Agnese’s Atlas for Father and Son

This atlas could be described as small but perfectly formed.Presented to Henry VIII it was most likely used as a teaching aid for his son the future Edward VI. Although it is unsigned and undated we know that it was made by Battista Agnese in around 1543. Originally from Genoa, Agnese established himself as a leading mapmaker in Venice and the Atlas was possibly given to Henry by the Venetian ambassador. It was subsequently owned by the antiquary Robert Hare before Archbishop Richard Bancroft acquired it and it became part of the library’s founding collection, now MS 463.

From the mid-1530s to his death in around 1564 Agnese produced high quality ‘portolan’ atlases, of which over 70 survive today, many have the red-brown morocco binding of this atlas. Portolan refers to nautical charts and Agnese’s atlases all had similar sequences of maps including the Americas (Columbus had returned to Europe from the ‘New World’ only 50 years before) and trade routes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Henry was not the only monarch to receive such an atlas, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had one made for his son the future Philip II who would go on to marry Mary I. The dating of this atlas to 1543 is due to its maps being identical to one owned by Johann Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, who was the brother of John Frederick I (Elector of Saxony and head of the Schmalkaldic League), as well as a distant relation of Queen Victoria.[1]

Map of northwestern Europe. MS 463, ff. 6v-7r
The first clue that the atlas was intended for Edward’s use is its relatively small size, similar to a modern-day paperback (21 x 14 cm). The verso of folio i has an illustrated gold frame with a dedication that has now been erased. Whether it directly referenced Edward is unknown, what is certain is that it was accompanied by a larger atlas that was dedicated to Henry VIII, this is now in the Vatican Library.[2] Facing this frame is the most richly illustrated page (folio 1r) of the atlas showing the royal arms of England, decorated with gold and bright colours, set within the Garter, with a crown at the top (see below). In each corner there are women representing the four cardinal virtues, often associated with wise government. Justice has a sword and scales, Prudence is grappling with two snakes, Temperance is pouring water into a jug of wine to dilute it, while Fortitude is sat by a palm and a lion.

The royal arms of England with representations of the four cardinal virtues. MS 463, f. 1r
The first three maps cover the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, while the rest focus on Europe. The Mediterranean Sea receives particular attention with maps showing the western, central and eastern regions in detail. This is understandable given Agnese’s Venetian base, indeed he benefited from the work of Giacomo Gastaldi, an engineer and cartographer who served the Republic.[3] The map of the world on folios 13v-14r (pictured below) shows the first circumnavigation completed by Magellan’s crew in 1519-1522 (Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines so it was Juan Sebastián Elcano and 17 others who were the actual circumnavigators) and the treasure route from Peru to Spain, via the isthmus of Panama.

Map of the world showing Magellan’s circumnavigation and the treasure route from Peru to Spain. MS 463, ff. 13v-14r
There is a final surprise at the back of the atlas, the rear inside cover has a glass compass that has been set into the board, with names of wind directions written in English. Another feature I particularly like about the maps are the different colours used for small islands, particularly those of the Mediterranean. The Greek island of Rhodes has been painted with the flag (red background with white cross) of the Knights Hospitaller, in fact this is slightly out of date. Rhodes had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1522 and the Knights had moved to Crete before establishing a new base in Malta.

As well as demonstrating an interest in the exploration of the New World, the atlas has been tailored to reflect Henry’s ambitions – and those he wanted for Edward – closer to home. Another piece of evidence that the atlas was for Edward VI is that geographical names have been written on the relevant countries and unusually on the margins of the maps.[4] The map of the Atlantic has “Britannia nunc Anglia” (meaning “Britain but now England”) written above the island of Great Britain implying that the whole of Britain was under English control. In July 1543 the Treaty of Greenwich made peace between England and Scotland and created a marriage agreement between Edward and Mary Queen of Scots (who was less than 1 year old). However, the Scottish Parliament rejected the Treaty which led to the war known as the Rough Wooing which continued into Edward’s reign before his early death in 1553. It would be another fifty years before Elizabeth’s lack of an heir resulted in England entering a personal union with Scotland through the succession of James VI and I.




[2] Vatican Library, Cod. Barb. Lat. 4357. Barber, Peter, ‘An atlas for a young prince’ in Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collections of the Archbishops of Canterbury, ed. Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown (London, 2010), p. 98.

[3] Barber, Peter, ‘An atlas for a young prince’ in Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collections of the Archbishops of Canterbury, ed. Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown (London, 2010), p. 98.

[4] Barber, Peter, ‘An atlas for a young prince’ in Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collections of the Archbishops of Canterbury, ed. Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown (London, 2010), p. 98.

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