The Romantic side of Elizabethan map making
Michael Drayton (1563-1631) commenced working on his epic poem, Poly Olbion, in 1598. A topographical poem or book of songsdescribing England and Wales, it was his life’s work and was published in 1612 with 18 songs and maps, being published in 1622 as an enlarged edition with 30 songs and maps. It consisted of 15,000 lines of verse, divided into the 30 songs. Cambridgeshire was included in the second and enlarged edition.
It has long been held that Drayton probably attended the University of Oxford, on account of allusions within his poetry. We know his circle included Ben Jonson, and probably Shakespeare too. In 1593 he produced the first of his historical poems, the Legend of Piers Gaveston. Poly Olbion was his enormous attempt to record all places of topographical interest in the country. Places and rivers are included anthropomorphically; Cambridge a young woman with flowing breasts, a castle on her head and carrying the sun and a cup; Ely has a cathedral on his head. Drayton recorded a mixture of the topographical scientific and references to historic myths – druids and King Arthur amongst others. Each river has its own nymph, the rivers being the main emphasis of the maps which otherwise show few geographical features.
William Hole (?-1624) was probably engaged to produce the engraved maps. Little is known of Hole, it is suggested that he had a French training as an engraver. As well as engraving music by Bull, Gibbons and Byrd, he made maps; those of Poly Olbion are surely the most extraordinary, an expression of whimsy and romance from the Elizabethan age.