As we have seen in Part I – The Age of Discovery John Dee was, among many other things, a learned geographer commissioned by Elizabeth I to establish the boundaries of the Queen's Empire. Dee is credited with bringing the term the “British Empire” into common usage and in so-doing produced a number of works for this purpose including “The Limits of the British Empire” and “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries”. Dee's works fed the aspirations of the Tudor crown and argued that Queen Elizabeth could claim sovereignty over a vast tract of the Northern polar regions and significantly areas of the New World.
For this Dee used sources that identified discoveries of these areas of the globe by Brendan the Navigator, John Madoc and King Arthur, the Tudor's own Welsh ancestor. Dee claimed that in times past King Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland in addition to the Northern Polar regions. The credibility of Dee's sources have been the subject of much debate.
In the 9th century Arthur was known to the Britons as a mighty warrior, the dux bellorum, the leader of battles of the Historia Brittonum rallying the Britons against the Anglo Saxons in Post-Roman times. But here he was no King, the text merely states he fought alongside the kings of Britain. According to the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum, Arthur's military successes, twelve in all, culminated at the Battle of Badon, also named by Gildas, and accepted as a historical event dated to around 600 AD.
By the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century work Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur had became a King and Emperor who's dominion stretched across northern Europe. In Book 9 of Geoffrey's opus Arthur after conquering the whole of Ireland adds to his government Iceland, Gothland, and the Orkneys and goes on to subdue Norway, Dacia, Aquitaine, and Gaul. Geoffrey's sources have generated as much debate as Dee's; he claimed he based his tale of Arthur on a certain book written in the British tongue, given to him by Walter Archdeacon of Oxford, that he then translated into Latin. We are left to ponder if Geoffrey invented his account of Arthur as ruler of an European Empire stretching to the far northern polar regions, or whether he had based his story on another work, perhaps now lost to us? Similarly, Dee's claims of Arthur as a conqueror of the northern polar regions is also based on lost works.
Geoffrey's account of British history was largely unchallenged for four centuries until Polydore Vergil published his Anglica Historia in 1534 AD in which he denounced the entire history of the Britons, claiming there is “....nothinge more obscure, more uncertaine, or unknowne then the affaires of the Brittons from the beginninge” notably adopting an anti-Arthurian position.
In his Limits of the British Empire, Dee claimed there were indeed many proofs of Arthur's conquests but Polydore had burnt them all. Dee argued there was evidence of King Arthur's conquests in the northern polar regions as he demonstrated in his works Of Famous and Rich Discoveries which included the transcript of a letter of 1577 from the Flemish cartographer Geradus Mercator, a summary of which he included in Limits.
In 1569 Gerard Mercator published an 18-sheet world map, titled Ad usum
navigantium, using the projection that, to this day, still bears his name. He depicted the northern polar regions as a small inset map in the lower left-hand corner of his large wall map. Mercator depicted the polar region as being made up of four surrounding islands, separated by four strong flowing rivers, which carried the oceans of the world towards a giant whirlpool at the pole where there stood a large rock. These northern islands had not appeared on Mercator’s world map of 1538.
In January 1577 Dee had written to Abraham Ortelius the Flemish cartographer and creator of the first modern atlas, inquiring as to what authority he had used in inserting the names of Cape Paramantia, Los Jardinos and others on the north coast of North America, names which appeared on no other known map. Dee was obsessed with the notion that the whole northern shore could be circumnavigated to reach the Eastern Ocean. There is no record of Ortelius's response to Dee but he is known to have visited England in the following spring when he met Richard Hakluyt and William Camden in London and visited Dee at Mortlake on 12th March. Just weeks later Martin Frobisher departed on his second voyage, officially to search for the Northwest Passage but secretly commissioned to find gold ore.1
The legend on Mercator's 1569 map claimed the information he based his representation of the northern (Septentrional 2) regions was gleaned from the accounts of James Cnoyen who quoted historical facts of Arthur the Briton, and from a priest who served the King of Norway in 1364, who was a descendant of those whom Arthur had sent to live in these isles. The priest said that in 1360 an English friar from Oxford with an astrolabe 3 who had reached these isles and then pushed on further by magical arts.
Subsequently, Dee wrote to Mercator in 1577 inquiring as to his sources. In his reply Mercator explained the source of his ideas regarding the geography of the far north was the Itinerarium of the Flemish traveller Jacob Cnoyen, which he quoted from in his correspondence to Dee, but now lost. Cnoyen's source was cited as the Res gestae Arturi britanni (or Gestae Arthuri), also lost, and a book written by an English Minorite, a mathematician from Oxford, who had travelled in the far north in 1360 and recorded what he saw in a work called the Inventio fortunata, also now lost.
