Speed was born at Farndon, Cheshire, and settled in London, in about 1582. He died and was buried in the Church of St. Giles, in Cripplegate. A monument was erected to him in the church, comprising a bust, flanked by two stone doors, with inscriptions. The doors were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, but the bust, although damaged, survived. Fortunately, an engraving, from John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (London, 1791), depicts the monument and inscriptions.
While earning a living as a tailor, Speed developed a strong interest in history, particularly antiquities and genealogies. His first cartographical work, a four sheet wall map of Canaan in Biblical Times, was published in 1595. Shortly after, in 1598, Speed came to the attention of Sir Fulke Greville. Through Greville’s patronage, Speed received a sinecure appointment with the Customs Service, which guaranteed him a living, while giving him the freedom to pursue his interests. In the text accompanying his map of Warwickshire, Speed acknowledged this debt:
“Whose merits to me-ward I do acknowledge in setting this hand free from the daily imployments of a manuall Trade, and giving it his liberty thus to express the inclination of my mind, himself being the procurer of my present Estate.”
Speed was also introduced into Greville’s circle of friends, and sponsored for membership of the Society of Antiquaries. There he met many of the greatest scholars of the day, including William Camden, Robert Cotton and William Smith, all of whom later contributed to Speed’s work. One can only guess that it was at this time that Speed received the encouragement to undertake his great project – the History of Great Britain, with an accompanying atlas volume, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. In 1600, Speed donated a number of maps to the Merchant Taylors Company, who noted his “very rare and ingenious capacitie in drawing and setting forth of mappes and genealogies and other very excellent inventions” (1).