LONG before the advent of satnav, John Speed was putting together the finishing touches to his most important work.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the monumental book, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.

Speed had been born in Farndon, on the Cheshire-Wrexham border, in 1552. He was the son of a tailor and became his father’s apprentice, working in Cheshire before eventually moving to London.

The young Speed began to mix in academic circles and started to pursue his interest in history and cartography.

Following the publication of his first map, of Canaan, in 1595, he joined the College of Antiquaries (now the Society of Antiquaries) and gained the patronage of Sir Fulke Greville.

Greville was a wealthy man who served the English Crown under Elizabeth I and James I as, successively, treasurer of the Navy, Chancellor of the Exchequer and commissioner of the Treasury.

For his services, in 1621 he was made Baron Brooke and granted Warwick Castle, which he substantially improved.

Greville’s financial support enabled Speed to give up tailoring and concentrate on his mapmaking

Although Speed is known as a mapmaker, according to Cheshire county archivist Jonathan Pepler he would have considered himself first and foremost a historian.

Speed made no secret of the fact he used the work of predecessors such as Christopher Saxton when making his maps. As he termed it: “I put my scythe into other men’s corn.”

With the assistance of his contemporary William Smith, he used existing maps as a guide and added ‘new’ features.

Holt Bridge, for example, appears on Speed’s map of Cheshire but on no earlier known maps.

The homes – and arms – of the Earls of Cheshire are shown here with great estates such as Eyton also clearly marked.

This, Mr Pepler notes, reflects the cartographer’s interest in genealogy – and would also have made the work more commercially appealing.

“If they saw that their estate was mentioned, they’d have been more likely to buy the map,” he explained.

Speed’s great atlas contained the first set of individual county maps of England and Wales as well as maps of Ireland and a general map of Scotland.

What made his maps different from those of his predecessors Saxton and Norden was that for the most part they included plans of the county town – in the case of his Cheshire map, a plan of Chester.

They are extremely useful, particularly to a historian but would not, at the time, have been used in the way that we use maps today.

“The important thing about this is that, for the first time, you get an idea about the relationship between different places in the county,” said Mr Pepler.

“It’s the roads that are conspicuous in their absence from the originals. They weren’t intended as guides for travellers.

“To our current eye they are very unsophisticated but they do give you an idea of population sizes relative to the place, rivers and features.

“They carried on printing these maps as current for another 160 years.”

Speed went on to publish A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, which was the first world atlas produced by an Englishman.

He died in 1629 and was buried with his wife in St Giles-without-Cripplegate church in London.

A memorial to the cartographer was also erected behind the altar.

The church was bombed during the Blitz of 1940-1941 but Speed’s bust was one of the few memorials to survive.