Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Astronomy and Time

by Claudia Willetts

The Royal Encyclopedia informs us that in 1675, King Charles II authorised the appointment of John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal. There have been fourteen holders of the office since then, the last five being within the reign of the present queen. Although there are no formal duties attached to the office, the holder is expected to be available for consultation.

Maritime Greenwich, by Frank GG Carr, tells us that since 1675, seamen have owed thanks to King Charles II, who declared, “in order to the finding out of the longitude of places and for perfecting navigation and astronomy, we have resolved to build a small observatory within our park at Greenwich…”. Thus was founded Britain’s oldest scientific institution, the Royal Greenwich Observatory, built by Sir Christopher Wren, himself a keen astronomer.

The second Astronomer Royal, appointed by King George I, was Edmond Halley, who calculated the orbit of the comet that bears his name. He also set up the first telescope to observe the passage of stars across the Greenwich meridian, so beginning the process that led to the acceptance of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian of the world, or the zero of longitude.

Charles II: Portrait of an Age, by Tony Palmer, tells us that with the King’s patronage, Halley sailed to the remote island of St Helena in the southern hemisphere, to observe the skies, and there he discovered a constellation which he named in honour of King Charles, Robur Carolinum.

Another king’s interest had an important effect on the development of astronomical knowledge. According to John Brooke, in King George III, the king had an observatory constructed at his residence at Kew, and his patronage allowed the German musician William Herschel to devote his time to astronomy. With the use of the largest telescope of the time, paid for by the King, Herschel was able to make observations that led him to theorise about galaxies and the modern concept of the universe.

D McCormack Smyth in Pathfinders: Canadian Tributes, edited by Charles Humber, tells us that a historical plaque recognised the contribution of Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming, who was knighted by Queen Victoria, to the establishment of International Standard Time. The plaque records that the Marquis of Lorne, son-in-law of Queen Victoria, at the time, Governor General of Canada, gave an address in 1879 on time reckoning, based on Fleming’s ideas. Then the Emperor of Russia, Alexander III, called an international convention held 1883-1884, at which Fleming’s system of time zones, with Greenwich Mean Time as the standard, was adopted.

The author of the exhibition catalogue, George III, Collector & Patron: The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 1974-1975, tells us that the King’s interest in astronomy was closely allied to his interest in horology. Many of the King’s clocks are exceptional pieces, and their cases are of extreme sophistication and great beauty, such as the impressive four-sided astronomical clock pictured in Treasures from the Royal Collection.

An entry in A Royal Miscellany from the Royal Library Windsor Castle, shows a silver clock-watch that was held to belong to King Charles I, who wound it every night, and who wore it on his way to execution, handing it to his loyal companion Thomas Herbert, moments before he died.