Rare Spanish Armada maps saved for the nation by Portsmouth Museum

Ten hand-drawn maps from the Elizabethan period have been saved for the nation after a Portsmouth museum raised £600,000 to buy them. Drawn using ink and watercolour, the sixteenth-century maps are thought to be the earliest surviving representations of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Last year an American private collector sought to purchase the treasured maps from the Astor family, who had retained them in their private collection since the late 1800’s. But due to their historical importance, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) imposed an export ban on the maps until January 2021 to allow time for a museum to raise the £600,000.

In just eight weeks the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) in Portsmouth achieved the asking price with the help of donations. The National Heritage Memorial Fund offered £212,800 and the Art Fund gave a following £200,000.

The export bar system exists so we can keep nationally important works in the country and I am delighted that, thanks to the tireless work of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Armada maps will now go on display to educate and inspire future generations,” explained Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage, who imposed the export ban.

After decades of hostility between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, the imposing Armada fleet set sail in 1588 intent on destroying Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) ships. The English fleet, which was half the size of the Armada, won the battle by sailing fire ships into their rivals. It is now regarded as one of the most significant naval victories in history.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada is central to the historical tale of what makes Britain great,” commented Dinenage. “It’s the story of plucky England defeating a greater foe and helped to create the world we live in today.”

The maps afford a rare, contemporary insight into this exciting period of history. Experts believe they were in fact presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1589 with the official report of the invasion. Although the draughtsman’s identity remains unknown, the illustrations can be linked to a set of engravings from the same year by Elizabethan cartographer Robert Adams (1540-1595).

The NMRN are now raising funds in order to publically display the maps for the first time ever. Professor Dominic Tweddle, the director general of NMRN, said “like many cultural and heritage institutions, 2020 was an exceptionally tough year but we rallied and I am incredibly proud that we have made sure that the Armada maps have been saved for generations to come.”

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