The Nine Lives of John Ogilby: Britain's Master Mapmaker and his Secrets
Alan Ereira
356pp, 41 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £25

A road, as the Romans knew, is spatial proof of power, a means to the end of government. When the Romans left Britannia, the state of the roads declined and, it is commonly believed, the geography, both mental and political, declined too. The roads were still in bad repair in the mid-17th century, when the shadowy polymath, John Ogilby, took to the highways and byways of England and Wales to compile his 'road-atlas', Britannia, for Charles II.

But, as Ereira argues in his fast-moving and ingenious The Nine Live of John Ogilby, Britannia, published in 1675, was more than a Restoration road map. He argues that the 100 maps it contained were not just 'an instrument of conquest and of government', they had 'a secret agenda' that 'went to the heart' of making a modern state.

Variously a dancer, lawyer, soldier, sea captain, impresario, poet and publisher, Ogilby survived war, shipwreck and a knee injury that ended his dancing career. He built the first theatre in Ireland with his own money and, in 1666, saw the Great Fire of London at firsthand. But it is his 'ninth life' as a 'secret agent' that fascinates Ereira. After the Restoration of 1660, Ogilby became Royal Cosmographer to Charles II but, instead of studying heavenly bodies, he focused instead on earthly pathways.

He identified the Peutinger Table, a schematic diagram of the 4th–5th-century Roman road network, which he used as the basis for his map. The Peutinger Table shows the distance between towns from Ireland to India yet, says Ereira, it is not a road map. Nor is the Gough Map, a 14th-century map that measures the way- stations between London and York in terms of leagues (a league being an hour's travelling on a good day). People did not need road maps until the modern age. Merchants went by sea whenever possible and, if they travelled overland, they were guided by 'networks of colleagues'. The word 'travel' did not exist until the 15th century and its derivation from travail, suggests that suffering was involved even during a short journey. In the county maps of John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1611), towns are shown without connecting roads.

Ogilby's map shows the human and physical geography between towns. Using a dimensurator wheel of the kind still used by surveyors, he produced highly accurate measurements of roads that barely existed. Britannia's scale, one inch to one mile, was still being used by the Ordnance Survey in the 1970s.

He claimed that Britannia was meant to foster 'Commerce and Correspondency', but Ereira detects a discreet political purpose. To recover the throne after the Cromwellian republic, Charles II had consented to parliamentary limits on his authority but, in 1669, he tried to become the 'absolute master of his land', an absolutist like his brother-in-law, Louis XIV of France. He signed a secret treaty with Louis XIV, promising to 'reconcile himself with the Church of Rome' and accept French troops on his territory in case of rebellion.

Ereira assembles a convincing case that Britannia was a blueprint for Charles II's absolutist kingdom. The port of Liverpool, a 'Puritan stronghold', is not, for example, on the map. Instead it is replaced by its reliably Catholic neighbour Chester as the departure point for Ireland. Aberystwyth is on the map not just because of its silver mines, but also because it was a potential landing-stage if Charles II had to ferry over troops from Ireland.

The king's treaty remained secret for 100 years, long after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 thwarted the chances of an absolutist Restoration. The modern state grew regardless. Ogilby fostered it, by changing the nature of travel and tying mental and political geographies more successfully than any mapmaker since Roman times. Ereira's book brings Ogilby's career to life, intrigue and all.
Dominic Green