A knighthood for science?

On 16th April 1705 Queen Anne surprised the audience at her visit to Cambridge University by knighting the ex-Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Isaac Newton. This dubbing was as much of a surprise to Newton as it was to everybody else. Now popular accounts of the life and work of Britain’s premier mathematician and physicist make much of this Royal award presenting it as the highest of the many honours heaped upon Isaac’s deserving head for his many and great scientific achievements. There is often talk of his being the first to be so honoured for those contributions to science. Now it would be nice to think of the humble yeoman’s son from Lincolnshire being awarded a knighthood for his indisputable services to science but unfortunately it isn’t true. The knighthood was a gambit out of the dirty electioneering tricks cabinet of Newton’s patron and benefactor Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax.

Montagu had been a student of Newton’s in his time at Cambridge and is one of the few friendships recorded for Newton out of this period of his life. After leaving Cambridge Montagu went on to a dazzling career in politics and when Newton got bored with his life as an underappreciated university don it was Montagu who got him appointed to his position at the Royal Mint. Montagu was the most powerful figure in the then still relatively young Liberal Party or Whigs, as they were known, of which Newton was also a member. Party politics was a very recent British invention.

Cambridge and Oxford Universities were both parliamentary constituencies who were entitled to elect their own members of the House of Commons. Newton had earlier been appointed to represent Cambridge at the convention to settle the revolution in 1689. The convention then becoming the sitting parliament after it had crowned William and Mary. Newton distinguished himself by not distinguishing himself. In those days parliaments did not have fixed terms but were called and prorogued according to need. Often when the King or Queen needed new taxes to finance a war. In the early 18th century British politics was a constant struggle for power between the Whigs and the Tories and parliamentary majorities were often very slim. In 1701 Montagu, again, persuaded Newton to stand for Cambridge and he sat in Westminster for what was a very short-lived parliament. Because of an unpleasant incident in the 1701 election Newton did not stand in 1702. He was next pressed into service by Montagu in 1705.

Things were not looking good for the Whigs in 1705 and Montagu needed every vote and every seat he could win. Convinced that he was on to a good thing with Newton and Cambridge he decided to try and influence the vote in his and Newton’s favour. The scheme he dreamt up was the knighthood, thinking that if he could get Newton knighted by the Queen at Cambridge then he was a sure-fire bet for the election. The plan to get Newton knighted worked, the one to get him elected didn’t; Newton lost.

In his wonderful biography of Newton, Never at Rest, Richard Westfall sums up the knighthood so:

The queen’s “great Assistance” [Montagu had announced his plan to Newton in a letter with this phrase] to Newton’s election was his knighting, an honor bestowed, not for his contributions to science, not for his services to the Mint, but for the greater glory of party politics, in the election of 1705.

Needless to say Newton could never be persuaded to stand again.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

11 responses to “A knighthood for science?

  1. Pingback: A knighthood for science? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. This article it seems to me makes the mistake of attributing an event to a single cause. I doubt if Newton would have been knighted just on the request of Montagu if he was a nobody. When Newton died in 1727 he was buried in Westminster Abbey and memorialised with a grand tomb decorated with scientific emblems. He wasn’t given this honour for his political service.

    • thonyc

      At the same ceremony Anne knighted Montagu’s brother and John Ellis vice chancellory of the university, both nobodies, purely on Montagu’s say so! You obviously don’t understand Montagu’s political clout at that time or just how corrupt the honours system was (is?).

      Yes, Newton received manner deserved honours as a scholar but his knighthood was really just a piece of party politics expediency.

    • roman

      I think this was very helpful but I would have to agree with George

  3. jimhexis

    A little context might be worthwhile here. In 1705 England was in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession, which sounds like an obscure Jeopardy answer now but was a desperate struggle at the time–it was the war in which Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, won his bones, not to mention Blenheim Palace. In the context of a world war, the struggle between the Whigs and Tories was more consequential than the usual fight over political spoils, though it was certainly that too.

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