King Charles and the Founding of the Royal Observatory

  • Adam J. PerkinsEmail author
Part of the Historical & Cultural Astronomy book series (HCA)


The Royal Observatory at Greenwich dates its foundation to a 1675 warrant of Charles II (1630–1685), stating that “Wee have resolved to build a small observatorie …”, establishing it “to find out the…Longitude…for perfecting…Navigation”. Finding the longitude was a goal desired for centuries by mariners. The Observatory was built and John Flamsteed (1646–1719) appointed as “Astronomicall Observator” to make precise observations to achieve this object but the King’s warrants came only after a convoluted history. The eventual foundation owes much to Jonas Moore (1617–1679) and other fellows of the nascent Royal Society (founded in 1662), even to the extent of providing the instruments, and regular observations began in 1675. However, Flamsteed’s best instrument only became available in 1689. Nonetheless, during the first forty-five years of the Observatory’s history Flamsteed amassed some 50,000 observations. Fraught with disputes and disagreements, the full publication of his results was delayed until years after his death.



In writing the present chapter and as indicated at the beginning of Chapter  3, the author notes the expansion in authoritative post-war scholarship on all aspects of the early history of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which became an even greater expansion after the tercentenary in 1975, as reflected in the sources listed under the Reference section of this of this chapter and the next. It is unquestionably the case that the decade or more of sedulous work on the three-volume correspondence of the First Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (Forbes et al. 1995, 1997 and 2002), by Dr. Frances Willmoth (1957-2017), formerly Archivist for Jesus College in the University of Cambridge, has illuminated the first 50 years of the Royal Observatory’s history as no other contribution has, and the author of this and the following chapter acknowledges his great debt to her, with profound respect for her scholarship and learning. The author of this chapter acknowledges with gratitude the use of the freely available images provided by the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Wellcome Library, London, and the Creative Commons and Public Domain images freely available via Wikimedia.

