Considering our climate – seemingly perpetual cloud cover and driving rain – you may wonder how astronomy ever came to flourish in the British Isles. But it did – and spectacularly so. The study of the heavens had, of course, already reached a high level of sophistication in Babylonia and Greece long before it left any written traces in Britain. However, historians would love to ascertain what the builders of Stonehenge, Newgrange near Dublin, and the stone circles of Scotland knew, for the precise astronomical alignments of their monuments still fascinate us today.
Written astronomy within these islands, however, goes back to around AD 700, with the Venerable Bede of Jarrow monastery and the ‘saints and scholars’ of early medieval Ireland.


Contrary to the myth of the ‘Dark Age’, the monk-scholars of that time had a general familiarity with classical science. Indeed, they needed it to undertake the complex lunar and solar calculations that were necessary to fix the moveable feast of Easter. And by 1250, classical astronomy was being routinely taught in the then new Oxford and Cambridge universities, and in numerous monasteries. In fact, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of c1381 are full of Greek astronomical knowledge.

In the 16th century, Sir Thomas Digges and others were writing about Copernicus’s new idea of a sun-centred universe. Then, on 26 July 1609, Thomas Harriot made the first surviving drawing of the moon, using a telescope, beating Galileo’s more famous observations by four months (although Harriot never published).

But it was in the 17th century that British astronomy scaled the heights. Sir Christopher Wren, Dr Robert Hooke and Bishop John Wilkins in Oxford were pioneer telescopic astronomers, and Wilkins, in the late 1640s, was seriously discussing the possibility of life on other worlds. He even designed a ‘flying chariot’ in which to ascend to the moon.

Of course, central to this whole enterprise had been Wilkins’s role in founding the ‘club’ in Wadham College, Oxford, which – following King Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660 – became the Royal Society, in Gresham College, London. Every subsequent British monarch, down to Queen Elizabeth II, has been patron of the Royal Society. Yet neither King Charles II nor any other British monarch has had any financial or other control over the Royal Society; nor over the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) after its founding in 1820. Indeed, this led to a circumstance that made British astronomy, and all British science, unique in Europe.

Unlike the continental European scientific academies, where the monarch or the state exerted firm control, the Royal Society (and the RAS) were self-funded. The fellows financed their own researches, while loyally drinking the sovereign’s health. This created a tradition which has been called ‘grand amateur’: ‘grand’, because they pioneered fundamental research into all branches of astronomy; and ‘amateur’, because they did it for their love of science. Indeed, even when the Revd John Flamsteed became the first Astronomer Royal at Greenwich in 1675, he had to provide his own instruments and equipment.

Crucial to the rapid post-1660 development of British astronomy was the early establishment of a dynamic scientist-craftsman relationship. Those men who were to design and build increasingly powerful telescopes, precision clocks, and other research instruments were not underlings, but respected scientists in their own right, and many were elected fellows of the Royal Society. For British science has always been talent-led, indeed, an open meritocracy.

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Between the 17th and 19th centuries, this meritocracy produced a galaxy of astronomical talent that included Jeremiah Horrocks and Sir Isaac Newton. Then came George Graham and John Harrison, both clock-maker physicists, and that founder of modern deep-space telescopic astronomy Sir William Herschel, who rose from a Hanoverian army bandsman to a knighted fellow of the Royal Society.

In the Victorian age William Lassell, having made his fortune as a Liverpool brewer, spent it on financing his own world-class astronomical researches into solar system bodies. Meanwhile, the spectroscopic researches that first made possible the chemical analysis of the stars and nebulae (galaxies) were financed by Sir William Huggins on the profits of the family silk firm. And it was John Jones, a self-educated labourer working on Bangor docks, who became the first Welshman to build a spectroscope and a photographic reflecting telescope.

A growing number of women also took up the science. The less rigid social structures of self-funded British astronomy gave opportunities to trailblazers such as Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville and Lady Margaret Huggins that they would have lacked in the university-professor-driven astronomy of continental Europe.

Astronomical science so expanded in the 20th century, however, that the old ‘grand amateur’ system was superseded by a new university-led science, with Cambridge playing a leading role. Yet astronomy is still the science in which serious amateurs continue to make amazing discoveries.

9 places associated with the history of British astronomy

St Albans Cathedral, St Albans, Hertfordshire

One of the world-changing inventions of medieval Europe was the mechanical clock, the ancestor of all exact self-acting machines.

The son of a working blacksmith in Berkshire, Richard of Wallingford was first educated by local Benedictine monks, and then went up to the order’s Oxford college, where his mathematical brilliance flourished. He was especially interested in calculating devices, and, upon becoming abbot of the great Benedictine monastery of St Albans in 1326, he set about fabricating his clockwork universe.

His astronomical clock was powered by a large weight on a rope, and the energy generated passed through a sophisticated arrangement of gears to turn a circular star-disk around the Earth, which was then believed to lie at the centre of the universe. It also showed the current positions of the sun, moon and planets, rang bells, and computed lunar eclipses. It was one of the wonders of the age.

