John Speed probably born in St Paul’s Cathedral’s churchyard, where his father lived and carried on a tailoring business. John Speed was brought up to carry on the family trade and in 1580 he became a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company in the City. The Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of John the Baptist in the City of London (to give it its full name) developed from being a religious fraternity to being a craft association of tailors and linen armourers. To do business in the City, a tailor had to be a liveryman (member) of the guild. They received their first charter from Edward III in 1327. Stow, the historian, and Sir John Hawkwood, the soldier-of-fortune or condottiere were also liverymen.
It seems that Speed attracted the attention of Sir Fulk Greville, and under his patronage Speed was freed from the need to follow his father into tailoring and was able to pursue his true interest, which was map making and history.
In 1582, he married and settled, probably in Moorfields, where he leased some land from the Merchant Taylors’ Company for twenty shillings a year. He built a house on the land which he described as a “fayer house which possibly may stand him in £400.”
Here he worked on his history and map making Between 1608 and 1610, he produced a series of fifty four maps of the counties of England and Wales.
His great work of history, first published in 1611, was entitled The History of Great Britain under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans with the successions, lives, Acts and issues of the English Monarchs from Julius Caesar to King James. The publication of this work established Speed’s claim to be one of the first true English historians as opposed to a chronicler or annalist. It was so popular that it went to three editions, the last in 1633.
The accompanying atlas volume was called The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. It is one of the most influential atlases of the British Isles ever published and it contains maps of the entire British Isles, the individual nations, and separate maps for the counties. The atlas rather than the history is Speed’s main claim to fame today.
Another atlas called The Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World was published in In 1627.
Speed died in Moorfield’s and is buried in St Giles Churchyard, next to his wife. The entries in the registers of his own and his wife’s burial are as follows : “Mr. John Speed, Merchantalor (Buried) 31st July, 1629. Susan, wife of John Speed. Gent. (Buried) 31st March, 1628.” There was a monument to him placed on the wall of the south aisle of St Giles’ church stating he was a faithful servant of Queen Elizabeth, King James I, and King Charles I, and that he died July 28th 1629, aged seventy seven, and that his wife bore him twelve sons and six daughters.