The Royal Society

The Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge.

Three hundred and fifty years ago in 1667, Thomas Spratt, an English churchman and ultimately Bishop of Rochester was called upon to write a ‘History of the Royal Society’ and yet the Society had only received its Royal Charter five years before.

The Royal Society, now one of the worlds most distinguished scientific academies, began in the mid 17th century as a gathering of like minded individuals who, shirking both political or religious labels were drawn together to discuss and debate scientific observations and experiments. These individuals met either at Oxford or in London and had been attendees of the Gresham College lectures where ideas about the natural world were encouraged and fostered.

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The frontispiece to the History of the Royal Society by Thomas Spratt.

Whilst it may not seem so extraordinary now, such a meeting of like minds whose ideas of scientific theory came from experimentation and data, was a new and revolutionary approach. From the early Medieval time to the 19th century, the old universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were full of scholars developing ideas based on Aristotelian logic. Change was coming and these initial gatherings in Oxford would change the face of scientific methodology forever.

So why was Thomas Sprat asked to write a book on the history of the Society? Despite the fact that King Charles II  was enthusiastic about the aims of the Society and granted it a Royal Charter, in the beginning the church was uncomfortable with the idea of a scientific investigation into nature, it was concerned with the absence of a ‘God’ in the examination.  Enter Thomas Sprat who in 1667 was a Fellow at Wadham College Oxford, a centre for scientific thinking at the time. He was one of the original founding members of the society and was the obvious choice when the Society needed to defend itself. The book was a written not as a historic account but as a propaganda tool.

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Logic Lane Oxford

The beginnings of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society was an embryo of a idea, if any one particular person influenced its course it was Francis Bacon, whose concepts and ideas about the study of science decades before, left a mark on the scholars who followed. The writings and ideas of this politician turned philosopher could be considered the catalyst, some forty years after his death, in the founding of the Royal Society.

Some background to Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561, son of Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon and his second wife Anne Cooke. His mother was the greater intellect of the two, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and involved in the bringing up of Prince Edward the future King Edward VI. She translated many important works including John Jewels semi official ‘Apology of the Church of England’. Her strong Protestant views led to her writing forceful letters urging the Church of England to further Reformation. Her influence on Francis was great. His father left him little in terms of intelligence or money so he went to study law and politics in the hope of carving himself a successful career. He was a homosexual whose life was blighted by frequent sexual scandals and financial problems. His powerful relatives William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Robert Cecil were thorns in his side.

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Memorial to Francis Bacon Trinity College Cambridge

Although he was a successful politician, he never quite seemed to fit in. Queen Elizabeth I had known him from boyhood but she failed to offer him the advancement he expected. Francis had to wait for King James I to take the throne before he took office. In 1618 he was made Lord Chancellor but he attracted a lot of enemies and in 1621 he was impeached and his political life was in ruins. But Francis Bacon had another life, one in which he examined and questioned all number of things, history, science, philosophy. His writing was quite ruthless and he drilled down into classical traditions and shook them hard. He reviled the work of Aristotle. Aristotle’s work dominated university teaching, the church had adopted and adapted his work to suit their ends and Francis Bacon was fundamentally opposed to it.

Out with Aristotle.

Francis Bacon decided he would replace Aristotle’s work with his own new programme for intellectual renewal. He wrote his work ‘Instauratio Magna’ in 1620 – 1623. It was a complex and impossible attempt to classify all knowledge with one critically important premise, the value of original experiment over perceived classical tradition. His emphasis on experimentation, underwriting all study of natural science, was presented in many of his works, including ‘Advancement of Learning 1605 and Novum Organum 1620.

He had also removed the church from science and although he moved too far from relevant theorizing towards experimentation it was a fundamental change in the way of looking at the world and it was this that inspired those who came after him.

Francis Bacon left one last thing that would encourage the creation of the Royal Society and that was his novel ‘The New Atlantis’ which was published in 1627 after his death. This novel told of a community devoted to research, split into independent project teams who seek knowledge about the physical world but to do it in order to improve society. It was the blueprint for the Royal Society.

Oxford scholars meet.

From the 1640’s small groups of scholars met up informally to exchange ideas, share techniques and seek out new experiments. These were generally not well known young men (no women were at the university), excepting William Harvey, the King’s physician whose work on the circulatory system challenged hundreds of years of teaching. At some point they became known as “The Philosophical Society of Oxford”. Their studies in the 1650s, was led by John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College. The current building which now houses the Museum for the History of Science was originally, the Old Ashmolean. It was opened in 1683 to be the heart of , the new experimental learning in Oxford. Within its walls were laboratories, spaces for experimentation and to provide accommodation for the Oxford Philosophical Society. The names of the early adopters of this new science are not strangers to us now, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle. They came together to ‘experiment’ to test and try new ideas from optics to chemistry, designing new fine measuring tools, observing the solar system. They collaborated and discussed, experimented and tested, they were the New Atlantis community of Francis Bacon’s dreams.