Although Richard did not invent the clock, he made major contributions towards its development, and was not only one of medieval Europe’s most accomplished astronomers, but also a mechanical engineer of genius.

Sadly, the original clock disappeared during the Reformation, before St Albans Abbey became a cathedral. But fortunately Richard’s engineering drawings survived, making it possible for 20th-century scholars to rebuild it.

The cathedral is open all year and the replica clock can be found in the exhibition area near the north transept.

St Albans Cathedral
St Albans Cathedral. (Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, Trinity College, Cambridge was destined to become a world-famous ‘nursery’ for astronomers and scientists. It was here, for instance, that Sir Isaac Newton, between 1666 and 1690, brought to fruition his theory of universal gravitation, in which he developed his six-primary-colour theory of ‘white’ light. It was also here that he invented the ‘Newtonian’ reflecting, or mirror, telescope – the ancestor of some of the most powerful telescopes in the modern world.

Newton’s intellectual legacy inspired many Trinity College (and other) astronomers for centuries, and still does. The Revd Dr Nevil Maskelyne of Trinity became Astronomer Royal in 1764, and his work played a major role in enabling navigators to use exact lunar tables to find their longitude at sea. And Maskelyne was the first of several Trinity Astronomers Royal.

Sir George Biddell Airy in the Victorian age was another, while a recent Master of Trinity, Lord Martin Rees, was Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society. Newton’s legacy to modern science was enormous, for he showed that both terrestrial and celestial realms were governed by common mathematical laws.

Trinity welcomes visitors to the college for most of the year.

Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College, Cambridge. (Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus)

St Michael’s Church, Much Hoole, Preston, Lancashire

Where a Bible clerk first witnessed the transit of Venus

Jeremiah Horrocks is generally regarded as one of the founders of British telescopic and modern mathematical astronomy. In 1639–40, this Liverpool-born, Cambridge-educated 21-year-old was living in Much Hoole, probably as a schoolmaster, and serving as a Bible clerk in St Michael’s Church. What propelled him to posthumous fame, however, was his calculation, prediction and observation (with his friend William Crabtree of Salford) of the first witnessed transit of Venus across the sun’s disk, on 24 November 1639. This was a very rare event.

Horrocks observed the transit by projecting the image of Venus, silhouetted on the brilliant solar disk, onto a piece of graduated paper, and making careful measurements. Even before 1639 Horrocks had come to suspect that the sun and planets exerted invisible physical forces upon each other, and when Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia in 1687, he cited Horrocks’s work. Horrocks died suddenly on 4 January 1641.

Horrocks’s subsequent fame was enormous. The early Royal Society collected and published his surviving papers in 1672, and the Revd John Flamsteed greatly admired him. In the 1850s several memorials to Horrocks’s achievements, including two beautiful stained-glass windows and a memorial tablet, were installed in St Michael’s Church, while he also received a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

2E4DRJ5 St Michael?s and all Angels Parish Church at Hoole, Nr Preston Lancashire. January 2021.
St Michael’s Church, Much Hoole. (Photo by Alexander Finnie/Alamy Stock Photo)

Old Royal Observatory, Flamsteed House, Greenwich, London

The public focus of British astronomy since 1675 has been the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Founded by King Charles II as part of the project to enable sailors to find their longitude at sea from the position of the moon, and designed by Sir Christopher Wren (with contributions from Robert Hooke), the Royal Observatory was under-funded from the start. Wren had to use materials recycled from the demolished Tilbury Fort, and still ended up running £29 over his £500 budget.

Yet Wren’s observatory is not only one of our national architectural gems, but its Astronomer Royal directors – from John Flamsteed in 1675, onwards – turned it into a world-class scientific institution. Using large graduated instruments, Flamsteed, Edmond Halley and their successors, mapped the positions of the stars, and elucidated the orbit of the moon so as to enable a navigator to fix his position anywhere on the surface of the Earth by Captain Cook’s time in the 1770s.

Greenwich served the Royal and Merchant navies, along with sailors across the world. The Greenwich Meridian was internationally accepted by 1884, while Sir George Airy had initiated the telegraphic GMT time service in 1852. Greenwich ceased to operate as an observatory in 1954, but is much more than a museum; it is where so much astronomical research took place.The Royal Observatory is now part of the National Maritime Museum.

The Monument, Fish Street Hill London

Few commuters and sightseers in the City of London realise that the 202-feet-high stone column erected in the 1670s to commemorate London’s resurgence from the Great Fire of 1666 was originally designed by Robert Hooke and his friend Sir Christopher Wren (both astronomers) to serve also as a giant telescope. Indeed, ascending above the original observing chamber is an open space within the spiral staircase, the top of which could once be opened up to reveal a clear view of the sky directly above the viewer (the zenith).

