This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine
Scotland looked a bit like a sock, according to the makers of the Gough Map, one of the most important maps made in the Middle Ages, but their depiction of the rest of the British Isles was remarkably accurate.
As a specialist in medieval illuminated manuscripts, my excursions to the Middle Ages are normally undertaken in a library, but in 2007 I used this extraordinary map to make a series of journeys around medieval Britain for a BBC Four television series. At first glance, the Gough Map is unassuming, hard to decipher, even baffling. It is faded and rubbed, stained in places, damaged here and there by damp, and sometimes illegible. Oriented towards the east, and with Scotland in the form of a misshapen foot, even Britain’s outline is unfamiliar. But rotate the map 45 degrees and its contours become recognisable.
One of the earliest and by far the most accurate maps of Britain, small details reveal that it was probably made around 1360. The first stone of the wall that the map shows around Coventry was laid in 1355, so the map was probably made after this date; and as the town now called Queenborough is labelled ‘Sheppey’, it was probably made before 1366, when this name changed.
An astonishing amount of information is recorded in inscriptions and images. Settlements are marked according to their size: villages and small towns are indicated by simple houses or churches, and larger towns and cities have walls enclosing clusters of buildings. Seas, lakes, rivers, forests and mountain ranges are there, and notes indicate good hunting spots and warn that the Scottish highlands are inhabited by wolves. There are even sites of pseudo-historical interest, like the spot off the coast of Dartmouth where, according to the legend, Brutus (the great-grandson of Aeneas) landed with the Trojans before founding London.
One of the most important features of the map is the network of red lines that link some places to others with the distances marked in Roman numerals. Indeed, this is the earliest surviving British map that provides such detailed information. But it might not have been the first to do so, for the Gough Map was probably copied from a now-lost map made c1290.
Given the resources required to produce such maps, and the motivation required to do so, it’s likely that both were made for royal patrons, who would undoubtedly have strategic reasons for wanting such a tool. If the Gough Map’s parent was made for King Edward I as he struggled to subjugate Wales and Scotland, then the Gough Map itself could have been produced for his grandson, Edward III.
Although the Gough Map is of limited value in navigating the motorways of modern Britain, its landmarks are reassuringly and Hadrian’s Wall – described as murus pictorum, ‘the wall of the Picts’ – stretches from Tynemouth to Solway Firth. Ancient woods are marked on the map, including Sherwood Forest, symbolised on the map by a pair of twisting tree trunks. By the time the mapmaker drew this symbol, the giant tree familiar. Its forests, rivers, castles, great cathedrals and parish churches remain important features of the modern landscape, known as ‘the Major Oak’, which still stands at the heart of Sherwood, was already a substantial specimen; according to one tradition, Robin Hood and his merry band used this tree as a hideout. This legend cloaks a darker reality: outlaws did seek refuge in Britain’s forests, but they were not exactly bold advocates for redistributive economics. Dangerous, sometimes even murderous, they posed a major threat to medieval travellers.
It’s likely that the map was made for a royal patron with strategic reasons for wanting such a tool
By the time the Gough Map was made, Wales had been under English rule for some 80 years, but the two routes plotted through it (one curving around the north coast and ending in Aberystwyth, and the other cutting through South Wales from Hereford to St David’s) were both used by Edward I in his campaigns between 1277 and 84. By contrast, no journeys are described through Scotland, which had successfully resisted decades of English aggression. This is undoubtedly why the map’s account of Scotland is so patchy: while the mapmaker could have drawn on informed sources, and even personal knowledge, for England and Wales, his picture of Scotland relied more on unverified tradition and hearsay obscured by generations of antagonism.
How was the map surveyed?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer about the map. It seems that the mapmakers used the measured routes to serve as a framework around which other information could be assembled. The accuracy of the coastline suggests that navigational charts might have been an important source too.
Where is it now?
The Gough Map is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where it is part of their extensive collection of early maps and charts.
How useful a resource is it to medieval historians?
