Theodor de Bry’s engravings of Picts from the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot’s ‘A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia’. Harriot included the engravings to show that ‘the Inhabitants of the great Bretannie have bin in times past as sauvage as those of Virginia.’ As Speed claimed that the Picts were just an offshoot of the Britains, he decided that these engravings would do for his book as well.

black and white drawings of ancient British people; one a man and one a woman both standing
The Ancient Britains shown in John Speed’s ‘The History of Great Britaine‘ (first published 1611-1612, this edition published 1650). Large Modern History P-0 SPE. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Speed wished to show ‘our glorious and gorgeous Britaines, some general draughts of our poore and rude Progenitors’. He points out that they were naked except for their tattoos and piercings and cites his sources like a good historian. The engravings show a man and a woman. Both are naked with nothing to protect their modesty with tattoos covering their bodies. The man has tattoos of animal faces over his chest, pelvis and knees. The woman has stars and a crescent moon on her torso, a sun over her stomach, and flora and fauna covering the rest of her body. The man holds a spear and sword, with a large sword hanging from a chain around his waist, and a dripping, severed head in his right hand while another decapitated head lies by his feet. The woman also holds a spear and has a sword hanging from a chain around her waist.

Speed describes the ancient British people as ‘meerely barbarous’ and he has little to say about them in his History, as they are ‘so farre cast into the mistie darknesse of obscuritie and oblivion, that there is no hope left us, so lately born, to discover them’; until Roman writers came along to record more information, ‘wee shall wander, as without a guide, and shall seeme to heape more rubbish upon former ruines.’ As such, Speed does not attempt to draw many connections between ancient Britain and the Great Britain of the early seventeenth century.

The Theatre is dedicated to James VI & I and describes him not only as King of Great Britain, but as ‘inlarger and uniter of the British Empire; restorer of the British name’. It begins with a map of contemporary Great Britain with vistas of Edinburgh and London, followed by a map of Great Britain ‘as it was devided in the tyme of the Englishe Saxons especially during their Heptarchy’; Scotland is divided between the kingdom of the Scots and the kingdom of the Picts. In the History, Speed explains that this former division demonstrates Britain’s ‘greatnesse’, as it ‘in times past sustained at once no lesse than eleven Kings in their royall estates, all of them wearing Crownes, and commanding great powers.’

black and white map of Scotland
The map of Scotland in John Speed’s ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine‘ (1611-1612). The borders are decorated with engravings of James VI & I, his wife and sons. Whitaker Collection 9 Fol. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Speed’s Anglo-centric perspective is quickly apparent. Maps and descriptions of the counties of England, Wales and Ireland take up most of the atlas, with England overwhelmingly receiving more attention. Scotland, unfortunately, gets the short straw, with only one map of the entire country and just two pages of text describing it. Speed did have an excuse for this oversight: ‘I entended to describe it [Scotland], had I not beene happily prevented by a learned Gentleman of that Nation, who hath most exactly begunne, and gone through the greatest difficulties thereof’. A margin note identifies the ‘learned gentleman’ as Timothy Pont.

Pont had travelled Scotland extensively, compiling exactly the kind of information Speed needed; however, Pont may have died around the time of the Theatre’s publication. Speed claimed that it was his ‘chiefe desire’ to cover Scotland properly and that he would do so if ‘others should hap to faile, and my crazy aged bodie will give leave’. It was not to be. Speed’s inclusion of portrait likenesses of the royal family on his map of Scotland may have been an attempt to ameliorate any hurt feelings.

When James VI & I failed to secure a proper union of England and Scotland, he glossed over the divide with the all-encompassing name ‘Great Britain’. John Speed followed the king’s example, claiming that his atlas covered the ‘Empire of Great Britain’ while continuing to divide it according to the pre-existing boundaries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and giving England most attention. This seems to have been as much unity as the people of the British Isles were willing to accept: an “in name only” union that pleased the king but, they hoped, would allow them to carry on much as before.