Huw Owen, former keeper of pictures and maps at The National Library of Wales takes part in our #LoveMaps campaign.
John Speed, Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, 1611, ‘ The Second Booke’, Carmarthen.
John Speed’s celebrated Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain was published in 1611. This contained a map of Wales and maps of the thirteen Welsh shires, with comments on administrative divisions, geographical features and historical aspects. By trade a tailor, as also had been his father, Speed’s main interests were history and cartography. He commented that he had ‘ put my sickle into other mens corne’ and acknowledged his indebtedness to other cartographers and antiquaries. The latter probably included his fellow members of the Society of Antiquaries, established in 1586. One of these was John Jones, Gelli Lyfdi, Ysgeifiog, Flintshire, the renowned calligrapher and manuscript copyist, who with his brother, Thomas Jones, Common Sergeant of London, issued a request in 1621 for information which might assist John Speed. At this time Speed was revising his Atlas, published in 1611, which had referred to the paucity of information regarding the six counties of north Wales.
John Speed drew attention to his own original work, especially in the compilation of the town-plans, which accompanied the map of Wales and his county maps in the Theatre, and represented one of his most significant achievements. His map of Wales was accompanied by 16 town-views: the predominant town in twelve shires with Monmouthshire excluded; and one for each of the four episcopal centres. Speed claimed to be responsible for the majority of the 73 inset town-plans and views in the four books of the Theatre: ‘some have bene performed by others, without Scale annexed, the rest by mine owne travels…’ The town-plans and views were therefore undoubtedly based upon Speed’s observations on his journeys to every part of England and Wales: in some cases he was also assisted by persons who possessed detailed local knowledge.
Speed’s county map of Carmarthenshire and town plan of Carmarthen: Caermarden, emphasised the dominant position of the castle. Military and strategic factors governed the selection of the site for the construction of the second Norman castle built in the early twelfth century and converted in the following century into a large well – defended stone structure. At this time Carmarthen also became a significant commercial centre with the thriving town granted a charter, and thereby borough status in the middle of the century.
This area comprising the castle and borough was known as the ‘new town’ of Carmarthen, in contrast to the ‘old ‘ Carmarthen’. Here, the fort and town of Moridunum had been established by the Roman rulers, aware of the advantages of its site in the fertile Towy valley and in close proximity to the coast. The Roman fort had been built in the late-70s A.D., probably in the area later extending between St. Peter’s church and the medieval castle, and covered by King Street and Spilman Street. In the twelfth century ‘Old’ Carmarthen was granted by the king, Henry II, to the Augustinian priory of St. John the Evangelist, whose location was shown on Speed’s town plan.
The Act of Union, 1543 enacted that Carmarthen would become the judicial headquarters of the Court of Great Sessions for the shires of Cardigan, Carmarthen and Pembroke. Towards the end of this century Carmarthen was described by William Camden as ‘ the chief citie of the countrie’ and by George Owen as ‘ the largest town in Wales, fair and in good state’.
Whereas the castle and priory represented significant buildings in medieval Carmarthen St Peter’s Church is considered to be the town’s oldest building still in use for its original purpose. It functions today as the town’s parish church, and a major restoration programme was carried out here at the beginning of the present century, Also, several streets denoted on Speed’s plan continue to feature on the present-day street plan of the town, namely King’s Street, Priory Street, Spilman Street, St. Peter’s Street, Water street, and Quay Street: the latter was listed on Speed’s plan as ‘ Key Street’.
The selection of Carmarthen as the example of Speed’s town plans of Wales was partly influenced by my personal connection with the town. I was born at the Priory Street Infirmary, which has been described as one of Carmarthen’s most iconic buildings. Having been closed and unused for more than two decades, it has in 2017 been renovated and reopened as the Plas y Milwr complex of apartments, advertised as a ‘luxury and exclusive development’.
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