The Correspondence of Abraham Ortelius (currently 541 letters)

Primary Contributors:

Joost Depuydt

Abraham Ortelius, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1633. (Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp; source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598)

The eldest of the three children of an Antwerp merchant, from the age of ten and following his father’s death, Abraham Ortels was raised by his uncle Jacob van Meteren. After entering the Guild of Saint Luke in 1547 as a map illuminator, he embarked upon a career dealing in books and prints and began to attend the annual Frankfurt book fair where, in 1554, he became acquainted with Gerardus Mercator.

An extensive traveller throughout the Low Countries, France, Italy, Germany, England, and Ireland, Ortelius began to compile and publish his own maps, starting with a wall map of the world (1564) and following this with maps of ancient Egypt (1565), Asia (1567), Spain (1570), and the Roman empire (1571). He published in 1570 what is often described as the first modern atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum, a publication with the distinction of being the most expensive book brought out in the second half of the sixteenth century. Despite being considered more of a map editor than an original cartographer, Ortelius was created ‘his majesty’s geographer’ to Philip II in 1573.

Ortelius remained a lifelong friend of his cousin, Emanuel van Meteren (the son of his guardian uncle, Jacob), who settled in London, and who was joined there following her marriage to Jacob Cole by Ortelius’s sister Elizabeth and her eldest son, Jacobus Colius Ortelianus (1563–1628). Ortelius himself remained single and lived in Antwerp with his unmarried sister Anne and his mother.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this correspondence was supplied to EMLO by Joost Depuydt, of the FelixArchief [City Archive], Antwerp, who collated it in the course of his research on Ortelius (see ‘New letters for a biography of Abraham Ortelius’, listed below).

Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank two EMLO interns: first Charlotte Marique for her work to help prepare and collate metadata published in the Hessels volume for upload to the union catalogue, and secondly Marc Kolakowski for his work on the people and place records for the letters not included in the Hessels edition.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Abrahami Ortelii (geographi Antverpiensis) et virorum eruditorum ad eundem et ad Jacobum Colium Ortelianum (Abrahami Ortelii sororis filium) epistulae, cum aliquot aliis epistulis et tractatibus quibusdam ab utroque collectis (1524–1628), ex autographis mandante Ecclesia Londino-Batava, ed. John Henry Hessels (Cambridge, 1887).


The 467 letters contained in this catalogue at present range in date from 1556 to June 1598. Written both to and from Ortelius they are predominantly in Latin, with a handful in Dutch, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Conversant in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, Ortelius became one of the leading humanists of the Low Countries and was in communication with a large number of European intellectuals of his time. His extensive correspondence and his Album amicorum, which constitute the primary sources for his life and work, provide detailed evidence for a network that in England alone included William Camden, whose Britannia was undertaken at Ortelius’s urging, Richard Hakluyt the elder, the naturalist Thomas Penny, the puritan controversialist William Charke, and Humphrey Llwyd [Lhuyd, or Lhwyd], who provided Ortelius with the map of England and Wales published in the 1573 edition of the latter’s Theatrum.

As Joost Depuydt’s work with Ortelius continues over the coming years, and as scattered letters are located, this catalogue will be augmented and expanded, and transcriptions and manuscript images will be added as these become available.


The volume published by Hessels in 1887 consists of 376 letters in total.1  The majority (266 letters) are letters to Ortelius from friends and patrons. Thirty-two letters were written by Ortelius, of which one is addressed to Dominicus Lampsonius and the others to members of his family in London: three to his brother-in-law Jacobus Colius senior (who was married to his sister Elizabeth), eighteen to his nephew Jacobus Colius junior, and ten to his cousin Emanuel van Meteren. The remainder published in Hessels consists of fifty-three letters addressed by others to Jacobus Colius junior and an additional twenty-five letters and documents which seem to have come into the hands of Ortelius or his nephew as collectors of autographs.

It is not known for certain how the collection of letters ended up in the care of the Dutch Church in London although it would seem likely that Jacobus Colius junior acquired the collection from his uncle as an inheritance and that, as Elder of the Dutch Church, he left them as a bequest. In 1862 the church building of the Dutch Church (Austin Friars, London) was damaged in a fire. Both the archive and the library collections were saved and, together with most of the books and manuscripts belonging to the Dutch Church, the letters were deposited in 1866 in the Library of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall.2

The Dutch Church was damaged once again by a German air raid in 1940 and, in an attempt to collect the necessary funds for repair, the Church decided to auction the Ortelius-Colius collection. Thus the letters were sold at Sotheby’s London in 1955 to a private collector in Detroit, Dr Otto Fischer. Auctioned a second time in 1968 by Sotheby’s, the collection was at this point separated and scattered around.

