The Brussels Map Circle

HomeHistory of cartography → Les atlas de Louis XIV

Les atlas de Louis XIV

The many wars waged over half a century by Louis XIV (1638—1715) to expand French territory led to a spectacular development of military cartography. He gradually built up a special corps of engineers to accompany the troops and draw maps during the campaigns. This resulted in a wealth of highly detailed large-scale maps of the theatres of operations which constitute a precious historical source on those territories. Only a minority of the maps were turned into finished versions, engraved and published; the vast majority, thousands of them, remain as manuscript minutes scattered among many French institutions. The main institutions involved are the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) and the Institut Géographique National (IGN), where finding one’s way is somewhat complicated (1). Fortunately, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) also holds a number of manuscript military atlases which are readily accessible online. Research has also been made easier by the publication, in 2017, of a ‘catalogue raisonné’ of 174 manuscript military atlases of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (2) identifying the location of some 10 000 leaves depicting plans of fortified cities and fortresses, maps of the surrounding territories and other views.

In this article I aim to highlight a series of atlases held at the BnF which contain little-known maps and plans of fortified places in French border areas, as well as numerous places which were visited by the French military. These atlases are known as 'Les atlas de Louis XIV'.

The exact origin of this series of twelve atlases is not known precisely. In fact, these volumes emerged in December 1953 at an auction sale in Hamburg; they came from the library of the Royal House of Hanover and were acquired by the BnF.

At the time these atlases were then thought to comprise copies of original maps and plans held in the military archives in Vincennes; which copies had been acquired by the United Kingdom in the early eighteenth century. (3) Myriem Foncin, then map curator at the BnF, showed that this was not the case (4).

The luxurious bindings, in red morocco leather bearing the arms of France, were evidence that they belonged to the Court of France and would not have been offered to the enemy! Besides, the frontispiece of one of the volumes is clearly dedicated to Louis XIV.

The discovery of two ex-libris hidden under that of the Royal House of Hanover made it possible to reconstruct the history of the collection: those of the Duke of Cumberland and, beneath, that of the De Béthune-Charost family. It looks as though the volumes were borrowed from the Royal Library by Armand II de Béthune, third Duke of Charost (1663—1747) or by his son Paul-François de Béthune (1683—1759). Both played very significant parts in the wars of Louis XIV and subsequently held high ranking positions in the army, eventually becoming tutors to the young Louis XV. Somehow, these volumes passed into their personal library and received the ex-libris of their heir, Armand Joseph de Béthune, fifth Duke of Charost (1738-1800). His library of over 10 000 volumes was put up for sale in 1801 and the set of atlases was then acquired by the Duke of Cumberland, fifth son of King George III of the United Kingdom and Hannover and a fierce enemy of France, who became King of Hanover himself in 1837.

The atlases, which were sold as one lot, do not constitute a homogeneous series. Although, most of them do not bear a precise date, it seems that they are composite atlases which have been assembled at different periods, e.g., to celebrate a victory. Taking into account the peculiarities of the bindings, the original numbering of the volumes and their content, the BnF was led to distinguish four different collections to which were given the call numbers Ge DD 4585 (2 vol.), Ge DD 4586 (7 vol.), Ge DD 4587 (1 vol.) and Ge DD 4588 (1 vol.): see attached table.

A set of two volumes entitled Plans des places du Royaume [Plans of the Kingdom’s strongholds] is explicitly dated to 1693; the first volume comprises some 96 plans along the new borders of France, in particular next to the Southern Netherlands: Picardy, Artois, Flanders, Hainaut, Luxemburg (BnF call number Ge DD 4585).

Another set (Ge DD 4586) comprises several volumes entitled Cartes des environs de plusieurs places [Maps of the surroundings of several strongholds) which, initially, must have covered all French border areas; dates are only indicated on some of their maps, ranging from 1674 to 1704. Volume 1 covers places between the North Sea and the Scheldt river, giving a plan of each of these fortified places and a map of the surrounding area; volume 2: places between the Scheldt and Meuse rivers; volume 4: places between the Moselle and the Rhine rivers; volume 5: places in Flanders, Gelderland and Holland; volume 6: places in the Alps and along the coasts, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea; volumes 7 and 9 contain maps of neighbouring countries: the Spanish Low Countries, United Provinces, Germany, Austria, Venice. Two volumes were, until now, considered as missing: volume 3 covering places between the Meuse and Moselle rivers, and volume 8 covering the area between the Rhine and Dauphiné region. But that was before Francis Herbert saw a draft of this article. He knows where is located volume 3, entitled Cartes des environs de plusieurs places entre la Meuse et la Moselle’), and he is going to present a study of it in the next issue of Maps in History!

