Until he was in his mid to late thirties, John Speed, like his father before him was a tailor by trade. However he had a passion for history and devoted his leisure to map making. In 1598 he gained a patron in Sir Fulke Greville, the poet and statesman who recognized his cartographic skill, relieved him from tailoring, found him a post in the Customs, and with Queen Elizabeth`s support subsidized his map-making, giving him full liberty to express the inclination of my mind, as Speed gratefully recorded.
He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries where he became acquainted with such contemporary notables as the publisher William Camden, whose descriptive text was used by Speed for most of the maps in his atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain published most probably in 1612 although it bears the date 1611 on the main title page.
This first ever atlas of the British Isles was compiled from earlier surveys by Christopher Saxton, John Norden and William Smith as well as Gerhard Mercator`s maps of Wales (by Lluyd) and Ireland. Speed`s major inovations were to define the boundaries and name the hundreds (the units of local government) in each county. But perhaps most importantly, his were the first town plans and so are, in most cases, the first information that we have of their early appearance.
The maps were engraved in Amsterdam by Jodocus Hondius who was one of the foremost map-engravers of his time. The engraver, copying his originals or perhaps tracing them, worked on the soft copper with a penlike scalpel called a burin and his skill was all the greater because everything had to be drawn in reverse so that when printed its mirror-image could be read normally. The first edition of these maps dated 1611 was published by John Sudbury and George Humble and the plates were used for subsequent editions with no alteration until 1676 when Bassett and Chiswell replaced the name of George Humble as publisher and later in 1707 when John and Henry Overton added roads. The text was reset for each edition and the wood initial used by the different printers is used to identify the different editions.
Speed`s maps are unique historical documents of Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain with its population of just over four million people ( contemporaries believed that the country was full to bursting and could not support any further increase in population).This and their artistry has guaranteed the collectability of these maps in each of the centuries that has followed.