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What do historians do?
What do historians do?

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1.1 Landscape history

Landscape history became a recognised branch of British academic history in the post-war period, marked by the publication of W.G. Hoskins’ book The Making of the English Landscape in 1955. While Hoskins’ was the first book to examine landscape change systematically, many before him had attempted to observe and explain the landscape and the impact of human activity upon it. Here you will see how map-makers, travel writers and collectors have all contributed to historians’ evidence of landscape and environment change. An important factor in how landscapes, both town and country, were understood was the advance in map-making in the early modern period.

Activity 1

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Look at this map made for King Henry VIII.

A manuscript drawing of a map. The map shows land, sea, and waterways. There are drawings of ships on the water and fortifications on some areas of the land. There are some blue and green areas on the map, but it is mostly brown and faded.
Figure 3 One of the coastal defences maps made for Henry VIII by order of Thomas Cromwell in 1539. ‘Henry VIII’s coastal defence maps’, British Library, Cotton Ms. Augustus I I, 35, 36, 38, 39.

What do you notice about this map compared to modern maps you may use? Consider the projection (angle and perspective) of the map. Aside from its original intention what evidence do you think it might offer, say, to an urban or architectural historian?

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There are lots of aspects that you may have noticed, here are some:

  • The map has a ‘bird’s eye’ projection looking at a three-dimensional landscape.
  • Some features are exaggerated and the map features things (ships and defences) which did not yet exist or were not permanent features, so it is not only a map but also a plan of how the landscape might be used.
  • It was created with an agenda to improve defences and so shows castles and forts but it also shows churches and other large buildings, the relative scale and position of towns and villages, and you can also see harbours, quaysides and town walls.

Your list could be different to this one and you will find it helpful to take your time, as even familiar items such as maps could look very different in the past.

In the early seventeenth century the cartographer John Speed published the first atlas of English and Welsh county maps, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1612), capturing a changing landscape. He is best known for his town plans which were famously detailed, showing gardens and orchards as well as the buildings and some activities in towns.

A manuscript map of a town. To the left of the map is a green expanse with windmills, livestock and farmers. In the centre of the image is the town of Kingston upon Hull. The town is divided into sections, with buildings surrounding green areas. The key on the far right of the image lists the town’s important landmarks, including two churches (St Mary’s and Trinity), a guild hall, a free school, and six named gates which allow entry through the town walls. The town is protected by a fortified wall on the left side, and by a river on the right-hand side. Ships are shown on the river, and in a larger body of water at the bottom of the image. Across the river are three large buildings, labelled: the block houses, the castle, and the fortification.
Figure 4 A map of Kingston upon Hull by John Speed, published in 1611.

Speed’s town maps formed part of an atlas of Great Britain and were designed mainly for readers who would never visit the towns portrayed. These maps are very valuable to historians of early modern towns and are sometimes the only image we have of a town at that point in time. If you look at the map of Hull in Figure 4, for example, you can see the important buildings and get some indication of what went on in the locality.

Next you will look at how land ownership changes and travel created knowledge of the landscape.