The shallow sea between England and France is known proprietorially as the English Channel, descriptively as La Manche. From the 1500s it has usually appeared on maps and sea charts in some variation of Mare Anglicum (for example in Sebastian Münster’s edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia Universalis, 1540/42, above) or Oceanus Britannicus (on the title-page of William Camden’s Britannia, 1607). Expressing a somewhat relaxed topography, John Stow in the Survey of London (1598) writes that the river Thames ‘breaketh into the French Ocean’, while John Speed’s atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611/12) has it flowing into the Germayn Ocean; here the sea that separates England and France is the British Sea (however the words Sea and Ocean are reversed from one map to another). In March 1644, early in his judicious self-exile to the Continent, the devoted royalist and diarist John Evelyn dines at Dieppe, which is ‘situated between two mountains, not unpleasantly, and is washed on the north by our English seas’.
An evenhanded Manche Britanique appears on a chart by the French royal hydrographer Samson Le Cordier (below) published in 1670, the year of Charles II’s secret treaty with Louis IV against the Dutch. At the end of the century the English naval hydrographer Greenvile Collins labels it more plainly: Channel.
A French coatsleeve or a British one? Possibly neither. I can’t think of another geographical entity named after its shape on a map, outside of caricature. The word manche has also, to French mariners, meant a leather hose used to pour water into barrels or pump it out of a boat; it brings to mind a picture of the outflow of North Sea waters as they drain through the Dover strait/pas de Calais, which does seem more convincing than a garment sleeve. Another theory connects La Manche with the Hebridean waters known as the Minch. For that to be plausible you would probably be looking for a source word shared by Breton or Cornish Celts with those in Scotland; or more likely a Norse word.
Charts for the use of mariners were often oriented with the coastline at the top, as if it were a tilted-up view of the shore from the deck of a ship. Collins’s chart of the Downs, off the Kent coast by Deal (1693), has due north to the right, for example, and on the 1608 chart of the coastline of Picardy and Normandy by Willem Blaeu below, it points nearly to the bottom of the sheet. Here the Channel is named Mare Normandicum. The label was probably seen as a practical guide – the way to Normandy – rather than political description, in the same way that almost any town in southern England will have a London Road. The seas belong to no-one.
- There is quite a list of early cartographic names for the Channel here.
- The maps engraved by Jodocus Hondius for Speed’s atlas are online here.
- The detail of the Münster map is taken from Wikimanche, where there are more maps but not much help with the origin of the name.
- The images of the Le Cordier and Blaeu charts are from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.