Bodleian display celebrates Oxford geographer Richard Hakluyt and his 'world in a book'

22 October 2016

A selection of Elizabethan travel books and rare maps will be on display at the Bodleian Libraries to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Oxford geographer Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616).

Image of Ricard Hakluyt's World Map 

Hakluyt was an influential writer and editor whose works promoted exploration, commerce and the colonization of North America. He is also considered to be the first to lecture in modern geography at the University of Oxford. 

Visitors can learn more about Hakluyt and his legacy at the small free display, titled The World in a Book: Hakluyt and Renaissance Discovery, which is open at the Weston Library from 22 October to 23 December.

Elizabethan England was the great age of exploration and discovery, a time when Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and when the English colonization of North America first took place.

'Hakluyt knew all the key explorers of the time and corresponded with famous mapmakers such as Ortelius and Mercator,' said curator Anthony Payne. 'His best-known work, The Principal Navigations of the English Nation, was the largest and most compelling travel book of that period in English, gathering together lots of material that would otherwise be lost.'

Image of Ricard Hakluyt's World MapThe display will feature two editions of Hakluyt's book The Principal Navigations of the English Nation. The book is an edited collection of English travels throughout the world ranging from voyages in the fourth century to the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and other maritime heroes of Elizabethan England. Hakluyt's great compendium was celebrated by the Victorian Oxford historian, J A Froude, as 'the prose epic of the modern English nation' and is considered one of the most important collections of travel writing ever published. Hakluyt's works were a fertile source of material for his contemporary, William Shakespeare.

Other highlights of the display include the first Mercator projection world map printed in England. The Mercator projection was designed in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator to help sailors navigate the world, and is still recognisable as one of the most widely used map projections. The display will also include the famous Codex Mendoza, an Aztec pictorial manuscript from Mexico that was once owned by Hakluyt, and one of the few surviving copies of Hakluyt's first book, Divers Voyages, which encouraged English colonial settlement in North America.

Hakluyt studied at Christ Church, Oxford from 1570 to 1577. After graduating he became a fellow of Christ Church and gave public lectures in geography. He writes in Principal Navigations that he was 'the first to show both the old imperfectly composed and the new lately reformed mappes, globes, spheares, and other instruments of this art.'

Image of the Codex Mendoza, fol. 69Hakluyt moved from academia to foreign policy and overseas projects and his works were consulted by senior figures such as Elizabeth I's Secretaries of State Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil and the directors of the newly formed East India Company. He also translated, edited or encouraged the publication of 25 other travel books during his lifetime.

'Hakluyt did a huge amount to promote works that educated English people about the outside world,' said Payne, a historian and antiquarian book dealer who is vice-president of the Hakluyt Society. 'Interestingly, he was profoundly international yet he never travelled further than Paris.'

In addition to the display, there are a number of events taking place across Oxford for the public to learn more about Hakluyt. On 28 October, Dr William Poole of New College will give a free public lecture at the Weston Library about the books that heralded the Elizabethan era of exploration, discovery and expansion. The lecture, which takes place at 5:30pm, will be followed by a drinks reception. The event is free but tickets must be reserved in advance. Christ Church Library is also hosting a free exhibition titled Hakluyt and Geography in Oxford 15501650, which runs until 21 January 2017.

There is also a two-day academic conference, titled Richard Hakluyt and the Renaissance Discovery of the World, taking place 24-25 November. The conference, which is jointly hosted by the Bodleian Libraries and Christ Church, will feature talks by 20 international experts on Hakluyt and early modern travel and exploration. At the conclusion of the conference on 25 November, there will be a free public lecture by broadcaster and historian Michael Wood, titled Voyages, Traffiques, Discoveries. The lecture, which is sponsored by the Hakluyt Society, will take place at the University of Oxford's Examination Schools at 5pm. No registration is required.

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