Ralph Agas

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Part of Agas's map of Oxford (1578)

Ralph Agas (or Radulph Agas) (c. 1540 – 26 November 1621), English land surveyor, was born at Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, about 1540, and entered upon the practice of his profession in 1566.

Letters which he wrote to Lord Burghley, describing the methods of surveying, are still existing, and a kind of advertising prospectus of his abilities, in which he describes himself as clever at arithmetic and "skilled in writing smaule, after the skantelinge & proportion of copiynge the Oulde & New Testamentes seven tymes in one skinne of partchmente without anie woorde abbreviated or contracted, which maie also serve for drawinge discriptions of contries into volumes portable in verie little cases".[1]

He is best known for his maps of Oxford (1578), Cambridge (1592) and London. Copies of the first two are preserved in the Bodleian Library. Of the map of London including Southwark and Westminster, which was probably prepared about 1591, two copies have been preserved, one by the Corporation of London and the other in the Pepysian collection at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The map is over six feet long, printed from wooden blocks, and gives a valuable picture of the London of Elizabeth's time. Agas died at Stoke-by-Nayland, 26 November 1621.[1]


Agas rose to eminence in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by making maps of London, Cambridge and Oxford. He was a native of Stoke-by-Nayland, in Suffolk, and it is probable that his birth occurred between the years 1540 and 1545. In 1566 he began to practise as a land-surveyor.[2]

It appears that he used to reside chiefly in Suffolk, coming up to town in term time to obtain orders. In the Lansdowne and the Additional MSS. there are several original documents written in a very neat hand by Agas himself. The first is a letter, dated 22 Feb. 1592–3, and addressed to Lord Burghley, lord high treasurer to Queen Elizabeth. It is entitled A Noate for the Perfection of Lande Measure, and exact Plattinge of Cities, Castels, Honors, Lordshippes, Maners, and Landes of all sortes. In this quaint description of the manner of surveying lands, the writer speaks of the 'profitable staff' and the 'theodolite' of some 20 inches in diameter, with a protractor of one foot at least. He adds that "the measure attendinge uppon this instrument is of steele wier toe pole longe lincked foote by foote, excepte the halfe foot at either ende." The next document in point of date is addressed to the same nobleman. It is dated in pencil 1597. In this he speaks of his labours in the Fenlands, and states how he had plotted out the ground, gauged the quantity of the waters, the ebbs and flows, and the daily abuses of the landholders; and, while thanking his lordship for bounties already bestowed, alludes to a considerable sum still owing to him for his services. There is also a document in the form of an advertisement printed on a half-sheet quarto, to be issued to his patrons. In this he describes himself as of Stoke-next-Nayland in Suffolk, and asserts that he had practised in survey for more than forty years. He states that he had a perfect knowledge of customary tenures and titles of all kinds, that he was a good penman and well acquainted with old records. In another manuscript, dated 1606, there is an opinion given by him to the commissioners appointed to inquire into the question of concealed lands belonging to the crown. On 17 Nov. 1606, we find him lodging in London at the sign of the 'Helmet' in Holborn, at the end of Fetter Lane; and if we desire to learn what manner of man he was, his qualities, abilities, and pursuits, he has left us ample means of doing so, in a very quaint document issued doubtless as an advertisement. From this it becomes evident that he entertained a very good opinion of himself. Besides his knowledge of surveying, he was able to read old records, and to restore any that were worn, "obliterated, or dimmed," as well as to make calendars to them. He could find the weight and measure of any solid body. He was clever at arithmetic, and was an adept "in writing smaule, after the skantelinge & proportion of copiynge the Oulde & New Testamentes seven tymes in one skinne of partchmente, without anie woorde abbreviate or contracted, which maie also serve for drawinge discriptions of contries into volumes portable in verie little cases".[2]

He had a receipt for the preservation of the eye; he could remove and replant without injury trees of a ton weight; and had had forty years' experience in his profession. It is clear, however, from some documents first published by Mr. Peter Cunningham, that the life of Agas was by no means free from troubles. He had married the widow of John Payne, of Stoke-by-Nayland. Family disputes arose as to the disposition of Payne's property, and in one of these quarrels Agas's brother-in-law, Ives, was wounded in the back with a pitchfork. Eventually the matter came before the Court of Star Chamber. In the bill presented to the court Agas and his sons were described as the most pestilent fellows in the neighbourhood, and Agas himself as "one that in former times hath used the office of magister, and was sometymes parson of Dereham, in the county of Norfolk, being deprived of his benefice for his lewd life and bad conditions, and being deformed in shape and body as in conditions." The answer of the defendants in the suit asserted that many of the allegations in the bill were absurd, ridiculous, and untrue, and further, "that the same Radulph Agas was never a parson of Dereham in Norfolk, neyther had anything to do eyther with the church, personage, or minister there; neither was ever deprived from any church or benefice whatsoever, as is falsely and maliciously in the said bill suggested and intended. And touching the infirmity and bodily weakness of the same Radulph Agas, one of the defendants, he saith, that as he received the same by the providence of God in his mother's wombe, so hath he always with humble thanks to his Creator willingly borne and suffered that his infirmity." The decision of the Star Chamber is not known, as the records of that tribunal are lost.[2]

He published: A Preparative to Platting of Landes and Tenements for Surueigh. Shewing the diversitie of sundrie instruments applyed thereunto. Patched vp as plainly together, as boldly offered to the curteous view and regard of all worthie Gentlemen, louers of skill, And published instead of his flying papers, which cannot abide the pasting to poasts, Lond. 1596, 4to. This was written at his "lodging at the Flower de Luce, ouer against the Sunne without Fleetbridge." It is only an admonitory essay, and the author says he contemplated writing a full technical treatise on the subject.[2]


Civitas Londinium; Agas' Map of London, (1570-1605?)

He is best remembered for his maps—really bird's-eye views—of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. The earliest was the plan of Oxford, dated 1578, of which a copy is preserved in the Bodleian Library. A copy, probably unique, of the plan of Cambridge, dated 1592, is also preserved there. These maps were bequeathed to the Bodleian Library by Dr. Rawlinson. The plan of Oxford was re-engraved by Robert Whittlesey, at the charge of the university, in 1728. This plate was destroyed in the fire at John Nichol's works in 1808. Of the plan of the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent, two copies were preserved, one of in the Pepysian collection at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the other the property of the Corporation of London. There has been much dispute as to the exact date of this view of the metropolis of England as it existed in the time of Queen Elizabeth; William Henry Overall, F.S.A., came to the conclusion that it could not have been prepared earlier than about the year 1591.[2]

The map is 6½ feet long and 2 feet 4½ inches wide, and is printed from wooden blocks. In 1737 George Vertue, the engraver and antiquary, published a pretended copy of Agas's map of London, stating that it was executed in 1560, and that it gave a true representation of the metropolis as it existed at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign. Vertue crowned his pretended copy with the date 1560 in Roman numerals, made palpable alterations and omissions in order that he might retain the delusive date, and took other unwarrantable liberties with the object of disguising the fraud. The unhappy result of this tinkering of the original design was that numerous subsequent antiquaries were victims of the deception. Mr. Overall is of opinion that Vertue, having become possessed of the parts of a copy of the map made by some unknown Dutch engraver in the reign of William III, caused them to be "tinkered," probably for the purpose of deceiving his antiquarian friends. A correct facsimile of Agas's original plan was published.[3]

Agas likewise executed a plan of Dunwich in Suffolk, which was engraved for Thomas Gardner's history of the town (1744). The original later came into the possession of David Elisha Davy, the Suffolk antiquary. Agas's ‘Supervisio Manerii de Comerde Magna, alias Abbas Haule, co. Suff.’ is preserved in MS. Sloan. 3664.[4]


  1. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ a b c d e Cooper 1885, pp. 173–175.
  3. ^ Cooper 1885, p. 175 cites: Civitas Londinum. Ralph Agas. A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, published in fac-simile from the original in the Guildhall Library, with a biographical account of Ralph Agas and a critical and historical examination of the work and of the several so-called reproductions of it by Vertue and others. By William Henry Overall, F.S.A., Librarian to the Corporation of London. The fac-simile by Edward J. Francis.’ Lond. 1874, 4to.
  4. ^ Cooper 1885, p. 175.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Agas, Radulph". Encyclopædia Britannica 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCooper, Thompson (1885). "Agas, Radulph". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 1. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 173–175.  Endnotes:
    • Overall's Biography of Agas;
    • Overall's paper laid before Society of Antiquaries, Dec. 11, 1873;
    • MS. Lansd. 73, f. 107; 84. f. 69; 165, f. 91; MS. Addit. 12497, f. 342, 346; 19165, f. 127;
    • Biog. Dict., Soc. D. U. K.;
    • Gent. Mag. N.S. xii. {??}, 463. 592, xxxv. 468, 578;
    • Bolton Corney, {??} Henry John Rose, New Biographical Dictionary (1839), 23, 31–{??};
    • Gough's British Topography; Macray's Annals of the Bodleian Library, 335;
    • Dodd's Connoisseur's Repertory, vol. i.; Brayley's Londiniana, {??}1*–84*;
    • MS. Addit. 19165, f. 127;
    • Notes and Queries, 3rd series, xii. 504;
    • Gardner's Historical Account of Dunwich (1744);
    • Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities, ed. Herbert; MS. Sloan. 3664;
    • Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, ed. Stanley (1849), p. 679.

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