The Gough Map is a vital source of information about medieval British geography, providing us with a snapshot of places and routes in the decade between c1355 and 1366. Because it is so accurate, it reveals much about the skill of English cartographers in this period. It also reveals something of the mentality of its makers, who projected a wide range of interests onto it, from good hunting spots to places of legendary interest.
Who was Gough?
Richard Gough (1735–1809) was an antiquary who devoted himself to writing about British history, monuments, customs and topography. He avidly collected books and manuscripts in his areas of interest, and purchased the Gough Map at an auction in 1774 for a half-crown (worth about £72 today). Gough bequeathed his collection of maps and charts to the Bodleian Library.
The map under the microscope
Five things the Gough Map tells us about medieval Britain
Most (but not all) roads lead to London
London gets top billing in the Gough Map, befitting its position as England’s capital city. With its name written in gold, it is shown with a crenelated gate and a cluster of towers and gabled roofs, the largest of which must be old St Paul’s. Croyden and Barnet, both now absorbed by London’s sprawl, are marked as villages. The capital is a hub for a number of major routes terminating at St Ives, Bristol, St David’s, and Carlisle. Yet the number of routes marking journeys through Lincolnshire and Yorkshire demonstrates that all roads did not lead to London in the 14th century.
York was an economic hub
Like London, York is written in gold on the Gough Map, emphasising its economic and political importance. The map also clearly shows routes running from Cardigan to Chester, Drotwich to Doncaster, and from Boston to Spalding. However, the vital route between London and Dover simply isn’t there, and there are no routes extending into Scotland (unsurprisingly, given the enmity between the two nations at this time). Meanwhile, the two Welsh routes cling to the northern and southern edges of the country. Clearly this map wasn’t designed to describe all of the major thoroughfares in Britain, but the rationale for the routes that are on the map is puzzling. Perhaps the mapmakers only chose to include roads that they believed were measured accurately.
A giant-slaying hero founded London
The right side of the map has suffered from damage caused by damp and the corrosive effects of the green pigment used to tint the sea. An inscription on a cartouche off the coast near Dartmouth is nevertheless legible: “hic Brutus applicuit cum Troinais” (Here landed Brutus with the Trojans). Writing in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth described how “At this time the island of Britain was called Albion. It was uninhabited except for a few giants”. According to Geoffrey, the adventurer Brutus, great-grandson of the heroic Aeneas of Troy, came to England where he defeated the giants, founded London as a New Troy, and established the lineage of British kings. Such legends appealed to the genealogical vanity of Plantagenet kings, so much so that in 1299 Edward I used Geoffrey’s tale to justify his claim to Scotland in a letter to the pope.
The northern seas are full of peril
One of the most enigmatic elements of the Gough Map is an image of a shipwreck near Orkney. The mast is snapped and the rigging is trailing in the water; a survivor clings to a life raft. It is not accompanied by an explanatory inscription, so we are left to wonder, is this an image of a known shipwreck, or is it meant to caution against the perilous waters off the north-east coast of Scotland? It has been suggested that the image might represent the story of Margaret, ‘the Fair Maid of Norway’ and granddaughter of Alexander III of Scotland, who was to assume the Scottish throne. Margaret fell ill on the journey and died on Orkney, but rumours circulated that her ship had been wrecked. This twist in fate thwarted Edward I’s plan to marry his son to Margaret and thereby secure Scotland for the Plantagenet dynasty. If so, and if the Gough Map was made for Edward III, this image could have been a sore reminder of a missed opportunity.
Scotland is home to wolves and weird fish
The mapmakers’ knowledge of Scotland seems to owe more to rumour than to the cutting-edge cartography in evidence elsewhere on the map. In the absence of accurate information on Scotland, some aspects of its description on the map show a rather romantic view of this mysterious land. Loch Tay is described as a place of marvels, inhabited by fish without intestines, and a note next to a red deer says “great hunting here”. A sketch of a wolf in the Highlands is accompanied by a legend warning “here dwell wolves”.
Alixe Bovey is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Kent. Her books on illuminated manuscripts include Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (British Library Publishing Division, 2002). In Search of Medieval Britain, presented by Alixe Bovey, will be shown on BBC Four this spring.