Heywood in Saxton's Elizabethan Map

Frontispiece to Saxton's Atlas.
Royal court officials during the reign of Elizabeth I recognised the need and importance of good national maps. During the early 1570s they commissioned Yorkshireman Christopher Saxton (1543-1610) to survey the whole of England and Wales. This was a huge task, especially given the limited means available to him, but Saxton had a lifelong enthusiasm and understanding of map-making.

Saxton's atlas was completed during 1577-78 and included of a general map of England and Wales, 24 maps of individual counties, and ten maps of groups of counties. This was the first national atlas of any country, and it set a new standard for accuracy and decorative detail and provided the basis for subsequent county maps for well over a century.

The southeast corner of his map of Lancashire provides a rare look at Heywood and surrounds during the Elizabethan era. Heywood is marked by a building, representing Heywood Hall, and is labelled ‘Hawood chap’, referring to the chapel that was later rebuilt as St Luke’s. Symbols of single buildings defined halls and villages on the map, while larger towns such as Bury and Rochdale were represented by groups of buildings, often with a church spire. The nearby hills are pictorially defined to create an impression of topography rather than giving precise information on location and altitude.

Saxton's map of Lancashire, 1577.

Detail from Saxton's Lancashire map, showing 'Hawood' (centre) and surrounds.

The names of local towns, villages and halls in this map are familiar, including Bury, Ashworth, Hopwood and Heaton. Others are still familiar even if the spelling is not (there was no such thing as standardised spelling in those days). These include:
- Gryselhurst (Gristlehurst)
- Aytenfelde (Edenfield)
- Shay (Shaw)
- Chaterton (Chadderton)
- Myddleton (Middleton)
- Mylneraw (Milnrow)
- Lyttlebrugh (Littleborough)
- Rochedale (Rochdale)
- Strangewes (Strangeways)
- Howcolme (Holcombe)
The course of the River Roch is quite inaccurately marked on the map, and is labelled as ‘roche flud’. Flud was a term for river, derived from the Middle English flod, meaning ‘to flow’, and which is also the basis for the word ‘flood’.

Making the map
The principles of mapping were not fully understood until the mid-15th century, and the idea of a new national survey and map of Britain took root in the mid-16th century. The Benedictine monk Matthew Paris had produced a map of Britain in about 1250 but, as can be seen below, it was somewhat lacking in modern accuracy.

Map of Britain in 1250, by Matthew Paris.

The Italian invention of printing maps from copper plates in 1473 was a huge step forward for cartography, while advances in draftsmanship and surveying helped the Dutch and Flemish to become master mapmakers by the late 1500s. The Dutch cartographer Gerard Mercator published a detailed map of the British Isles in 1564. The German cartographer Sebastian Munster produced a map of Britain in 1552, which showed much improvement on Paris’ effort but was still not quite right.

Munster's 1552 map of Britain.

Saxton might have drawn upon earlier material, but much of his work appears to have been completed through personal field observation, assisted by locals telling him the names of the towns and villages he saw from his survey vantage points. The method of survey used was probably an early system of triangulation. His maps were then engraved by some of the best engravers of the time, all of them Dutch or Flemish. The Lancashire map was engraved by Remigius Hogenberg in 1577.

Saxton's general map of England and Wales, while still not accurate by modern standards, was the best yet produced at the time.

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