The Savile Map of Bath

Savile map of BathIn June 1992, a sensation rippled through the ranks of Bath's historians. A completely unknown early map of Bath had suddenly surfaced in a local exhibition. I immediately recognised it as the most important discovery in Bath maps this century. The signed work of Henry Savile, dating from around 1600, it ranks among the finest engraved town maps of its period and throws new light on the Elizabethan city.

The Savile map had actually been discovered in 1977 by Anne Campbell Mcinnes of the Lantern gallery, then in Bath. It was offered to her by a Cheltenham dealer among a job lot of local maps. A map specialist, she had no difficulty in identifying it as the precursor of John Speed's bird's-eye view of Bath. In his great atlas of 1612, Speed set bird's-eye views of major towns into the corners of his county maps. He proudly claimed many of these as his own work, made on 'mine owne travels, and into them for distinction sake, the scale of pases ... I have set'. 52 town maps carry his identifying scale of paces. The other 19 were evidently copied from the surveys of others and the origins of about half of them are known.

Bath was among the remaining few where Speed's source was a mystery. It seemed destined to remain that way. The survival rate for early town maps is poor. But unbeknownst to us all, this lone copy had been tucked away in an extra- illustrated atlas. Making up extra-illustrated or 'grangerised' books was a popular 19th-century hobby. Books which lent themselves to it would be bound with blank pages for the owner's own collection of related material. It all started with Granger's History of England, which was issued in 1769 with extra blank pages. A loose engraving is easily lost or damaged, so a number of early prints owe their survival to Granger's inspiration.

However, Anne Campbell Mcinnes soon found that the idea of so early a map appearing after centuries of obscurity provoked complete incredulity. When she offered the Savile Map to suitable public collections, she was treated to sceptical shaking of heads. They might take it as a free gift, but really the thing was of no great interest. It must be some sort of copy from Speed. (How that could be is beyond me to explain. Savile is far larger and more detailed than Speed.) In despair, she sold this precious source for the history of Bath to a private collector, who earlier this year agreed to loan it to the exhibition of Bath Abbey prints at Baytun's bookshop.

Meanwhile over in Kent, David Smith, a prominent writer on early town maps, was on the trail of the Savile Map. He had heard on the grapevine that what looked like the lost source for Speed's Bath had appeared in a trade catalogue. But which one? Nobody could quite remember. He was in an agony of suspense. By an astonishing coincidence a friend finally sent him the Lantern Gallery's 1977 photograph the very day after I had rung him to say that the Savile Map was on show in Bath.

The royal arms from Savile's map of BathThe excitement was intense. Although uncatalogued historic maps are turning up all the time, this one is a very special discovery. In the early period of mapping, a new survey was a rare and momentous event. Maps went on being reprinted and copied without any attempt at revision over decades and even centuries, long after they were hopelessly out of date. In the case of Bath, the earliest map is a sketchy water-colour by William Smith, probably made in 1568. This spawned no progeny, evidently because a far better one was then produced by Savile. Savile's map was rapidly copied by Speed and since Speed's national atlas was reprinted several times, it is not difficult to see why subsequent maps of Bath were taken from this readily available source. The next new survey was made in 1694 by Joseph Gilmore, whose maps are in an entirely different style.

Not only is the Savile map a landmark in the early mapping of this city, but it is a thing of great charm. The best maps of this period do more than inform the traveller how to get from A to B. Their draftmanship is a delight to the eye and the Savile map is among the finest, portraying houses and even garden layout in convincing detail. It is embellished with the royal arms in the upper left-hand corner and those of the city and the See of Bath and Wells in the upper right in a typically Jacobean strap-work cartouche.

The lion of Scotland in the royal arms dates the engraving itself to after the accession of James I in 1603, but Savile's survey was probably made in the last years of Elizabeth. Savile shows the drinking water fountain erected in the King's Bath in 1599, but the house immediately north of the Cross Bath seems to be shown before its rebuilding in 1602.

This fits what we know of Savile's life. 'Long Harry' Savile entered Merton College, Oxford, of which his kinsman and namesake was Warden, in 1587. Under the eye of his distinguished relative, he made great progress as a scholar of mathematics, medicine, chemistry, painting, heraldry and antiquities. He took his MA and then in 1601 was licensed to practise medicine. This was the period when Bath was developing as a fashionable spa and just the place to interest a bright young medical student or newly qualified physician. After leaving Oxford Savile travelled in Europe and returned 'the most accomplished person of his time'. Since the best map engravers were to be found in Holland or Germany then, it is more than likely that Savile had his map engraved while he was abroad. On his return, he practised in London, where he died in 1617.

Detail from Henry Savile's map of Bath c.1600Savile was the first to draw detailed plans of the city's main baths and his history and description of the city stresses the therapeutic qualities of the waters. The map was clearly designed for spa visitors, including no doubt some of Savile's own patients. The Savile map is considerably larger than Speed's inset, so a great deal of his fascinating architectural detail was lost in the inevitable scaling down.

The distressing state of the Abbey Church can be seen far more clearly in Savile's view than on Speed's copy. The south transept lay open and windowless, while the nave was completely unroofed. The Abbey Church had been stripped of its lead at the Dissolution and being left exposed to the elements, the fabric had badly deteriorated. In 1572, the Corporation bravely decided to rebuild it as the city's parish church, replacing several of the smaller churches that can be seen on Savile. It was to be a long struggle. The proceeds of a national collection in 1573-80 covered the chancel and repaired the north transept, but much remained to be done. Savile pleads eloquently for a restoration of this great church 'so beautiful & so fitt for gods service'. The second burst of rebuilding started around 1604 and the finishing touch came in 1617 with the carving of the great west doors. No doubt Long Harry would have been delighted to know that his map was shown in Bath this year as part of the effort to raise money for Bath Abbey 2000, our own generation's restoration campaign.

First published in Bath City Life Winter 1992.

Further reading

Jean Manco, Henry Savile's map of Bath, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History vol. 136 (for 1992)