Influence of the Inventio on later maps
It would appear other cartographers of the time were also working from the Inventio fortunata for description of the northen polar regions. Martin Behaim produced a globe between 1491-93, on the eve of Columbus's journey to the New World, which incorporated the discoveries of the later Middle Ages, such as the voyages of Marco Polo, and the legendary Isle of St Brendan. The Behaim globe shows the northern polar regions as depicted in the Inventio fortunata.
Fifteen years later, in 1507, Johannes Ruysch produced a world map, included in the Rome publication of Ptolemy's Geographia, which in addition to accounts from Marco Polo's travels included information from Columbus and the voyages of John Cabot of Bristol. Ruysch's depiction of the northern polar regions claimed it was based on the account found in the Inventio fortunata; in the legend to his map he states, “We read in the book 'De Inventio Fortunatae' that beneath the Arctic Pole there is a high rock of magnetic stone 33 German miles in circumference. The indrawing sea surrounds this rock flowing as if in a vessel that let's water down a hole. There are four surrounding islands....bordered by huge mountains. Here the indrawing sea begins. Here the ship's compass does not hold, nor can ships containing iron turn back.”4
The configuration of the Arctic regions continued to be reproduced on later maps such as Orontius Finaeus’ Nova et Integra Universi Orbis Descriptio, published in 1534-6 and Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570.
Mercator died in 1594; a year later a map of the northern polar regions, Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio, very similar to the inset map of the northern polar region Mercator had made on his world map of 1569, was printed by his son and widely reproduced thereafter.
|Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio |
map of the Arctic 1595 by Gerard Mercator
“In North Norway, which is called 'Dusky Norway' there are three months of darkness during which there is no sunlight but perpetual twilight. From North Norway you cannot reach the Indrawing sea which lies further northward beyond Grocland. The North Norway stretches as far as the mountain range that encompasses the north pole......It is well known that beyond 70' or 78' latitude there is no human habitation. Moreover, this 78th parallel goes in a circle around the Arctic pole in the form of a high mountain range.
The islands adjacent to the north pole were formerly called Cilliae (perhaps Thule) and now the Septentrionales: among them is North Norway. And near here, towards the north, those Little People live whom there is also mention in the Gestae Arthuri. And there borders on it a beautiful open land which lies between the Province of Darkness and the Province of Bergi. Between these provinces and these lands lie an Indrawing Sea, so called because the current flows so strongly northwards that no wind can make a ship sail backwards against it. And here it is all ice from October to March.
The priest with the astrolabe related to the King of Norway that in AD 1360 there had come to these Northern Islands an English Minorite from Oxford, who was a good astronomer. The priest received the astrolabe from this Minorite in exchange for a testament. Leaving the rest of the party the Minorite journeyed further through the whole of the North and put into writing all the wonders of these islands which he presented as a book to King Edward which he called in Latin the Inventio Fortunata, which began at the last climate, 54' continuing to the Pole. The Minorite has journeyed to and fro five times on business for the king.
This monk said the mountain range goes round the north like a wall, save for nineteen places where the indrawing channels flow through into four innermost seas. The mountain range is surrounded by sea except at North Norway. Inside the mountain range there is no habitation except in the eastside where there were 23 people not above 4 feet tall. This monk said that in two other places further inland he found a great piece of ship's planking and other balks which had been used in big ships besides many tree trunks that had been hewn down at some earlier date; so with certainty he could saw there was formerly habitation but the people had now gone.”5
At this time no explorer had been anywhere near the North Pole, and today we view the ring of islands shown surrounding the North Pole on this map as a mythical concept; it would seem the author of the Inventio fortunata may have travelled northwards from latitude 54' but cannot have actually reached the North Pole; the Arctic world he describes is far from reality. Yet his concept of the northern polar regions persisted for a remarkable length of time.
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. EGR Taylor, A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, Imago Mundi 13: pp.56–68, 1956
2. The Septentrionales, named after the seven stars of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) or Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) featuring the current northern pole, or North Star (Polaris): James Robert Enterline - Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. In Homer's Iliad it is called "the Bear, which men also call the Wain."
3. An astrolabe modelled the daily rotation of the star map throughout the seasons and included a graduated scale for measuring the elevation angle of a star above the horizon yielding the observer's latitude: Enterline, Ibid.
5. EGR Taylor, op.cit.
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