An incredibly scarce copy of one of the earliest atlases ever produced in the UK is set to be exhibited at a library in Leeds.

Comprising 35 meticulously detailed, hand-coloured maps depicting the counties of England and Wales, this captivating tome was crafted by Christopher Saxton, known as the ‘father of English cartography,’ who hailed from Yorkshire. In the year 1579, following official authorisation from Queen Elizabeth I, Saxton embarked on the ambitious project.

Supported by financial backing from Thomas Seckford, the monarch’s master of requests, Saxton commenced the formidable undertaking in 1574. His mission involved traversing the entire nation to conduct surveys of each county and amass the minutiae required for his atlas.

The resultant work, a dedication to The Queen, reached completion in 1578. Upon its publication the ensuing year, it served as the cornerstone for all subsequent county maps for over a century. Indeed, Saxton’s Atlas retained its status as the preeminent geographical representation of England and Wales until the Ordnance Survey initiated the publication of one-inch maps in 1801.

Among the atlas’s pages, the designations ‘Ledes’ and ‘Bradforthe’ grace the spaces for what is now known as Leeds and Bradford, denoting their historical names. Saxton himself was believed to have been born in Dewsbury during the early 1540s before relocating to the southern part of Leeds.

While most of the maps within the atlas were etched onto individual copper plates, Saxton deemed Yorkshire significant enough to warrant two plates, rendering the map of his native county twice the size of the England and Wales representation.

The rarity and esteemed value of this volume have led experts to liken it to a map enthusiast’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s first folio. Esteemed cartographer Thomas Chubb articulated that, for any aficionado of maps, this piece would stand as the “principal gem and ultimate achievement of the collection.”

Philip Wilde, library assistant at Leeds Central Library has been researching the atlas. He said: “This remarkable collection of maps was the very first time anyone had comprehensively mapped the counties of England and Wales in this way, and Saxton’s diligence, dedication and eye for detail completely transformed our understanding of the entire nation.

“Today, thanks to modern technology, being able to see and understand the landscape of the country is always at our fingertips. But centuries ago this atlas would have been a massive leap in how people were able to relate to where they lived and its place in the nation as a whole.

“We’re extremely lucky to have such an important book in our collection both to study and for our visitors to see.”

Librarians at Leeds Central Library have been working with their precious copy of Saxton’s astonishing book and the atlas will be available to see alongside other historic maps during a special heritage open day event at the library on September 9.

Councillor Mary Harland, Leeds City Council’s executive member for communities said: “Our libraries collection is home to some truly unique treasures which have played a huge part in the history of Leeds, Yorkshire and the country as a whole.

“We’re proud to be playing our part in preserving that special heritage and for our visitors to be able to view and be inspired by these remarkable books.”

Saxton’s Atlas is also available to view by appointment for visitors. Visit the Local and Family History Department on the second floor of Leeds Central Library. Two forms of ID (one with your name and another with your address) and at least 24-hour’s notice will be required. Call 0113 378 6982 or email for further details and to book an appointment.