The Monument, a 202-feet-high stone column erected in the 1670s to commemorate the Great Fire of London, was originally designed by Robert Hooke and his friend Sir Christopher Wren (both astronomers) to serve as a giant telescope. (Getty Images)
The Monument, a 202-feet-high stone column erected in the 1670s to commemorate the Great Fire of London, was originally designed by Robert Hooke and his friend Sir Christopher Wren (both astronomers) to serve as a giant telescope. (Getty Images)

This was all part of an attempt to prove that the Earth rotated around the sun, for if we moved in an orbit that was 180 million miles across, then there should be a tiny ‘parallax’ displacement (a difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight) of star positions over a six-month cycle. It was best to try to detect this parallax in the zenith, where the atmosphere did not bend the starlight.

Hooke failed, alas, because in 1678 it was impossible to obtain a 200-feet-focal-length lens of sufficient quality. Nonetheless, he did important barometric pressure experiments at the top and bottom of the column.

Visitors can still ascend the 311 steps to the top of the Monument and enjoy spectacular views across London.

Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath, Somerset

The already-known planets, being naked-eye objects, had been familiar since antiquity. But Uranus, out beyond Saturn, is a telescope-only planet. The object Herschel thought to be a comet turned out to be a new planet, propelling him to fame.

Herschel, and later his sister Caroline, who acted as his assistant, were shining examples of the open, meritocratic nature of British astronomy. Becoming a successful and fashionable musician, he pursued his boyhood passion for astronomy, building high-quality telescopes. Having discovered Uranus – originally named Georgium Sidus, (King George’s Star) – William was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and he and Caroline went on to make discoveries that laid the basis of modern cosmology.

Their Bath house is now a museum and open to the public.

City Observatory, Edinburgh Midlothian

On Calton Hill, which rises up at the east end of Princes Street and commands a magnificent view of Edinburgh’s 18th-century ‘new town’, are the domes of the Old Royal Observatory. Though there had been an observatory on the site since 1776, the present observatory began as a private institution in 1811, created by a group of scientific gentlemen of the University of Edinburgh.

Its present buildings date from 1818, and on his visit in 1822 King George IV conferred upon it the title of ‘Royal’. In 1834, it became the research base of Edinburgh University’s regius professor of practical astronomy (a position now known as Astronomer Royal for Scotland), two of whom were professors Thomas Henderson and Charles Piazzi Smyth. It was Henderson who, in the late 1830s, completed pioneering research into measuring star distances, begun in South Africa.

The Royal Observatory was, however, dogged by under-funding. This led the Scottish ‘grand amateur’ astronomer Lord Lindsay, Earl of Crawford to found, largely from his own resources, a new astrophysical observatory on Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill. In 1896, this became the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, and Calton Hill became the City Observatory. The building is currently closed for redevelopment.

Birr Castle, Birr, County Offaly

The Great Telescope, Birr, Co. Offaly, Ireland. The Third Earl of Rosse built this 72inch telescope in 1845 and it was the largest in the world for over 70 years
The Great Telescope at Birr Castle, County Offaly. (Photo by Alex Walker via Getty Images)

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, was one of the grandest of the Victorian ‘grand amateur’ astronomers, for whom astronomical research had been a life’s passion.

One of the great puzzles facing astronomers from the time of Sir William Herschel in the 1780s was the nature of deep space. What were those smudges of light which they called ‘nebulae’? Clearly, the only way forward was to build telescopes of increasing power to try to resolve what they were made of.

Using the scientific training he received at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, Earl Rosse devoted the resources of his Irish estates to attempting to find an answer. Using largely local Irish craftsmen, he designed and built what, for 60 years, would be the biggest telescope in the world. Its 72-inch mirror in a 52-foot tube, controlled by ropes between stone walls, discovered, among other things, the first ‘spiral nebulae’, or galaxies.

Earl Rosse was a conscientious landlord, spending his private money on various projects to create employment during the potato famine. His sons continued his scientific work, while his wife, Countess Mary, was a famous Irish photographer. The beautifully restored telescope in the castle grounds can be seen by the public.

Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Goostrey Cheshire

At the end of the Second World War, Professor (later Sir) Bernard Lovell of Manchester University acquired the Jodrell Bank site as an early radar and radio astronomy research station. Radio signals from space had already been detected in America in the 1930s, but it was post-1940 radar technology that gave radio astronomy new research potential in peacetime.

Lovell’s telescope had a great steerable metal dish, covering the whole sky and capable of focusing celestial radio waves and increasing their intensity. Coming into operation in 1957, the telescope immediately proved its worth by picking up signals from Sputnik’s booster rocket and other experimental artificial satellites. And since the 1950s, radio has opened up a spectacular new window on the cosmos.

Jodrell’s technology is constantly being upgraded and its visitors’ centre greatly adds to the public understanding of cosmology.

Dr Allan Chapman is a historian of science at Oxford University history faculty, with particular research interests in the history of astronomy, medicine, and science and religion


This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine