2. William Bowes 1590


Playing cards were common in Europe in the late fifteenth century. In times when there was little or no organized schooling they were fairly widely used for educational purposes with texts on a great variety of subjects. The earliest records of such cards in England date to 1463 when a prohibition on the importation of cards was published. The standard pack, first introduced from France, has remained constant since the sixteenth century: fifty-two cards made up of four suits, with thirteen cards in each. The spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs are of French origin, and might seem rather lacklustre compared to the colourful and complex German (acorns, leaves, bells and hearts) or Italian (cups, swords, coins and sticks) counterparts.

In 1590 the first geographic set of cards bearing county maps appeared in England, followed by a second in 1605 (3); evidence points to W Bowes being the author of both packs.1 The 52 county maps in this first series are copied from the small general map of England and Wales in Christopher Saxton’s atlas, and show only the county boundary, principal towns, rivers, hills and woods. The towns are indicated by initial letters, and their character is shown by symbols explained in a legend on a separate card. The 60 cards were engraved on four sheets. Devon was on the fourth sheet together with a reduced copy of Braun and Hogenberg’s view of London. Devon as the largest county in its suit was the King (thirteenth card). There were no suit marks. Almost exact copies of these maps together with John Norden’s road distance tables appeared in Mathew Simons’ Direction for the English Traviller (9).

No later edition of the playing cards is known; but a set of them in private ownership forms part of a bound volume of ten plates published as a collection, with a printed title-page listing the plates and the instruction card is signed W. B. inuent. 1590. The second pack of cards has the imprint W. Bowes Inventor, hence the assumption that they are both by the same person. The cards are normally attributed to William Bowes (see for example the British Museum pages where all the cards are illustrated).

There is strong evidence to suggest that the maps were engraved specifically for Bowes by Augustine Ryther, one of the engravers employed by Saxton. An important cartographic achievement of the pack was the fact that it represented the first publication of each English and Welsh county as a separate map; Saxton had grouped a number of counties together.

The small map is surrounded by a wide decorative frame (the example in the British Library being coloured green - the text panels are pink), and information about the county is given in eight lines of text from William Camden’s Britannia, four lines above and below the map.


Size of card 94 x 57 mm. Scale bar (10 = 6 mm).

Map panel 48 x 48 mm.   Scale 1M = 0.6 mm.        

The number XIII in Roman numerals in central panel. DENSHIRE in upper and lower panels which contain topographical information including distances (above) and general information (below). 

1. 1590 Set of playing cards  
    London. W B. 1590.  S2, M&K1, BL2, RGS, P.

[1] See especially Mann and Kingsley; PLAYING CARDS; The Map Collectors’ Circle; No. 87, 1972.

[2] Illustrations courtesy of the British Library. A second set was purchased in 2014. The complete set of cards is illustrated on-line - see the British Museum page at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1938-0709-57-1-60 . Devon is on the third sheet. See also Tom Harper´s blog for the British Library of October 2014 giving more background details at https://blogs.bl.uk/magnificentmaps/2014/10/new-acquisition-the-bowes-playing-cards-of-1590.html