The Materials

There is much we can learn regarding the Armada Maps via careful analysis on the materials used to create them. With extensive work undertaken by a number of professionals, including The National Archives, we now know the following: 

The Paper

The paper the maps were drawn on was made from linen rag, blended with a small amount of hemp fibre derived from old sailcloth or rope, and sized with animal gelatine. The wire profile of all these sheets has one distinctive feature; every quarter-inch or so, parallel to the laid lines, is a shadow formed by an unevenness in the forming surface. This means that whoever made the papermaking mould slightly over-tightened the chain wires whilst the wire was being formed. As a result of this fascinating imperfection, we know that the 10 maps were all executed on the same paper. 

The Watermark

The watermark on our Armada maps when viewed closely depicts a version of the Arms of Austria and Burgundy. Peter Bower writing for the British Association for Paper Historians in 2018 considered that this watermark therefore showed that this paper was imported from Europe. Although John Spilman, jeweller to Queen Elizabeth I, had been granted, by Crown lease, two mills at Dartford in 1588 and a monopoly on white papermaking in England, almost no white paper was being made in England and most white paper used in this country at this time was imported from Northern France or from mills along the Rhine, via the Low countries.  

The Ink

As a result of work undertaken by The National Archives on The Armada Maps in 2021, we now have a great deal of knowledge about the inks used. Although beautifully drawn on fine quality paper and of great historic importance, the maps were apparently insufficiently attractive for sale in the late 19th century. The convincingly antique, delicate shades of red were added after their original creation, either for an auction or by the book dealer who bought and sold them on at a handsome profit to the Astor family.Noninvasive tests by The National Archives, including x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, revealed the iron gall ink was 16th century and in good condition but that other colours were later additions. 

The Senior Conservation Manager at The National Archives believes that the only possible conclusion was that the original maps were not coloured. This discovery has major implications for hundreds of maps in The National Archives, and other institutions across the UK, where assumptions may have been made about their original colouring. Only testing such as that undertaken on the Armada Maps will let us know for sure. 

The bright red areas were painted with vermilion.

The dull red areas show a different composition. Lead was found in the compass of map 9, and zinc and barium were found in the dull red in the ships indicating the presence of lithopone, a white pigment or filler first synthesised in 1874. 


The pink-purplish areas are very faint but the absorption bands suggest that the pink hue is due to an organic red, likely synthetic alizarin, first made in 1868. 


The blue areas are also faint, but some pigment particles could be seen under higher magnification and analysis showed the presence of copper, zinc and some iron in maps 8 and 9, and no copper but traces of cobalt in map 1. 


Some green pigment particles could be seen under magnification in some areas of the maps and analysis showed the presence of chromium, together with some copper and lead. The pigment is viridian, (chromium III oxide), synthesised in 1838 and used from 1850.


The yellow-beige areas of the map still preserve an intense colour and yellow-reddish particles can be seen under magnification; the composition being iron, titanium and zinc and therefore date it to after 1834.


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