2021 February Book of the Month John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain

John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676)

‘It was without question the greatest Island of the Roman World, and for anything yet certainly known, of all the rest’.

John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 1.


Image  1: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), engraved title page.


John Speed’s work entitled The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, was first published in 1606, with numerous updated versions published in the following years due to its popularity. It is one of these updated volumes that is to be found upon the shelves of the Edward Worth Library, a sweeping masterpiece of cartography, art, geography and history. Published by Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell in London in 1676, the work details the kingdoms of the British Isles, with an exploration in the final chapter to ‘the most famous parts of the world’, such as Asia and South America.[1] At the time of the original publishing, Theatre was the first atlas to be produced in English of the British Isles, making it an invaluable historical resource. The difference in the updated version of the book is that it contains more roads and more accurate distances in the maps of Great Britain, with mapping of more of the Americas and Asia that were previously omitted. Perhaps the most interesting addition that Speed spent a year studying and incorporating into his work is the illustrations of battle sites, brief descriptions and dating of the events, discussed later in this piece.


Image 2: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), map of Virginia and Maryland.


Speed was born in 1552 in Farndon, Cheshire, to John Speed and Elizabeth Cheynye. Having theological interests throughout his life, Speed was most notably associated with Hugh Broughton (1549-1612), who gained recognition as a controversial expositor of the Bible. Broughton’s influence can be seen within Theatre, as Speed includes theological and biblical references throughout. With his father being a relatively wealthy merchant tailor, Speed was able to learn from other prominent contemporaries as well. Before a brief description and analysis of each book, it is important to note that Speed gives the sources and references for his great work as other major scholars and cartographers, as well as his own travels throughout the land. Speed also gives a nod to the great cartographers before him, acknowledging that he is only able to produce this work due to the diligence and products of previous academics, writing that he ‘laid my Building upon other men’s Foundations’.[2]


Image 3: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), detail in map of Italy.


Speed’s Theatre was a continuation of the fashions of the renaissance period. Cartography saw an increase in popularity and production, with rulers commissioning cartographers to present a complete atlas of their empires. The Tudor period was the archetype of this, with Henry VIII’s foreign expert, Jean Rotz, writing a ‘Treatise of Nautical Science’ in 1542. The unprecedented economic growth of the period was matched by the investment in cartography. John Dee (1527-1609) and William Cunningham expanded upon the work of Jean Rotz, with Lord Burghley (1520/21-98) making sure that mapping the realm and the foreign property of the monarch was of the utmost importance under Elizabeth I, leading to Speed’s finest work.


Image 4: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), detail of Saxon kings from the map of Britain.


The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain opens with a brief description of Speed’s native island. Defining Britain as ‘without question the greatest island of the Roman World’, Speed sets his work as a means of propaganda for the Elizabethan rule.[3] This is to be expected, as a theme of many cartographic works of the Tudor period is the glorification of the empire, having been commissioned by members of the royal court. Speed references many earlier authors in his gushing praise of the islands, quoting the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius, sources that he makes great use of in his history of in this book and subsequent ones. Starting from the classical period, with the trading of the Greeks and Romans, the author takes the reader on a journey through the centuries, describing both the early geographic and human history. Speed reports that it was Ptolemy who penned the name Great Britain, with the main island ‘Britain the Great’, and Ireland ‘Britain the Less’.[4] The opening book then continues in its ancient history of the isle, describing the events of the collapse of the Roman Empire. According to Speed, Britain was now ‘laid open and naked to her Enemies, who had long waited an opportunity to lay her waste. Among whom the Picts and Scots, casting a covetous eye upon so rich a prey, daily with inrodes molesting the weary’.[5] The supposed superiority of Speed’s English ancestry is a theme that is promoted in the brief histories of the individual shires and counties in the second chapter and onwards.


Image 5: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), map of England.

The second book opens with what Speed describes as ‘a Brief Description of the Civil Wars, and Battails fought in England, Wales, and Ireland’,[6] yet is a sweeping and detailed account of the previous 500 years of warfare in the isles, covering the first few pages and exhibiting Speed’s prowess in storytelling. An interesting aside is presented to the reader within this, as the author wrestles with the notion of excluding the civil wars from his history due to the damage it has done to the reputation of the empire, before conceding that he has to mark them in for a full history. The descriptions of the battles are in chronological order, with details including the ruler at the time, the number of troops present and the outcome of the conflict. This means it is extremely useful for the contemporary audience, as well as the modern reader and academics.


Image 6: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), map of Scotland.

