John Speed (1552–1629) was a historian and cartographer, whose maps of English counties are often found framed in homes throughout the United Kingdom.
He was born at Farndon, Cheshire, and went into his father's tailoring business where he worked until he was about 50. While working in London, his knowledge of history led him into learned circles and he joined the Society of Antiquaries where his interests came to the attention of Sir Fulke Greville, who subsequently made Speed an allowance to enable him to devote his whole attention to research. As a reward for his earlier efforts, Queen Elizabeth granted him the use of a room in the Custom House. It was with the encouragement of William Camden that he began his Historie of Great Britaine, which was published in 1611. Although Speed probably had access to historical sources that are now lost to us he certainly used the work of Saxton and Norden, his work as a historian is considered mediocre and secondary in importance to his map-making, of which his most important contribution is probably his town plans, many of which provide the first visual record of the British towns they depict.
His atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was published in 1610/11 and contained the first set of individual county maps of England and Wales besides maps of Ireland [5 in all] and a general map of Scotland. Most, but not all, of the county maps have town plans on them; those showing a Scale of Passes being the places he had mapped himself. Just before his death in 1627 Speed published A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World which was the first world atlas produced by an Englishman. There is a fascinating text describing the areas shown on the back of the maps in English although a rare edition of 1616 of the British maps has a Latin text - this is believed to have been produced for the Continental market. Much of the engraving was done in Amsterdam at the workshop of his friend Judocus Hondius.
In 1611, he also published The genealogies recorded in the Sacred Scriptures according to euery family and tribe with the line of Our Sauior Iesus Christ obserued from Adam to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a biblical genealogy, reprinted several times during the 17th century.
John Speed is buried with his wife in St Giles-without-Cripplegate church within the Barbican Estate in the City of London. A memorial to John Speed was also erected behind the altar of the church. According to the church's web site "[his was] one of the few memorials [in the church] that survived the bombing" of London during The Blitz of 1940-1941.... The web site also notes that "[t]he cast for the niche in which the bust is placed was provided by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, of which John Speed was a member."
John Speed was a seventh generation ancestor of John Speed, a judge, of Farmington, now a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky; Joshua Fry Speed, his son, befriended Abraham Lincoln upon his arrival in Springfield, Illinois, who in turn appointed Joshua's brother, James Speed, to the post of Attorney General of the United States.
Memorial to John Speed, St Giles-without-Cripplegate
The River Cherwell (bottom left), Magdalen Bridge (left), and Christ Church Meadow (top left) are marked on John Speed's map of 1605. Headington Hill and Marston are off the left hand side of the map.
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