There are also an atlas (Ge DD 4587) mapping the area between the North Sea and Luxembourg, in 12 sheets (5), and a small volume of sea charts (Ge DD 4588) covering the coast of Brittany, Ireland, Great Britain, the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and Norway (6).

Finally, a volume purchased in 1953, entitled Plans des places étrangères, tome I [Plans of foreign strongholds, tome I] appeared to complement another (tome II) already present in the Bibliothèque du Génie in Vincennes. The two tomes have been regrouped in Vincennes and are therefore not accessible through Gallica.

In total, these atlases contain over 500 maps and plans of places around western Europe. To help researchers find their way through them, a 13-page index has been put together (7). Photos of this index are available here.

Ref. BnF Ref. WO Title Indicated dates Maps and plans
Ge DD 4585(1) 108 Plans des places du Royaume faits en l’année 1693-Tome I 1693 96
Ge DD 4585(2) 109 Plans des places du Royaume faits en l’année 1693-Tome II 1693 90
Ge DD 4586 1 110 Cartes des environs de plusieurs places entre la Mer et l’Escault 1677-1704 27
Ge DD 4586 2 111 Cartes des environs de plusieurs places entre l’Escault et la Meuse 1674-1697 29
Ge DD 4586 4 112 Cartes des environs de plusieurs places entre la Moselle et le Rhein 1697 39
Ge DD 4586 5 113 Places de Gueldre et parties de celles d’Hollande   27
Ge DD 4586 6 114 Cartes des environs de plusieurs places [entre les Alpes et la Méditerranée et sur les côtes de la Méditerranée et de la Manche] 1695 34
Ge DD 4586 7 115 Partie des Pays-Bas espagnols et hollandois et partie d’Allemagne   32
Ge DD 4586 9 116 Cartes entre le Rhein, l’Autriche et l’Etat de Venise   27
Ge DD 4587 117 Cartes de partie des Pays-Bas   12
Ge DD 4588   Cartes marines   43
Bibl. Génie (SHD) 32 Plans des places étrangères. Tome I. 1682, 1685 64
    Note: WO = atlas number given by E. d'Orgeix and I. Warmoes   520

Jean-Louis Renteux
March 2023


Fig. 1 'Carte particulière des environs de Bruxelles' around 1700 (BnF, Ge DD 4586-2)
Fig. 1 Carte particulière des environs de Bruxelles around 1700 (BnF, Ge DD 4586-2)
Fig. 2 'Carte générale du canal royal depuis Toulouze jusqu’au port de Cette' in 1693 (BnF, Ge DD 4585-2)
Fig. 2 Carte générale du canal royal depuis Toulouze jusqu’au port de Cette in 1693 (BnF, Ge DD 4585-2)


(1) See 'Tracking the map heritage of the Dépôt de la Guerre in France', Maps in History No 60, January 2018, pages 35-36.

(2) Émilie d’Orgeix and Isabelle Warmoes, Atlas militaires manuscrits (XVIIe - XVIIIe siècles) (Paris: BnF Éditions⁄Ministère des Armées, 2017). This publication was reviewed in Maps in History No 66, January 2020).

(3) Dietrich Gurlitt, 'A map collection owned by Louis XIV', Imago Mundi VII, 1951, pp 46-47.

(4) Foncin, Myriem, 'L'histoire d'une collection de cartes réunies pour Louis XIV', in Mélanges…Frantz Calot (Paris: Librairie d'Argenson, 1960), pages 119-126 (BnF: GE F PIECE-10345).

(5) Claire Lemoine-Isabeau, late member of this Circle, had analysed atlases Ge DD 4586-7 and Ge DD 4587 in 'Les militaires et la cartographie des Pays-Bas méridionaux et de la Principauté de Liège à la fin du XVIIe et au début du XVIIIe siècle', pp. 100-106.

(6) Editor's note: This atlas was unknown to historians of nautical charts. It has been added, following Jean-Louis Renteux’s report, to the MEDEA-Chart online database: It will also be included in the upcoming revision of Dick Pflederer’s Census of portolan charts.

(7) The typed inventory can be consulted in the BnF maps reading room (call number: Usuel 001 Loui).