Thus far, it has been possible to relocate 337 of the 376 letters of published in the edition by Hessels (90%) in libraries around the world. Of these, 163 letters (or 43%) are in the Royal Library in The Hague; sixty letters are in Leiden University Library; forty-five letters are in the collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin; and the Royal Library in Brussels is custodian of twenty-eight letters. Further information regarding the scattering of the correspondence has been published by Joost Depuydt, ‘New letters for a biography of Abraham Ortelius’ (for full publication details please see the Bibliography, below).

Apart from the letters published by Hessels, Joost Depuydt has been searching for other letters from Ortelius’s correspondence. An initial calendar of 169 letters has been published, and is now included here in EMLO. Further letters both to and from Ortelius are certain to emerge, and the metadata for these will be updated on an ongoing basis. Should scholars have information regarding correspondence not listed here, Joost Depuydt would be extremely pleased to hear.

Further resources


J. H. Hessels, ed., Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae archivum, 1: Abrahami Ortelii at virorum eruditorum ad eundem et ad Jacobum Colium Ortelianum epistulae (Cambridge, 1887).

Album amicorum Abraham Ortelius, ed. and trans. J. Puraye et al. (Amsterdam, 1969).

F. Sweertius, ed., Insignium huius aevi poetarum lacrymae in obitum Cl. V. Abrahami Ortelii Antverpiani (Antwerp, 1601) [this includes the first biography of Ortelius by Sweertius].


R. Boumans, ‘The religious views of Abraham Ortelius’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 17 (1954), pp. 374–7.

M. van den Broecke, P. van der Krogt, and P. Meurer, eds., Abraham Ortelius and the first atlas: essays commemorating the quadricentennial of his death, 1598–1998 (‘t Goy-Houten, 1999) [includes bibliography].

T. M. Chotzen, ‘Some sidelights on Cambro-Dutch relations (with special reference to Humphrey Llwyd and Abrahamus Ortelius)’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1937), pp. 101–44.

J. Denucé, Oud-Nederlandsche kaartmakers in betrekking met Plantijn, 2 vols (1912).

Joost Depuydt, ‘New letters for a biography of Abraham Ortelius’, Imago Mundi, 68:1 (2016), pp. 67–78 (published online December 2015).

Joost Depuydt, ‘De brede kring van vrienden en correspondenten rond Abraham Ortelius’ in R.W. Karrow, et al., Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598): cartograaf en humanist (Turnhout, 1998), pp. 117–40.

P. Génard, ‘La génealogie du géographe Abraham Ortelius’, Bulletin de la Société de Géographie d’Anvers, 5 (1880), pp. 312–56.

R. W. Karrow, et al., Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598): cartograaf en humanist (Turnhout, 1998); also published in French as Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598): cartographe et humaniste.

R. W. Karrow, Mapmakers of the sixteenth century and their maps: bio-bibliographies of the cartographers of Abraham Ortelius, 1570 (Winnetka, 1993).

M. P. R. van den Broecke, Ortelius atlas maps: an illustrated guide, second edn (Houten, 2011).

C. Koeman, The history of Abraham Ortelius and his ‘Theatrum orbus terrarum’ (Lausanne, 1964).

P. van der Krogt, ed., Koeman’s Atlantes Neerlandici, vol. 3: Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum, De Jode’s Speculum orbis terrarum, the Epitome, Caert-Thresoor and Atlas minor; the atlases of the XVII Provinces, and other atlases published in the Low Countries up to c.1650 (‘t Goy-Houten, 2003).

P. H. Meurer, Fontes cartographici Orteliani: das ‘Theatrum orbis terrarum’ von Abraham Ortelius und seine Kartenquellen (Weinheim, 1991).

A. Rouzet, M. Colin-Boon, et al., Dictionnaire des imprimeurs, libraires et éditeurs des XVe et XVIe siècles dans les limites géographiques de la Belgique actuelle (Nieuwkoop, 1975), pp. 165–6.

H. Wallis, ‘Intercourse with the peaceful muses’, Across the narrow seas: studies in the history and bibliography of Britain and the Low Countries presented to Anna E. C. Simoni, ed. S. Roach (London, 1991), pp. 31–54.


Related Resources
Joost Depuydt, ‘Ortelius, Abraham (1527–1598)‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Launch Ortelius catalogue

Launch Ortelius-related correspondence

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.


1 The original documents in Hessels number only 373. Hessels numbered three letters separately, although they were enclosed originally within other letters: Alexander Grapheus’s poem, dated 31 December 1578 (Hessels 80) was part of his letter dated 5 April 1579 (Hessels 83); Dominicus Lampsonius’s answer, dated 31 January 1590 (Hessels 176) was written in the margins of the letter of 27 December 1589 addressed to him by Ortelius (Hessels 171); and Justus Lipsius’s greeting to Franciscus Raphelengius of 14 June 1593 (Hessels 235) was cited by Raphelengius in his letter of 27 April 1594 to Ortelius (Hessels 244).

2 A printed catalogue of the Dutch Church material housed at Guildhall Library in 1879 was published in that same year under the title A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, Letters, etc. belonging to the Dutch Church […] deposited at the Library of the Corporation of the City of London.