Historical maps are windows into other worlds.
They connect us to the past in a concrete way, allowing us to visualize how to get from the marina to the nearest thermopolium in Ancient Ostia, how to reach the King’s Apartments in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, or figure out the names of streets as they were in 1912 Shanghai. Maps allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of people in a different place and time, and they are immensely helpful in historical fiction world building. They anchor us in the reality of the time in which the story is set.
Maps have fascinated me since I was a child. My home office walls are decorated with framed antique maps of Ancient Rome, Pompeii, Bologna, and the Shetland Islands (all places near to my heart). I keep a physical world atlas nearby for reference. But, with more and more maps digitized, we now have the historical world at our fingertips.
Using maps to enhance writing and reading
Even if you don’t write historical fiction, if you read it, maps can help. It helps you place the characters in their physical spaces. For a writer, however, though we won’t include all the details in the story, having a visual idea of how your characters move is important to moor them in their world—and by extension, the reader.
If you are fortunate to walk through historical sites, the maps provided help ground you in the experience. Further, many sites look different now than they did during other time periods. For example, Hampton Court Palace in England is mainly a mix of Tudor and Baroque palaces, and centuries of building and rebuilding in places like Mexico City and Alexandria mean layers upon layers of history.
Historical maps to feed the story
I strive for historical accuracy in my writing, and maps are essential for that. Street names change throughout history, so finding a map that is as close to the time period I’m researching, preferably earlier, is important. Below are a few resources I’ve used in my work in progress.
My current manuscript is set in 1565, some of which is London. I had a few challenges, including:
- Palace layouts, especially for those that no longer exist or have changed significantly in the intervening 500 years;
- Streets and water landings (or water stairs for the boat men operating on the River Thames) in London; and
- Roads from London to other cities and towns—and because people used the Thames as a kind of road at the time, I needed to know the course of the river as well as where the landings were.
Richmond Palace (no longer exists), Windsor Castle (modernized and inhabited sometimes by current monarch), and Whitehall Palace (mostly destroyed by fire in 1698) all feature. So, how not to only describe them, but also how my characters move within those settings? Maps, of course!
Plans for Richmond were hard to find. The palace began to fall into disrepair during the English Civil War and was, by the 18th century, nothing but ruins. After some sleuthing, I pieced together some floor plans from the British National Archives and academic resources that have worked to digitize historical documents.
Windsor proved a challenge because so many layers of modernization have been added since the 16th century, mostly from the Georgian period. With a history stretching to the Normans, this castle is a remarkable archaeological site. However, parsing out what belonged there in which century proved a struggle.
Further, in Elizabeth I’s time, Windsor was a pretty shabby place compared to some of the other royal properties. One invaluable resource for Windsor, as well as many other real places my protagonist visits, is the British History Online website, a collection of over 1,000 primary and secondary sources relating to British and Irish history, and histories of empire and the British world. While only some entries include maps, there is a wealth of detailed information. The Windsor entry has precise renderings of different parts of the castle, which, when combined with the text, make a sort of map. Sometimes, needs require using a later map, such as this one of Windsor in 1658 at the Royal Collection Trust.
Whitehall Palace proved an interesting case as we now associate it with the British government operations that sit where the palace once did. During Elizabeth I’s reign, Whitehall was the largest palace in all of Europe. Again, British History Online provided considerable information and illustrations for visualization. The British Library has a remarkably detailed plan of Whitehall from the 1680s. The Agas Map (discussed below) also has a decent overhead view of the Palace, and is especially important because it shows its relation to the rest of London.
The map I used over and over during research and writing is the Agas Map, a bird’s-eye view of London in 1561, originally printed on woodblocks. The version we use now is a 17th century copy of the original, and it presents the streets, water stairs, and buildings of London in excruciating detail. You can zoom in and view with perfect clarity the tiny cross streets of Southwark, the shops lining London Bridge, every public water stairs along the Thames, and more. It is an astonishing resource, and that we have free access to it as researchers is an astounding benefit of living when we do.
Sometimes we’re looking for something specific in maps, and sometimes it’s just fun to read one, allowing our minds to wander as our feet once could. In addition to the ones linked above, more great resources for historic maps include:
- The David Ramsey Map Collection at Stanford University (over 150,000 maps from the 16th-21st centuries)
- The Perry-Castañeda Historical Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin (the collection has over 250,000 maps, but only about 20 percent of them are currently available online)
- The Library of Congress (their emphasis is on historical maps of the U.S.)
- Old Maps Online (400,000 maps through accessing collections of archives and libraries around the world)
Please let me know what further types of historical research resources you’d like to read about, as well any maps tips you have! Happy map reading!