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London in the 16th Century


In 1572 Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg produced the first volume of the “Civitates Orbis Terrarum”, the earliest systematic atlas of town plans and birds-eye views. Like Abraham Ortelius’s “Terrarum Orbis Terrarum”, for which it was conceived as a companion, it is a work of the greatest topographical and historical importance.  Braun, a Cologne cleric, was the principal editor, while Hogenberg did much of the engraving. Its success was such that it eventually was to extend to 546 images in six volumes, published over the next 45 years.


London, the largest city in Europe at this time, is the first to be depicted, a reflection of its importance as a trading center to both the Hanseatic League and Europe. The plan of London was copied from a 15-sheet map of London, now lost, and printed in 1559, which had probably been commissioned by the Hanseatic League in an attempt to carry favor with Queen Mary. Partiality is continued in this map as can be seen in the heraldry to either side of the title, marking not just the city of London but also the Catholic founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry V. Emphasis is furthermore placed on her royal barge, particularly noticeable as it lies prominently in the middle of the map


By 1570 the League was in terminal decline with its monopoly bypassed by Cologne and other North German towns and coming under increasing pressure from the powerful Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Despite this, Braun has included a panel of text detailing the importance of Hansa trade to England and describing the “Steelyard”, the self-contained German merchants’ enclave just east of London Bridge.


‘Stilliards, or in German, Hanse, a confederation of many cities and communities, established for safe trading on land and sea, lastly for tranquillity and peace in public affairs and for the honourable education for the young. Granted privileges and concessions most of all by the rulers of England, France, Denmark, and Great Moscow, also of Flanders and Brabant. It has four markets, called counting house by some, in which the merchants reside and conduct their business. One of these is salient here in London for domestic trade, namely the teutonic Guildhal, commonly known as Stilliard.’



When Elizabeth became British monarch, Braun had to adjust the subtext as the alteration of power had suppressed the leagues’ privileges. The map had to be amended in favour of London merchants in order to be successful. The later editions were revised to include the Royal exchange built by Sir Thomas Gresham and opened by Elizabeth I in 1571, now a concrete symbol of England’s mercantile power.


The final blow to the Hansa’s influence was the revocation of their privileges and closing of the “Steelyard” by Elizabeth in 1598. In an extraordinary colophon, The Hanseatic League was never officially dissolved and the cities of Bremen, Lubeck and Hamburg only sold their commonly held property, the London Steelyard, in 1853, allowing Cannon Street Station to be built on its site shortly afterwards.


The city of London is mainly contained within its medieval walls but is already starting to expand north and east. The Strand becomes apparent as the main thoroughfare linking the city to Westminster, which though connected still possesses its own gates. On the first edition ‘West Mester’ can be seen in place of the later ‘West Muster’.  











 'West Mester'












'West Muster'

Lining the Strand are the great noblemens’ houses with their gardens running down to the Thames. St Paul’s is shown still with its great Spire, at 489 feet, the tallest in Europe when built, despite its collapse in 1561 after being struck by lightning. 


Just west of the River Fleet, is the vast Bridewell Palace. Built by Henry VIII, it had been given to the city of London as an orphanage and prison for women by Edward VI. In 1619, over 200 orphans from Bridewell were shipped to the colony of Virginia as indentured servants.

To its left is Baynards Castle, a huge medieval palace given to Katherine of Aragon by Henry VIII on the eve of their wedding. The Castle was left in ruins after the Great Fire of London in 1666, although fragments survived into the 19th century.



South of the City across London Bridge, lie the notorious pleasure gardens and stews of Southwark. A great “beere howse” or brewery is shown opposite the Tower while, west of the bridge, the bull and bear baiting pits are prominent features. Indeed the engraving is so fine, one can discern the individual chained dogs outside the pits awaiting their turn. Further along the bank is the infamous Paris Garden, whose popularity with the lovers of the low-life, is indicated by the large number of boats moored at its jetty.


A feature which adds immense charm to the majority of Braun and Hogenberg maps are the prominent costume figures in the foreground. Braun states in the introduction, perhaps rather optimistically, that the Islamic prohibition on looking on the human form, would stop the Ottoman Turks being able to use the maps to besiege European cities. This splendid map is the earliest available printed map of the city and gives us a stunning insight into Elizabethan London.