Seventeenth-century satnav

The Belton copy of Ogilby's Britannia, showing the route from London to Lincoln. ©National Trust

A few months ago we purchased a copy of John Ogilby’s Britannia at auction at Bonhams in London. The book has a provenance from Belton House, Lincolnshire. 

The north front of Belton House seen from the Dutch Garden. ©NTPL/Rupert Truman

John Ogilby (1600-1676) was an amazing polymath, who had successive careers as a dancing master, courtier, theatre owner, poet, translator and compiler of geographical works and atlases. 


In 1675 he produced Britannia, which was essentially a road atlas in the form of strip maps guiding the traveller from A to B, not unlike today’s satellite navigation devices.

The maps were based on on-the-ground research facilitated by a wheeled contraption to measure distances. Britannia represented the first major advance in cartography since Tudor times and helped to standardize the mile at 1760 yards.

The Study at Belton, which was the main library in Lord Tyrconnel's day. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The book collections at Belton House are among the finest in any National Trust house, showing the reading and book collecting habits of one family over a period of more than 350 years.

The copy of Britannia was owned by one of the most bookish members of the family, Sir John Brownlow, fifth Baronet and Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754). 

Portrait of Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel by Charles Jervas. Acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Tyrconnel was keen on politics, but in spite of his support for the Walpole government (which earned him his Viscountcy) his contempories were not much impressed by his political skills. However, he was praised for his ‘nice taste and well-chosen knowledge’ of the arts.

The Belton conversation piece, by Philippe Mercier, showing Lord Tyrconnel (on the left) with his family in the grounds of Belton House. Acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Tyrconnel assembled a collection of old master paintings, but he also patronised the artists of the day. The charming Belton Conversation Piece by Philippe Mercier was one of the first ‘conversation pieces’ to be painted in England.

Tyrconnel aslo supported the poets Alexander Pope and Richard Savage. The latter was even offered shelter in Tyrconnel’s London house, but he was eventually thrown out again because of his habitual insolence and drunkenness and because he had pawned some of Tyrconnel’s books.

The Library at Belton. The room was created by James Wyatt in 1778 and was only converted into a library in 1876, but it does contain some of Viscount Tyrconnel's books. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Tyrconnel collected books on science, history, travel, theology, literature and the classics. The books at Belton have just been fully catalogued and can be searched through the Copac database.

The acquisition of the Belton copy of Britannia was generously supported by the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and by the Friends of the National Libraries.

6 Responses to “Seventeenth-century satnav”

  1. columnist Says:

    The portrait of the 5th Baronet shows him wearing the robe and star of the Order of the Bath, making him one of the early recipients of the award, revived in 1725. And very stylish and dashing they are, and he looks.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Columnist, your knowledge of the British aristocratic and honours systems is prodigious. Yes Viscount Tyrconnel was a ‘Founder Knight’ of the Order of the Bath, as he was invested when the order was created in 1725.

    It is telling, too, that Tyrconnel was made a Knight of the Bath, but not of the more senior Order of the Garter, and that his Viscountcy was in the Peerage of Ireland, and not in the more coveted Peerage of Great Britain – he was useful to the Walpole government, but not in the first rank of usefulness.

    Nevertheless he was obviously rather proud of his Bath star, as one can see him wearing it in the conversation piece, during a stroll in the garden 🙂

  3. columnist Says:

    Yes, I now notice it in the Conversation Piece. He is I suppose wearing it “as one does”, going about one’s business being a member of the aristocracy. I noticed it was an Irish title, and one that died out in 1754, but they received a United Kingdom peerage again in in 1776, as Baron Brownlow. And, no, I’m not really a walking Debrett’s, but I recognised the Bath “robe” (!), (“mantle”, correctly), which is glorious in it’s colour, and from a piece I wrote about the Queen & Prince Philip, in which I used a picture of them wearing their Bath accoutrements.

    Apparently my reference to “revival” of the order in 1725 is incorrect. It was the creation of it, by George I in 1725. So my knowledge far from prodigious, but I am certainly familiar with the basics, and believe that if we have the system, they should be observed; there is such a load of twaddle written, including inter alia reference to the Queen as “HRH”, as opposed to “HM”, incorrect usage of Christian names in peerage titles, incorrect forms of address etc,etc,etc. Perhaps “anal” would be the correct term!

    I remain Your Grace’s Obedient Servant…

  4. Janet Says:

    Goodness, I love the Britannia! How very clever. I do think the “art” of map making is a dying (if not dead) practice.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, yes, but perhaps we can ‘re-enchant’ the map? For instance, you could do a map of all the places special to you and the Gentleman, as a kind of memory treasure map 🙂

  6. Janet Says:

    Not a bad idea. . .

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