Where to see the oldest surviving map of London

We spoke to Laurence Ward from London Metropolitan Archives about the Civitas Londinium map, the oldest surviving map of London, as it goes on display

Civitas Londinium, the oldest surviving map of London

What is the Civitas Londinium map?

Civitas Londinium, also known as the Woodcut or Agas map, is the earliest map of London to survive in complete form. It invites the viewer to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city’s streets, rather than the top-down aspect of a two-dimensional map, looking across the Thames from Southwark, towards the hills of Highgate and Hampstead.

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The map was originally engraved on eight wooden blocks between 1561 and 1570, after the lightning strike on St Paul’s Cathedral which destroyed the spire. However, no prints from the first version of the map are known to survive. Although the map has previously been credited to the Elizabethan surveyor Ralph Agas (1545–1621), the true creator sadly remains a mystery.

The blocks were updated to insert the Royal Exchange, which opened in 1570, and to replace the Tudor coat of arms with those of the House of Stuart in 1603, following the accession of James I to the throne of England.

Only three prints of the map are known to survive, including this copy from the collection of the City of London Corporation held at LMA. All three copies were made in 1633.

Discover the full version of this article and more fascinating tales from history in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine May 2022, on sale now

What’s unique about the map?

When I first saw the map, I was struck by how densely packed the City of London was within the walls, and how quickly the houses and buildings give way to fields. This is a rural setting in which we glimpse windmills, livestock and villages. Islington peeps through the trees in the far distance.

The artist provides us with individual timber-framed houses and although it’s evident that this is an impression of London’s streets rather than a precise survey, they do give us a wonderful sense of the scale of the city. St Paul’s Cathedral must have towered over everything. Other major buildings are rendered, including the Guildhall, Baynard’s Castle at Blackfriars and the Tower of London in the east.

Westminster is a separate community, the royal palace of Whitehall is connected to the City of London by the Thames and the Strand, and there are a number of private palaces on the shore of the river. Old London Bridge, with buildings arranged cheek by jowl, connects Southwark and the bear- and bull-baiting rings, before the arrival of Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre.

Londoners are depicted in their daily routines in a number of places on the map. We see archers practising in the fields to the north, laundry being stretched out on the tenter grounds – areas used for drying cloth – outside the city walls, and a river busy with traffic, including the royal barge.

Where can we see the Civitas Londinium map?

Following an extensive program of conservation treatment, Civitas Londinium will go on display for the first time in our Magnificent Maps of London exhibition. The exhibition will run at the London Metropolitan Archives from 11 April until 26 October. The London Metropolitan Archives are open Monday to Thursday, 10am-4pm.

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Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine