Above: A small part of the so-called ‘Agas’ map, first published about 1561, showing the land around Fleet Street.
The first complete map of Inner London in existence today is actually not a map but a ‘bird’s eye view’ originally made as a wood-cut about 1561. Only three paper copies of the map exist today. Over their long life an 18th century historian attributed the map to a well-known mapmaker called Ralph Agas. The only trouble is, Agas made a map of Oxford but he is not likely to have made the London map. However, since the originator of the London map is not known, having a ‘handle’ even if it is the wrong name is useful. Every librarian and archivist knows the story and so calling the map the ‘Agas map’ is known to be incorrect but it is a well-used quick name for the map.
The section above shows the land between Fleet Street and the Thames with a few of the buildings on the north side of Fleet Street also to be seen. The colouring was added by the author to highlight the buildings that can be identified. Starting at the west (left hand) edge of the map section we see the large roof on Temple Bar which was then a sturdy gateway built across the road where the Strand meets Fleet Street.
Fleet Street is named on the map and is seen to run east from Temple Bar to a little stone bridge crossing the River Fleet. It is shown as ‘Fleete bruge’ possibly indicating that the mapmaker was Flemish or German-speaking because the German word for a bridge is ‘Die Brücke’. It would appear that the artist lapsed into his native tongue while labelling the map.
On the north side of Fleet Street we see the church of St Dunstan in the West – with its churchyard jutting out into the roadway and a strangely spelt name above its tower. On the south side of the roadway are a large number of vague rooftops surrounding a small building with the word ‘Temple’ on its roof. This is a rather poor representation of the Temple Church and the houses around it represent the Inner Temple. The roadway leading down to the river stairs (labelled ‘The Temple’) with the archway at the Fleet Street end represents Middle Temple Lane. The large cluster of trees shown below the Temple church marks the Inner Temple garden.
To the east of the land of the Temple is the site of the old Whitefriars Priory which was closed at the time of the Dissolution of the Monsateries. The name is beside the river stairs and all the alleyways coloured yellow were once part of the large site. A large building (coloured beige) with three pilasters probably represents the large priory church which was then being dismantled. Along the eastern side is shown ‘Water Lane’ – now known as Whitefriars Street.
Further east is another large building coloured beige with a large garden below it. Above the building is shown ‘Salisburiei Co’. The name should be Salisbury Court and it is a street name to this day. It led to the property of the Bishops of Salisbury and, at the time of the map, the old house was being demolished.
Beside the south side of Fleet Street is a church with ‘C’ on the tower. It is St Bride, Fleet Street, seen as the pre-Great Fire building. After the Great Fire (1666) it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren.
Between the church and the river is a long complex of buildings arranged around two grassy courtyards. It represents Bridewell Palace which was built between 1515 and 1523 for Henry VIII on the site of earlier structures. In the 1980s or 1990s new offices were erected on this land the footings of the Tudor walls seen on the Agas map were discovered in the ground during an archaeological dig. There is a short street called Bridewell Place on the site today – retaining the old name.
Running near the right-hand edge of the map section can be see the River Fleet. By the time of the map it was already becoming blocked with rubbish that the local residents and traders cast into it. As can be seen it flowed into the Thames on the west side of part of the old Roman Wall around the City of London.
Do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the style of the map. All that you see on the map was the result of a skilled craftsman cutting away at a block of wood. The ‘black lines’ were formed by leaving the wood. All the blank spaces had to be chiseled away. As if that was not difficult enough, remember that the craftsman also had to work in reverse – so that when ink was applied to the block it printed the ‘correct’ way round. The whole work is nothing short of remarkable. As a final thought, there was no room for errors on those wooden blocks. No mistakes could be remedied at a later stage.