About the Gough Map

Section of the Gough Map showing part of Lincolnshire
Figure 1. Section of the Gough Map showing part of Lincolnshire. Lincoln is at the bottom centre, Boston is at the top centre.

The Gough Map is the earliest known sheet map of Britain, noted for its remarkable accuracy, particularly in south east England, and its abundance of cartographical detail. It shows the major rivers and numerous settlements in the form of icons, ranging in status from a single building to complex arrangements of castle towers, church spires, buildings and walls. These icons are accompanied by written place names, although many are now illegible due to fading. Attention is often drawn to a network of red lines, with distance markers, which link some settlements.

The Gough Map remains a mystery. It had no immediate precedent, and the sophistication of its cartography was not matched for at least another 180 years. And for all its detail, key questions remain unanswered:

  • Who made it?
  • What was its purpose?
  • How was it used?

A medieval road network?

Early attempts to understand the map focused on the red lines and settlements. Commentators such as Richard Gough, an early owner of the map, concluded that the red lines indicated a road network.1Richard Gough, A British Topography: Or, An Historical Account of What Has Been Done for Illustrating the Topographical Antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland, London: Printed for T.Payne and Son, and J. Nichols, 1780), p. 84. F. M. Stenton took this further in 1970 by suggesting that, regardless of the red lines, most, if not all, of the settlements were located on important roads2E. J. S. Parsons and F. M. Stenton, The Map of Great Britain circa A.D. 1360 known as The Gough Map: An Introduction to the Facsimile (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 16, footnote 1., although he provided no supporting evidence.

In the twenty-first century, research has moved on from investigating roads to a more detailed examination of other aspects of the map. In 2006, Nick Millea, commenting on the red lines, suggested that they were "graphic devices to indicate distances, rather than representations of existing highways".3Nick Millea, The Gough Map: The Earliest Road Map of Great Britain? (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2007), p. 32.  But other research avenues do not necessarily diminish the relevance of a road network and, in some contexts, could underpin them. If there was an administrative motivation for the map, roads with well-known stopping places for the shoeing of horses or overnight stays, would be important for messengers of the political and religious elites. Likewise, if the purpose of the map was commercial, then roads that could sustain the transport of wagons or carts laden with goods would be significant. The key reason for thinking that a network of roads can be inferred from the Gough Map is the existence of a system of important roads which had already been established in Britain by the thirteenth century. The structures that held that system in place and determined its persistence into the early eighteenth century were medieval bridges.

Map Facts

Table 1.
Significance:Earliest sheet map of Britain
Outline:England, Scotland and Wales
Content:Islands, rivers, lakes, settlements marked by names and/or icons, some region names, some historical and economic information, maritime images
Orientation:East is at the top
Size:c. 55 x 116cm
Scale:c. 1:1,000,000
Date:c. 1390-1410, with later amendments
Location:Bodleian Library, Oxford
Title:Named after the antiquarian, and former owner of the map, Richard Gough (1735-1809)
Introductory reading:The Gough Map: The Earliest Road Map of Great Britain? by Nick Millea