Two views of the celestial spheres

When the Bishop of Salisbury scanned the heavens in the 1670s it was difficult to know if he was contemplating the wonders of his God, or those of Kepler’s planetary laws. Seth Ward, the incumbent of the Salisbury bishopric, was both a successful Anglican churchman and an acknowledge astronomer, who did much to boost Kepler’s theories in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Greenhill, John; Seth Ward (1617-1689), Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Oxford (1649-1660) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Greenhill, John; Seth Ward (1617-1689), Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Oxford (1649-1660)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Aspenden in Hertfordshire on an unknown day in 1617, Seth Ward was the son of John Ward, an attorney, and his wife Mary Dalton. Having received a basic schooling he was admitted to Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge on 1 December 1632, where he graduated B.A. in 1637 and M.A. on 27 July 1640, following which he was elected a fellow of the college. Ward was a keen mathematician, who, like many others in the Early Modern Period, was largely self-taught, studying William Oughtred’s Clavis Mathematicae together with fellow maths enthusiast Charles Scarburgh, a future physician to Charles II. Finding some passages difficult the two of them travelled to Albury in Surrey where Oughtred was rector. Here they took instruction from Oughtred and it was the start of a relationship between Ward and Oughtred that lasted until Oughtred’s death in 1660.

Sir Charles Scarborough Jean Demetrius (attributed to) Royal College of Physicians, London Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Charles Scarborough Jean Demetrius (attributed to)
Royal College of Physicians, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1643 Ward was appointed lecture for mathematics for the university but he did not exercise this post for very long. Some of the Cambridge colleges, and in particular Sidney-Sussex, Cromwell’s alma mater, became centres for the Puritan uprising and in 1644 Seth Ward, a devote Anglican, was expelled from his fellowship for refusing to sign the covenant. At first he took refuge with friends in and around London but then he went back to Albury where he received tuition in mathematics from Oughtred for several months. Afterwards he became private tutor in mathematics to the children of a friend, where he remained until 1649. Having used the Clavis Mathematicae, as a textbook whilst teaching at he university he made several suggestions for improving the book and persuaded Oughtred to publish a third edition in 1652

William Oughtred by Wenceslas Hollar 1646 Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Oughtred
by Wenceslas Hollar 1646
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1648 John Greaves, one of the first English translators of Arabic and Persian scientific texts into Latin, also became a victim of a Puritan purge and was evicted from the Savilian Chair for Astronomy at Oxford. Greaves recommended Ward as his successor and in 1649, having overcame his scruples, Ward took the oath to the English Commonwealth and was appointed Savilian Professor.


These episodes, Wards expulsion from Sidney-Sussex and Greave’s from Oxford, serve to remind us that much of the scientific investigations that took place in the Early Modern Period, and which led to the creation of modern science, did so in the midst of the many bitter and very destructive religious wars that raged throughout Europe during this period. The scholars who carried out those investigations did not remain unscathed by these disturbances and careers were often deeply affected by them. The most notable example being, of course Johannes Kepler, who was tossed around by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation like a leaf in a storm. Anyone attempting to write a history of the science of this period has to, in my opinion, take these external vicissitudes into account; a history that does not do so is only a half history.

It was in his role as Savilian Professor that Ward made his greatest contribution to the development of the new heliocentric astronomy in an academic dispute with the French astronomer and mathematician Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694).

Ismaël Boulliau  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ismaël Boulliau
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boulliau was an early supporter of the elliptical astronomy of Johannes Kepler, who however rejected much of Kepler’s ideas. In 1645 he published his own theories based on Kepler’s work in his Astronomia philolaïca. This was the first major work by another astronomer that incorporated Kepler’s elliptical astronomy. Ward another Keplerian wrote his own work In Ismaelis Bullialdi Astronomiæ Philolaicæ Fundamenta Inquisitio Brevis, which heavily criticised Boulliau’s theories and present his own, in his opinion superior, interpretations of Kepler’s ideas. He followed this with another more extensive presentation of his theories in 1656, Astronomia Geometrica; ubi Methodus proponitur qua Primariorum Planetarum Astronomia sive Elliptica sive Circularis possit Geometrice absolve. Boulliau responded in 1657 in his Ismaelis Bullialdi Astronomiæ Philolaicæ Fundamenta clarius explicata et asserta, printed in his Exercitationes Geometricæ tres in which he acknowledged errors in his own work but also pointing out inaccuracies in Ward’s. In final analysis both Boulliau and Ward were wrong, and we don’t need to go into detail her, but their dispute drew the attention of other mathematicians and astronomers to Kepler’s work and thus played a major role in its final acceptance as the preferred model for astronomy in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

