A Fickle Friend: Lime Street (City of London)

The so-called album amicorum is a book of ‘autographs’ collected by wandering scholars as they roamed between universities. The craze started in the middle of the sixteenth century. A typical album page contains a poem or prose text in Latin or Greek (sometimes in Hebrew) and a formal greeting to the owner of the book. As part of the salutation there may be a heraldic shield or an emblematic picture. The best known example is the album of Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. He started his collection in 1574 and continued doing so until his death in 1598. More than 130 of his contemporaries are represented. The cosmopolitan list of friends includes William Camden, Gerhard Mercator, Christopher Plantin, Philip Galle, Justus Lipsius, John Dee, Jean Bodin, and many others. The album represents a European community of learned friends.

Geographer and map-maker Abraham Ortelius was born in Antwerp. His ground-breaking Theatrum orbis terrarum first appeared in 1570 and continued to be published until 1612. It is considered the first atlas as we know it: a collection of uniform map sheets with additional text bound together to form a book. Ortelius supplied a useful source list to his work (the ‘Catalogus auctorum’ identifying the names of contemporary cartographers, and an ‘Index tabularum’, or a list of regions and place names). The original 1570 Latin edition consists of seventy maps on fifty-three sheets. The work cemented Ortelius’s reputation as a leading cartographer and made Flanders a centre of map-making activity, replacing Italy. After its initial release, Ortelius regularly expanded the atlas, re-issuing it in various formats until his death in 1598. In 1612, it had been expanded to 167 plans. By then, the accuracy of the work was called into question by more recent atlases produced in Amsterdam by the Blaeu family and Jodocus Hondius. Astonishingly, during four decades, thirty-one editions were printed in seven different languages.

Many signatories to Ortelius’s book of friends were part of the Lime Street community. A minor road leading from Fenchurch Street to Leadenhall Street, Lime Street was already mentioned in the twelfth century. John Stow (who himself resided in the street) suggests that the name was derived from the making or selling of lime in the area (for use in building and construction). The trade of lime-burners was perpetuated in the London district of Limehouse. The street is now best known as home to the insurer Lloyd’s of London. Lime Street however had a scientific reputation before it became a centre of finance and commerce. Since the 1570s it had been the focus of the European Republic Letters from where many local and refugee intellectuals exchanged ideas and information with their counterparts on the Continent.

In 1581, Antwerp-born merchant and historian Emanuel van Meteren was appointed Consul for ‘the Traders of the Low Countries in London’. Emanuel, a nephew of Abraham Ortelius, was an influential figure who was close to William the Silent, Prince of Orange. He was granted personal access to Henry Hudson’s (now lost) journals, charts, and logbooks which he used for his History of the Netherlands, a unique chronicle of the events of his time. Living among refugees from the Low Countries on Lime Street, he handled the correspondence to and from a number of local scientists in spite of politico-religious upheavals, making sure they received letters, books, maps, plant samples, tarantulas, caterpillars, or rhino horns, that were sent to them from colleagues living all over Europe.


Another outstanding member of this intellectual community was Flemish physician and botanist Mathias L’Obel. Better known under the Latinised name of Lobelius, he was court physician to the Prince of Orange in Delft where he served until his patron’s murder in 1584. In 1590 he was employed as superintendent of the well-stocked Hackney garden owned by the diplomat Edward, Lord Zouche, before being appointed in 1607 as ‘botanographer’ (responsible for describing plants) to the court of James I. It has been calculated that the earliest records of more than eighty English wild plants stand to his credit. He probably introduced the tulip to the country.


A major role in the group was played by Antwerp-born silk merchant Jacob Cool, known as Jacobus Colius Ortelianus (he was the nephew of Abraham Ortelius). His parents belonged to the Dutch-Walloon refugee community in London. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant, but his interests in cartography, poetry, numismatics, and botany came to dominate his life. His scientific pursuits formed the basis for his friendships with scholars such as William Camden, Van Meteren, Carolus Clusius, and Mathias de L’Obel (his father-in-law). He was in continuous contact with Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp through occasional visits and a regular correspondence. The latter send parcels of books and maps to his nephew (and sun flower seeds – a trendy urban garden flower at the time). Scientific contacts between London and Antwerp were close and constructive. Abraham himself resided in London for a time around 1576. Ortelius had been a collector of books and maps for his scholarly purposes. Jacob Cool inherited the collection, part of which he later donated to the library of Pembroke College, Cambridge, including the Liber amicorum. His correspondence was kept at the archives of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars. In an act of vandalism, the letters were sold at public auction in 1955. Today, they are spread throughout various libraries (the Royal Library at The Hague holds the largest number: 164 of the total of 376 letters).

Members of the Republic of Letters conducted research within the parameters of an accepted code of conduct in order to promote the flow of information and the acknowledgment of contributions of other researchers to one’s own studies (Ortelius’s Theatrum set a splendid example in that sense). Herbalist John Gerard’s botanical menagerie in Holborn was set outside of Lime Street, but it flourished because of the specimens and knowledge made available to him by the magnanimity of refugees from the Continent. He proved to be a fickle friend. By shamelessly plagiarising their research, and publishing Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) under his own name, he undermined the conventions of co-operation and dismissed his former scientific allies – most notably Lobelius who had greatly assisted him in his work. Gerard betrayed the spirit of the Lime Street community and abused the intellectual generosity governing relationships within the European Republic of Letters. He was the Boris Johnson of botany (himself an expert in the shape of bananas).