The Molyneux Globe at Petworth House

The Molyneux Globe in the North Gallery at Petwoth House

Made in 1592, the Molyneux Globe at Petworth is one of the first terrestrial globes ever to have been made in England.

It was created by Emery Molyneux (d. 1598), an English mathematician and maker of instruments whose patrons were amongst the most powerful people in Elizabethan England. Luxurious yet fragile, only six Molyneux globes are known to survive today.

Instruments of empire

From the 1580s Molyneux operated a workshop in Lambeth on the south bank of London’s great trading artery, the Thames. A maker of ordnance instruments – globes, compasses, and hourglasses – he was a key figure in the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’, a euphemistic term for European missions to parts of the world unknown to Europeans and carried out by ‘explorers’, like Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540–96). 

Sir Francis Drake, oil on panel, circa 1581, NPG 4032
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake, oil on panel, circa 1581, NPG 4032

Details such as cartouches and sea-monsters were highlighted in coloured paint, and the globe was varnished to enrich its colours and protect its surface. It was then mounted on a painted wooden stand, incorporating wooden horizon and brass meridian rings.

Details of a siren and sea monster on the Molyneux globe. Folkloric sea creatures were often painted onto maps to represent the perils and mysteries of the sea
Sirens and sea monsters on the Molyneux globe
Details of a siren and sea monster on the Molyneux globe. Folkloric sea creatures were often painted onto maps to represent the perils and mysteries of the sea

The finished globe was presented to Elizabeth I at court, in the company of councilors, scientists and visiting dignitaries. Molyneux’s printed globes, of which Petworth’s is an example, were then the largest to have ever been made, with a diameter of two feet and one inch. They were hugely expensive, the initial outlay costing about £170,000 in today’s money.  

Financing ‘discovery’ 

Imperialist expansion under Elizabeth I was largely funded by private speculators like Molyneux’s patron, William Sanderson (c.1548–1638), a merchant married to Sir Walter Raleigh’s niece. Sanderson had co-sponsored John Davis’s voyage to the Northwest Passage, as well as countless other maritime enterprises, and had funded Molyneux’s initial costs. 

A dedication to Sanderson’s munificence and his coat of arms can be seen on the Petworth Globe, along with tributes within legends to the Queen, Davis, Cavendish and Drake. 

Conquest 

Red and blue lines drawn on the Petworth Globe mark the routes Drake and Cavendish took in their individual circumnavigations of world. Traced across land and sea by generations of inquisitive fingers, behind these trajectories – and those that preceded them – lay acts of unimaginable violence. The effect of European conquest in the Americas was catastrophic – local populations were decimated by disease, their communities pillaged, their people enslaved, their cultural and religious practices suppressed. 

Piracy or privateering? 

En-route to their destinations Drake and Cavendish accrued vast wealth for themselves and their queen under the legal commission of ‘privateering’. Essentially piracy, English seafarers were given license to attack rival vessels and seize them as prizes, capturing their crew as prisoners and goods as booty. 

Drake’s circumnavigation, for example, involved a sequence of brutal raids on Spanish colonies in South America and the seizure of Spanish ships, with spoils estimated at around £480 million today. An earlier voyage saw him and his crew brutally attack Portuguese colonies in West Africa and capture cargoes of enslaved Africans to sell on to Spanish plantations in the Americas. Indeed, it was Drake’s cousin Sir John Hawkins (1532–95) who effectively established the transatlantic slave trade through trafficking and privateering. 

The ‘Wizard’ Earl’s Globe

The Petworth globe was owned by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632), whose nickname the ‘Wizard’ Earl derived from an interest in scientific and alchemical instruments. Anecdote says that it was given as a gift to Percy by Sir Walter Raleigh whilst the two were comfortably imprisoned in the Tower of London, Percy for his connection to the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. An account of 1596, however, records the repair of globes in his collection, suggesting that Percy bought or was given the Molyneux globe at an earlier date. 

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, 'The Wizard Earl' by Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1635
The 9th 'Wizard' Earl of Northumberland
Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, 'The Wizard Earl' by Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1635

‘Scientia potentia est’

‘Knowledge is power’ is a saying attributed to the philosopher-statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) who served in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign and into James I’s. Expanding knowledge was a key political strategy in the Elizabethan government – from science to surveillance – and the development of navigational instruments such as terrestrial globes was part of this strategy. 

European-produced globes represented a European worldview and embodied European knowledge systems. They shaped the colonial mind from an early age, and with associated devices like maps and orreries were instrumental in schemes of colonial expansion. 

Europeans argued that knowledge itself legitimised colonial rule, branding their philosophies and scientific methods as superior to those held by the nations they took. The possession of scientific knowledge – represented, for example, in a globe – had the power to establish and maintain hierarchies between the ‘enlightened’ coloniser and the colonised, to invalidate and ultimately control the latter.