The worst popular model of the emergence of modern astronomy in the Early Modern Period sees the inspiring creation of heliocentric astronomy by Copernicus in his De revolutionibus in the sixteenth century, the doting of a few ‘I’s and crossing of a few ‘T’s by Galileo and Kepler in the early seventeenth century followed by the triumphant completion of the whole by Newton in his Principia in 1687. Even those who acknowledge that Kepler created something new with his elliptical astronomy still spring directly to Newton and the Principia. In fact many scholars contributed to the development of the ideas of Kepler and Galileo in the decades between them and Isaac Newton and if we are going to correctly understand how science evolves it is important to give weight to the work of those supposedly minor figures. The scientific debate between Boulliau and Ward is a good example of an episode in the history of astronomy that we ignore at the peril of falsifying the evolution of a disciple that we are trying to understand.

Ward continued to make career as an astronomer mathematician. He was awarded an Oxford M.A. on 23 October 1649 and became a fellow of Wadham College in 1650. The mathematician John Wilkins was warden of Wadham and the centre of a group of likeminded enthusiasts for the emerging new sciences that at times included Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, John Wallis and many others. This became known as the Philosophical Society of Oxford, and they would go on to become one of the founding groups of the Royal Society in the early 1660s.

During his time at Oxford Ward together with his friend John Wallis, the Savilian Professor of Geometry, became involved in a bitter dispute with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes on the teaching of geometry at Oxford and the latter’s claim to have squared the circle; he hadn’t it’s impossible but the proof of that impossibility came first a couple of hundred years later.

Thomas Hobbes Artist unknown

Thomas Hobbes Artist unknown

Ward however was able to expose the errors in Hobbes’ geometrical deductions. In some circles Ward is better known for this dispute than for his contributions to astronomy.

John Wallis by Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Wallis by Godfrey Kneller
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the alchemist and cleric John Webster launched an attack on the curriculum of the English universities in his Academiarum Examen (1654) Ward joined forces with John Wilkins to write a defence refuting Webster’s arguments, Viniciae Acadmiarum, which also included refutations of other prominent critics of Oxford and Cambridge.

Greenhill, John; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659); Wadham College, University of Oxford;

Greenhill, John; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659); Wadham College, University of Oxford;

Ward’s career as an astronomer and mathematician was very successful and his work was known and respected throughout Europe, where he stood in contact with many of the leading exponents of his discipline. However, his career in academic politics was not so successful. He received a doctorate in theology (D.D.) from Oxford in 1654 and one from Cambridge in 1659. He was elected principle of Jesus College, Oxford in 1657 but Cromwell appointed somebody else promising Ward compensation, which he never delivered. In 1659 he was appointed president of Trinity College, Oxford but because he was not qualified for the office he was compelled to resign in 1660. This appears to have been the final straw and in 1660 he left academia, resigning his professorship to take up a career in the Church of England, with the active support of the recently restored Charles II.

He proceeded through a series of clerical positions culminating in the bishopric in Salisbury in 1667. He was appointed chancellor of the Order of the Garter in 1671. Ward turned down the offer of the bishopric of Durham remaining in Salisbury until his death 6 January 1689. He was a very active churchman, just as he had been a very active university professor, and enjoyed as good a reputation as a bishop as he had enjoyed as an astronomer.











Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science

8 responses to “Two views of the celestial spheres

  1. Huenemann

    Thank you for the sketches of these neglected figures! Your insistence that a history of thought in this period must take into account the ongoing religious meat grinder seems right to me, and leaves me wondering whether the Thirty Years’ War was somehow a precondition for the early modern style of inquiry.

  2. B'Rat

    I’m wondering, where could one read about the details of the dispute between Ward and Boulliau?

  3. For those who don’t want a full academic history of the period, Blair Worden’s “The English Civil Wars 1640-1660” provides a good background to the events that Thony describes.

  4. For a good, if somewhat dated, popular account of the Thirty Years’ War read C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #21 | Whewell's Ghost

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