References to Publications

  1. Andrewes, W.J.H., 1996. Even Newton could be wrong: the story of Harrison’s first three sea clocks. The Quest for the Longitude, The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts November 4–6, 1993, 188–234.Google Scholar
  2. Baily, F., 1835. An account of the Reverend John Flamsteed, the First Astronomer-Royal; compiled from his own Manuscripts, and other Authentic Documents, never before Published. London, Printed for the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. This book is divided into seven Divisions; see the full-text at
  3. Birks, J.L., 1999. John Flamsteed: the first Astronomer Royal at Greenwich. London, Avon Books. Scholar
  4. Brooks, R.C., 1991. The development of micrometers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Journal for the History of Astronomy, May, 22, 68, 127–173.Google Scholar
  5. Bryden, D.J., 1993. Magnetic inclinatory needles: approved by the Royal Society? Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 47 (1) January, 17–31.Google Scholar
  6. Caröe, W.D., 1923. ‘Tom tower’ Christ church, Oxford: some letters of Sr Christopher Wren to John Fell, Bishop of Oxford, hitherto unpublished, now set forth and annotated…with a chapter by H.H. Turner, and another, by Arthur Cochrane. Oxford, at the Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  7. Chapman, A., 1976. Astronomica practica: the principal instruments and their uses at the Royal Observator. Vistas in Astronomy, 20, 141–156.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chapman, A., 1983. The accuracy of angular measuring instruments used in astronomy between 1500 and 1850. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 14 (2), 133–137.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Débarbat, S., 1976. Des connoysances de Jacques II d’Angleterre en matière d’astronomie. Vistas in Astronomy, 20, 79–80.ADSMathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Débarbat, S., Grillot, S., and Lévy, J., 1984. L’Observatoire de Paris: son histoire (1667–1963). Paris, L’Observatoire de Paris.Google Scholar
  11. de Beer, E.S., 1950. The earliest Fellows of the Royal Society. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 7 (2) April, 172–192.
  12. Fitzmaurice, E., 1895. Life of Sir William Petty 1623–1687; one of the first fellows of the Royal Society; sometime secretary to Henry Cromwell; maker of the ‘Down Survey’ of Ireland, author of ‘Political Arithmetic &c.’ London, John Murray.Google Scholar
  13. Flamsteed, J., 1975. The Gresham lectures of John Flamsteed edited and introduced by Eric Gray Forbes. London, Mansell.Google Scholar
  14. Forbes, E.G., 1975a. Origins and Early History (1675–1835). Volume 1, Greenwich Observatory. London, Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  15. Forbes, E.G., 1975b. John Flamsteed and the origins of the Greenwich astronomical tradition. Journal of the Institute of Navigation, 28 (3), July.Google Scholar
  16. Forbes, E.G., 1976. The origins of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Vistas in Astronomy, 20, 39–50.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Forbes, E.G., Murdin, L., and Willmoth, F., 1995. The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, First Astronomer Royal, volume 1. Bristol, Institute of Physics Publishing.Google Scholar
  18. Forbes, E.G., Murdin, L., and Willmoth, F., 1997. The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, First Astronomer Royal, volume 2. Bristol, Institute of Physics Publishing.Google Scholar
  19. Forbes, E.G., Murdin, L., and Willmoth, F., 2002. The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, First Astronomer Royal, volume 3. Bristol, Institute of Physics Publishing.Google Scholar
  20. Hake, H.M, 1921–1922. Some contemporary records relating to Francis Place, engraver and draughtsman, with a catalogue of his engraved work. Walpole Society X pp.39–69.Google Scholar
  21. Holder, W., 1694. A discourse concerning time with application of the natural day and lunar month and solar year as natural and of such as are derived from them, as artificial parts of time, for measures in civil and common use: for the better understanding of the Julian year and calendar, the first column also in our church-calendar explained, with other incidental remarks. London, printed by J. Heptinstall for L. Meredith,1694.Google Scholar
  22. Hooke, R., 1935. The diary of Robert Hooke 1672–1680. In Robinson, H.W., and Adams, W., (eds). London, Taylor & Francis. The original of the diary, kept from 10th March 1671/2 to 16th May 1683, is preserved in the Robert Hooke Collection of the London Metropolitan Archives (see D12).Google Scholar
  23. Hooke, R., 1667. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London, volume 2, no.29 of 11th November 1667, pp.541–544. See also Townley (1667).Google Scholar
  24. Horrocks, J., 1673. John Wallis (ed.), Jeremiæ Horroccii, Liverpoliensis Angli, ex Palatinatu Lancastriæ, Opera posthuma…Numeri ad lunæ theoriam Horroccianam, London, Typis Gulielmi Godbid, impensis J. Martyn …Google Scholar
  25. Howse, H.D., 1971. The Tompion clocks at Greenwich and the dead-beat escapement. London, Antiquarian Horological Society; reprinted from Antiquarian Horology issues of December 1970 and March 1971.Google Scholar
  26. Howse, H.D., 1975a. The buildings and instruments, Volume 3, Greenwich Observatory. London, Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  27. Howse, H.D., 1975b. Francis Place and the early history of the Greenwich Observatory. New York, Science History Publications.Google Scholar
  28. Howse, H.D., 1980. Greenwich Time and the discovery of the longitude. Oxford, New York, Toronto and Melbourne, Oxford University Press. The National Archives.Google Scholar
