Tucked away in the depths of our library stacks is a little box about the size of a cigarette packet. Inside is a complete deck of Robert Morden’s Playing Cards – or, to be strictly accurate, a facsimile of the set, because only one original pack of these particular cards, produced in 1676, is known to exist. Our copy dates from 1972, and must have been acquired with some enthusiasm by a former librarian, as a pencilled note on the outside reads: 17/5/1972, £1.00 + 10p post.
In his day, the publisher Robert Morden (1650-1703) was one of the country’s foremost commercial map-makers, and these 52 cards depict the various counties of England and Wales. What makes the deck especially noteworthy is the fact that it depicts roads – making it, effectively, the first British atlas ever to do so. Let’s take a look at an example from each of the four suits…
Yorkshire is up first – of course – and the first thing to notice about this card is King Charles II in the top-right corner, the ruling monarch at the time of publication. (A little-known fact about Charles is that he actually joined in the fire-fighting effort during the Great Fire of London, ten years before this pack of cards was published.) The county’s principal city is given as York, with its distance from London and latitude listed at the bottom. Also given some prominence is Richmond, site of a castle that was already 700 years old when these cards came out, and around it the hills that make up what we now call the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Elsewhere on the map, you should be able to spot Leeds, although its spelling is not the one we use today!
Radnorshire is next, with its figurehead being Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II and the woman credited with popularising tea-drinking in Britain (a custom she brought over from her native Portugal). If you didn’t know, Radnorshire is in central Wales. Its original county town, Radnor, is now known as New Radnor but has been exceeded in size and significance by several other local towns. Look closely and you’ll see a castle depicted. In 1676, this would still have been standing but, today, only its earthworks remain.
Rutland is the smallest of England’s historic counties, with its circumference given here as a mere 42 miles. In fact it’s so small, it still only has two towns today, both visible on the card: the county town of Oakham (again spelled slightly differently here) and Uppingham, site of another long-gone castle. The emblem of Rutland is a horseshoe, and it remains a tradition that any royalty passing through should present one to the Lord of the Manor. Speaking of royalty, we’re not sure if the Jack in the top corner is intended to represent a particular person but, unlike the faces of the King and Queen, he differs across the four suits.
Our first ‘pip’ (i.e. numbered) card bears the value five and, if you look closely at the red diamond in the top-left, you can just make out the tail of the Arabic numeral poking out from underneath. It’s a quirk of this deck that many of the figures have been obscured by the printing process in this way. Anyway, Hampshire is the county in question, here going by its older but still-used abbreviation of Hants, which relates to its spelling in the Domesday Book as ‘Hantescire’. The principal city is named as Southampton – but where is it? You may not spot it straight away. Quite visible, however, is Winchester, the county town and home of one of the largest cathedrals in Europe.
Remember Robert Morden next time you’re playing cards, and just think: while you’re waiting for your turn, you could have been learning all about the geography of Britain – not to mention the history. You can request the cards from the Information and Research department, at shelf mark SR 912.42 M811 (but do please note that they’re for reference use only and ID will be required in order to view).