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Museum for the History of Science Oxford.

The role of Gresham College.

Gresham College has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1597 under the terms of Sir Thomas Gresham’s will to provide free public lectures in the City of London. Thomas Gresham was a wealthy Mercer who had founded the Royal Exchange in the City, he organised for the set up of a college to provide free lectures in the City of London. The lectures at Gresham College were to be given by seven professors teaching astronomy, divinity, geometry, law, music, physic and rhetoric who would receive an annual stipend and be provided with rooms at the College which was located in Thomas Gresham’s large mansion in Bishopsgate.

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Old Gresham College

The location of the college, opposite the Royal dockyard at Deptford drew together some of the best minds needed to solve problems of navigation, ship design and many other diverse subjects. Understandably minds such as Wren and his cohorts were drawn to Gresham and they became distinguished professors there. Gresham College found itself at the hub of the new thinking and though it is uncertain exactly how it came about Gresham College became the Royal Society’s first home.

Troubled times.

Maybe the achievement of the establishment and continuation of the Royal Society is even more impressive than it might first seem. Its beginnings coincided with the English Civil War, a war that caused deep divisions and fractures in English society, a time when patrons would be difficult to secure and suspicion settled on every ones doorstep. By 1658 it had all but ceased to function. The restoration of the monarch would be the catalyst to the Society’s future success.

The first meetings.

So the year was 1660 and it seemed the light at the end of the broken Commonwealth tunnel was starting to shine a little more brightly and in May of the same year King Charles II was restored to the throne. The year that had preceded it was one of civil, political and military unrest and yet through all this troubled time great minds continued to think and meet freely. On 28th November Christopher Wren gave a lecture at Gresham College and following this lecture a meeting took place between twelve gentlemen. This meeting was called to agree the rules and regulations under which the ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ would operate.

The role of King Charles II.

Society was still divided between Francis Bacon’s ‘Scientific Method’ and a hankering to hold onto the old charms and incantations to dispel ill humours and old wives tales to explain much else. King Charles II was pulled both ways. He took a keen interest in both the arts and science but and given his scary life so far, he hung onto superstitious beliefs. It was he who protected the ravens at the Tower of London after being told the legend that if they packed their bags to leave then England would fall to a foreign force and lo and behold the ravens are still there protected.

His tutor as a child however was William Harvey, the physician and it is likely his interest was caught at an early age. He followed the work and constant breakthroughs of the new scientists Boyle, Hooke, Flamsteed, Wren and many others. He even dabbled in science experimentation himself and was happy to offer his patronage to the Royal Society. In the 1670’s King Charles II appointed a Royal Commission to look into investing in astronomy, Sir Christopher Wren sat on the Royal Commission and in 1675 recommended the foundation of an observatory at Greenwich.

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Royal Observatory Greenwich.


More disaster.

The development of the Society took a severe setback when the City of London was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London. Gresham College itself remained unscathed but as one of the few usable buildings close to the city, the Lord Mayor of London demanded they vacate the premises to make way for his offices and other merchants. Meetings were held at various private homes before the members found a new home, Arundel House, the residence of the Duke of Norfolk. Now the focus of the King shifted and he called on members of the Society , notably Hooke and Wren to involve themselves in designing and supervising the reconstruction of the city, a role Wren did not enjoy despite his achievements.

However the containment of the great fire of London, fire somehow doused the fire in the belly of the Royal Society and it began to fail with nearly half of its former members falling away leaving it deep in debt. It was only because Robert Boyle lent it his own equipment that it was able to continue its experimental work.

 The Royal Society grows stronger.

Somehow the Society managed to gather itself together enough to recover its previous status recovery of previous status had but it was the election of Isaac Newton as Society President in 1703 that proved to be the change that turned the tide and circumstances began to improve significantly. It continued to attract Fellows of incredible high standing such as John Flamsteed and Edmond Halley and it flourished at a time when the world became a smaller place with new navigation tools and devices.  Membership duly recovered and fees were paid, the Society became solvent once more.

It is an amazing achievement that through all the change of over four hundred years since the first tentative ideas, in society, politics, through wars and scientific change that the Royal Society has managed to remain pivotal at the centre of British academic life, a continuous link back through arguably the greatest minds of the last three centuries.

The motto of the Royal Society, ‘Nullius in Verba’,  translates to;

‘Take nobody’s word for it’

A motto that underpins the ethos of this, the greatest society in the world.




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