Speed’s work continues with an analysis of Scotland, beginning with a complimentary overview of the natural landscape. ‘Fair and spacious…furnished with all things befitting a famous Kingdom; both for Air and Soil, Rivers, Woods, Mountains, Fish, Fowl, and Cattle, and Corn so plenteous, that is supplieth therewith other Countries in their want’, it is clear that Speed regards the northern land of Britain as superior in resources.[7] He is equally complimentary about the Scots themselves: ‘The people thereof are of good feature, strong of body, and of couragious mind, and in Wars so venturous, that scarce any service of note hath been performed, but that they were with the first and last in the field. Their Nobility and Gentry are very studious of learning, and all civil knowledge, for which end they not only frequent the three Universities of their own Kingdom (S. Andrews, Glasgo, and Edenburgh, the Nurseries of Piety, and mansions of the sacred Muses) but also much addict themselves to travel into foreign Countries’.[8]


Image 7: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), map of Ireland.


With the final book centred upon Ireland, Speed begins once more with a review of the geography of the land, describing the ‘blessed soil that affords no venomous creatures to retain life’, a reference to Saint Patrick chasing the snakes off the island and acts as a continuation of the theme of folklore.[9] His fascination with the mythological and folklore is previously displayed when writing about Scotland, a theme that permeates the four books, with various tales, such as men hunting salmon on horseback with spears, and an island that floats upon the water in Loch Lomond.


Image  8: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), map of Leinster.


The fourth book highlights the cartographic skills of John Speed, as he maps out an exact Ireland, complete with measurements for each county. For example, when displaying the county of Leinster, he illustrates the chapter with a well annotated and appealing map, with the description of the county stating, ‘The form thereof is triangle, and sides not much unequal: from her South-East unto the West point about 80 miles, from thence to her North-west about 70 miles, and her East-Coast along the Irish Sea-shoar, eighty: the circumference upon two hundred and seventy miles’.[10]


Continuing from Ireland, Speed guides the reader around the world and the extent of the British Empire, giving longitudes, latitudes and an accurate circumference of the globe. As is to be expected, there are some glaring omissions compared to a modern reader’s atlas, due to the ongoing exploration of the known world at the time, most notably with no pages dedicated to Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand and much of the Indonesian and Philippine islands. Another error is that Speed believes that South America, or ‘Terra Magellanica’, is ‘greater than the whole earth besides’.[11] It is these peculiarities that are so curious and engaging for the modern reader, as they are able to read a primary source on the known world in the seventeenth century, viewing the globe through the eyes of an Elizabethan cartographer. It is this sense of escapism in being transported back four centuries that one can enjoy when reading the pages of Speed’s Theatre.


Image 9: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), detail of map of Russia.


Another major theme of Speed’s work centres on the populations of the lands he describes, creating a guide of sorts for his readers. For example, in the third book on Scotland, Speed highlights the Scots’ affinity for travelling to foreign lands to learn further. Scotland’s glorious portrayal dampens quickly, with the author resuming the tour with an analysis of the Western Isles, describing the people inhabiting the remote islands as ‘uncivil, and lacking Religion, they rather live rudely in state of necessity, then as Lords of these portions which God hath allotted them; and with a sufferable case, ignorant of ambition, enjoy those contentments’.[12] This theme continues into the fourth book, in which Speed leaves the relative safety of his native island, travelling to Ireland, in which an even more derogatory portrayal of the ancient Irish people ensues, a barbaric image of a population ‘more rude than the Britains…feed upon the flesh of men…after Victory they drink the blood of the Slain’.[13] Speed’s impression of the islands and Ireland appears to conform to a stereotypical view of the time, yet it is this exaggerated language that has entertained and infuriated audiences for centuries. Indeed, many of Speed’s reports on foreign lands have echoes of Herodotus in the magical stories he transcribes, both preposterous and marvellous. Speed continues the tradition of entertaining audiences as the expense of accuracy and realism. In doing so he provides us with a complex text, which mixes fact with fiction, providing  indeed a ‘Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain’.


Image 10: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), Cambridge dons.



Sources and further reading:

Bendall, Sarah, ‘John Speed (1551/2-1629)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 online).

Caldwell, Anne, ‘Reawakening wonder: how cartography can act as creative research for prose poetry’, New Writing. The International Journal for the Practice an Theory of Creative  Writing 15, issue 4 (2018), 400-415.

Foley, Christopher, ‘John Speed’ in Grove Art Online (2003 online).

Harvey, Paul, D. A., Maps in Tudor England, (British Library, 1993).

Hawkyard, Alisdair, Britain’s Tudor Maps: County by County, (London, 2016).

Tyacke, Sarah and Huddy, John, Christopher Saxton and Tudor map-making (London, 1980).


Text: Mr Charles Watson, TCD M. Phil. In Public History and Cultural Heritage.






[1] Speed, John, Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (London, 1676), Book 4, Chapter 1.4.

[2] Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 1.1.

[3] Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 1, p.1.

[4] Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 1.1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., Book 2, Chapter 1.1.

[7] Ibid., Book 3, Chapter 1.2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., Book 4, Chapter 1.3.

[10] Ibid., Book 4, Chapter 3.2.

[11] Ibid., Book 2, Chapter 2.22.

[12] Ibid., Book 3, Chapter 1.19.

[13] Ibid., Book 3, Chapter 1.1.

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