Maps, politics and early depictions of Ullswater

by Natasha Robinson

Banner Image: William Hole's engraving of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lonsdale north of the Sands, from part two of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, 1622 . © Martin and Jean Norgate: 2016, with thanks

Elizabeth I’s list of allies grew thin after her excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1570. The papal bull was a death warrant, and Elizabeth its object. In the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth no longer possessed the divine right to rule, which made the queen and her country prime targets for war.

The queen also faced dissent and rebellion at home. Leading nobles held secret meetings behind closed doors and plotted the rise of the north of England. With foreign invasion looming and domestic instability brewing, Elizabeth turned to a curious tool to tighten her grip on the kingdom: cartography.

Christopher Saxton, a mapmaker’s apprentice, was commissioned to survey and map the entire kingdom between 1574 and 1578. Saxton surveyed and created maps for each county of England and Wales. William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, annotated his copies extensively with political intelligence: Catholic recusants were marked out for surveillance, border vulnerabilities with Scotland were noted and coastal defences were evaluated. Through representing the kingdom’s internal borders, government officials could oversee land management and locate areas of political concern.

Westmorlandiae et Cumberlandiae Comitatus’, in Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, 1579 © Martin and Jean Norgate: 2016, with thanks

Ullswater, ‘Vlls flu’, is located at the centre of Saxton’s county map depicting Westmorland, Cumberland and the Furness and Cartmel peninsulas. Each county is shaded in a different colour, encouraging the viewer to perceive the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire as distinct. Ullswater straddles the border of Westmorland and Cumberland, showing how topography reinforced, and even determined, administrative borders. The dotted line, running through Ullswater, represents this division. The depiction of borders undoubtedly assisted in Tudor surveillance of the north-west, an area remote from the seat of monarchical power in London.

Detail from ‘Westmorlandiae et Cumberlandiae Comitatus’, in Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales © Martin and Jean Norgate: 2016, with thanks

In 1622, Ullswater was depicted as nestled within a landscape undivided by borders. Michael Drayton published Poly-Olbion in 1612, an epic poem of 15,000 lines. The poem consists of songs conveying Britain’s history county by county, telling tales of local traditions, animals and topography. Angus Vine suggests this storytelling imbued the landscape with ‘antiquarian voice[s]’, the ancient past of each county being recounted. County maps by engraver William Hole accompany each song. The Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire engraving accompanies the 1622 republished version of Drayton’s poem.

Hole amalgamates ‘Cvumberlande’ and ‘Westmorlande’, excluding administrative borders completely. Hole personifies key features of the landscape, creating a visual and textual narrative of Cumbrian geography and history. Ullswater is anthropomorphised, with a nymph standing half submerged in the lake. Another river nymph sits above Ullswater, ushering water into the lake.

William Hole's engraving of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lonsdale north of the Sands, from part two of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, 1622 © Martin and Jean Norgate: 2016, with thanks

Saxton’s map was a tool of governance, utilised for surveillance to monitor the kingdom. In this way, Saxton’s atlas can be regarded as a precursor to the surveys carried out by the Ordnance Board. The Ordnance Board oversaw munitions, fortifications and national defence during Saxton’s time. While the first Ordnance Survey map was published in 1801, 222 years after Saxton’s atlas, both cartographic ventures were a product of an emergent impetus to utilise cartography for security purposes. Hole’s maps, on the other hand, marked an understanding of landscape as tied to natural voices. This disparity between works reflects the period of greater political stability within which Drayton and Hole worked. The once precarious and violent border between England and Scotland was unified with the ascension of James VI in 1603. Hole personified the landscape in his engraving to remind his literate and elite audience that the kingdom was unified, alive and steeped in ancient history. Maps, therefore, can be used to understand the nature of politics, power and warfare, as well as conceptions of landscapes.

by Natasha Robinson


John Rennie Short, Making Space: Revisioning the World, 1475-1600 (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004)

Aislinn Muller, The Excommunication of Elizabeth I: Faith, Politics, and Resistance in Post-Reformation England, 1570-1603 (Netherlands, Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Clark Hulse, Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Bernhard Klein, Maps and the Writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland (New York: Palcrave MacMillan, 2001).

Gordon Manley, ‘Saxton's Survey of Northern England’, The Geographical Journal, 83 (1934), 308-316.

Barbara Ewell, ‘Drayton's “Poly-Olbion”: England's Body Immortalized’, Studies in Philology, 75 (1978), 297-315 (p. 298)

Anne Lake Prescott, ‘Drayton, Michael (1563-1631)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2015 <> [accessed 15 March 2021]

Poly-Olbion, ‘The Maps’, in The University of Exeter’s Poly-Olbion Project <> [accessed 15 March 2021].

Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (London: John Marriott, John Grismand, and Thomas Dewe


Christopher Saxton, Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales (London: n. pub, 1579).

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