The Queen Mary Atlas

Rodney Shirley | Published in History Today

The Queen Mary Atlas

Peter Barber (editor)

The Folio Society; Commentary 87 pages plus facsimile. Price £750 

There are very few national treasures that relate to the Catholic Queen Mary I. Her short and unpopular reign was from 1554 to 1558 and the Queen Mary Atlas is considered to have been commissioned by her as a gift to her husband Philip II of Spain.

For many years this atlas, comprising a set of nine richly decorated portolan-type charts of the world, lay unrecognized in the British Museum. It is now held by the British Library and has been reproduced in full-size sumptuous detail by The Folio Society together with a scholarly commentary by Peter Barber. In the 1550s England largely relied on foreign map-makers, and Italian, French and Portuguese cartographic artists are known to have worked in Tudor England under royal patronage. For a world atlas of the highest calibre Diogo Homem from Portugal, perhaps already resident in London, was an ideal choice.

Not a great deal is recorded about Diogo Homem except as a member of a prolific Portuguese family of chart-makers whose skills and knowledge of world cartography were widely recognized. It seems he worked on the atlas from early in the Queen’s reign but did not finish it until after her death in 1558 and so it is unlikely to have reached King Philip’s hands. Moreover, there is evidence that the atlas that we have today is incomplete, lacking a further five or six charts and may never have been bound up for royal presentation. The ‘missing’ charts may form part of an unsigned atlas in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. 

As well as lunar and solar tables the atlas consists of a circular zonal map, a large rectangular world map, maps of northwest Europe and the Mediterranean, two maps of West and East Africa, one of the East Indies and three maps covering North and South America.  The large world map, as the commentary says, is the most sober and technically accomplished of the set and has Diogo Homem’s signature and the date 1558. All the others are decorated and embellished in the finest portolan-chart style, with criss-cross lines radiating from elaborate compass roses, many ports and other localities marked along the coasts but few inland features shown. Instead, there are rich imaginative images of local rulers, their banners and heraldry, animals (even a rhinoceros), and local scenes such as a Bedouin encampment placed across North Africa. Sea monsters and ships enliven the open seas. It is unlikely that Diogo Homem himself provided all these details: professional miniaturists were engaged to paint such scenes. For its pictorial details and its ornamentation the Queen Mary Atlas ranks among the of the grandest of its epoch.

The map of northwest Europe has one singular feature, the large escutcheon conjoined with the arms of both Philip II of Spain and Mary of England. However, it can be seen that the arms of Philip have been angrily defaced and, as Cortesao and Teixeira da Mota say in their six-volume Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica: ‘When Queen Mary died on November 17th, 1558, the atlas was presented to the new Queen. It may not be too daring to suppose that she [Elizabeth I] then violently scraped off his arms, awkwardly impaled with her own’.

The maps of the Americas show an astonishing amount of coastal detail, reflecting the many subsequent sea voyages in the sixty years since the discovery of the New World in 1492. On the map of South America there are gruesome paintings of cannibalism and – uniquely for a Portuguese map – a depiction of the army of Pizarro, Spanish vanquisher of the Inca empire. Homem’s map of the East Indies is unlike that in the Rotz atlas, presented to Henry VIII in 1542 by the Dieppe cartographer Jean Rotz, and still in the British Library. There is no suggestion of any lands south of Java that some schools of thought have equated with Australia. The true origin of such land forms, and who indeed first ‘discovered’ northern Australia, remains contentious among historians of cartography today.

  • Rodney Shirley is the author of Maps in the Atlases of The British Library c.850-1800 AD. (The British Library, 2004).
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