  29. Inwood, S., 2002. The man who knew too much: the strange and inventive life of Robert Hooke 1635–1703. London, Pan Macmillan.Google Scholar
  30. Jardine, L., 2003. The curious life of Robert Hooke, the man who measured London. London, Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  31. McCrea, W.H., 1975. Royal Greenwich Observatory: an historical review issued on the occasion of its tercentenary. London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.Google Scholar
  32. Marshall, A., 2004a. Titus, Silius (1622/3–1704). Oxford Dictionary National Biography. Accessed November 2018 doi:
  33. Marshall, A., 2004b. Williamson, Sir Joseph (1633–1701). Oxford Dictionary National Biography. Accessed November 2018 doi:
  34. Maunder, E.W., 1900. The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a glance at its history and work. London, The Religious Tract Society.Google Scholar
  35. Meadows, A.J., 1985. Obituary: Eric Gray Forbes 1933–1984. Annals of Science, 42 (1985), 6, 547–548.Google Scholar
  36. Murdin, L., 1985. Under Newton’s Shadow: astronomical practices in the seventeenth century. Bristol, Adam Hilger.Google Scholar
  37. Murdin, P., 2009. Full Meridian of Glory. New York, Copernicus Books/Springer Science.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Morinus, J.B., 1640. Astronomia iam a fundamentis integre et exacte restituta. Parisiis: apud authorem.Google Scholar
  39. Ronan, C.A., 1967. Their Majesties’ Astronomers: a survey of astronomy in Britain between the two Elizabeths. London, The Bodley Head.Google Scholar
  40. Oestmann, G., 2002. John Flamsteed’s horoscope for laying the groundwork of Greenwich astronomy and astrology [in German]. Sudhoffs Archiv, 86 (2), 129–137.Google Scholar
  41. Riccioli, G.B., 1651. Almagestum novum astronomiam veterem novamque complectens observationibus aliorum, et propriis novisque theorematibus, problematibus ac tabulis promotam …, Bologna.Google Scholar
  42. Sprat, T., 1667. The history of the Royal-Society of London for the improving of natural knowledge. London, printed by T. R. for J. Martyn at the Bell…, and J. Allestry… printers to the Royal Society.Google Scholar
  43. Stephenson, N., (ed.), 1675. The royal almanack, or, A diary of the true places of the sun figure of moon and planets their rising and setting, high-water at London-bridge, with rules to serve other places after the new theory of tides, and directions of Sir Jonas Moore…. London, printed for the Company of Stationers.Google Scholar
  44. Stewart, I.G., 1997. ‘Professor’ John Flamsteed. In Willmoth, F.H. (ed.), Flamsteed’s Stars: New perspectives on the life and work of the first Astronomer Royal (1647–1719). Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.Google Scholar
  45. Taton, R., 1976. Les origines et les débuts de l’Observatoire de Paris. Vistas in Astronomy, 20, 65–71.ADSMathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Taylor, E.G.R., 1939. Old Henry Bond and the Longitude. The Mariner’s Mirror, 25 (2), 162–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Taylor, E.G.R., 1956, 1971. The haven-finding art: a history of navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook, 1971 edition with a foreword by Kenneth St Barbe Collins and appendix by Joseph Needham. Hollis and Carter for the Institute of Navigation.Google Scholar
  48. Teixeira da Mota, A., 1976. The nautical aspects of astronomical theories and observations in Europe down to 1675. Vistas in Astronomy, 20, 29–37.ADSMathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Thorndike, L., 1949. The Sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  50. Thorndike, L., and Pedersen, O., 1985. In quest of Sacrobosco. The Journal for the History of Astronomy, 16 (3) October, 176.Google Scholar
  51. Tomlinson, H.C., 1979. Guns and government: the Ordnance Office under the later Stuarts. London, Royal Historical Society/Swift Printers.Google Scholar
  52. Towneley, R., 1667. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 1, 25, 6th May 1667, 457–458. See also Hooke (1667).Google Scholar
  53. Turnball, H.W., Hall, A.R. & Tilling, L. (eds.), 1959–1977. The correspondence of Isaac Newton (1661–1727). Cambridge, Published for the Royal Society at Cambridge University Press, 7 volumes.Google Scholar
  54. van Helden, A., 1983. Roemer’s speed of light. Journal for the History of Astronomy, xiv: 2, 40.Google Scholar
  55. van Helden, A., 1996. Longitude and the satellites of Jupiter. In Andrewes (ed) The Quest for the Longitude, The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts November 4th–6th, 1993.Google Scholar
  56. Vistas, 1976. The origins, achievement and influence of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich: 1675–1975. Tercentenary of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Proceedings of the symposium held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 13th–18th July 1975, the Fourth Joint Symposium of the International Astronomical Union and the Union Internationale d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences. Vistas in Astronomy, 20.Google Scholar
  57. Weld, C.R., 1848. A History of the Royal Society: with memoirs of the Presidents, London, J. W. Parker.Google Scholar
  58. Willmoth, F.H., 1993. Sir Jonas Moore: practical mathematics and restoration science. Bury St Edmunds, The Boydell Press. Also, Moore, Sir Jonas (1617–1679). The Online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 26th May 2016 doi:
  59. Willmoth, F.H. (ed.), 1997. Flamsteed’s Stars: New perspectives on the life and work of the first Astronomer Royal (1647–1719). Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cambridge University Library (Retired/Curator of Scientific Manuscripts)University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations