Astronomy Wars in England Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Flamsteed was compelled by the queen of England and the Royal Society of London to publish the results of his decades-long observations of star locations. Flamsteed repudiated this unfinished, yet published, work and publicly burned most of the available copies. In the end, the conflict would hamper astronomical research in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, despite the catalog’s early publication.

Summary of Event

Book three of the first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Newton, Sir Isaac magnum opus Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687; The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, The (Newton) 1729; best known as the Principia) contains a proposition that announced the most celebrated of Newton’s scientific discoveries, the law of universal gravitation. One of the model systems Newton used to demonstrate the efficacy of his gravitational Gravity theory was the irregular movements of the Earth’s moon, Moon (of Earth) a conundrum that had perplexed astronomical observers for centuries. Even though the orbit of the Moon Lunar orbit is largely influenced by the gravitational pull of the Earth, the gravitational attraction of the massive Sun, despite its great distance from the Moon, shifts the orbit of the Moon. This makes the lunar system so complex that even Newton, with all his analytical skills, could account only for the major perturbations in the lunar orbit. [kw]Astronomy Wars in England (1704-1712) [kw]England, Astronomy Wars in (1704-1712) [kw]Wars in England, Astronomy (1704-1712) Astronomy;England Astronomy wars [g]England;1704-1712: Astronomy Wars in England[0180] [c]Astronomy;1704-1712: Astronomy Wars in England[0180] [c]Science and technology;1704-1712: Astronomy Wars in England[0180] Flamsteed, John Newton, Sir Isaac;England’s astronomy wars[astronomy wars] Halley, Edmond Wren, Sir Christopher Anne, Queen

Newton had wished to publish a second edition of the Principia, but he still was faced with the problem of lunar movements, a problem that required further refinement. Newton needed more extensive data of the Moon’s movements, and for this he turned, as he had in the past, to the astronomer royal John Flamsteed.

Appointed astronomer royal on March 4, 1675, by King Charles II of England (r. 1660-1685) for the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England (built in 1676, just outside London), Flamsteed labored for almost thirty years, exhaustively cataloging star positions. Because he was a perfectionist, Flamsteed had yet to publish his star catalogs, Star catalogs but by the beginning of the eighteenth century, many members of the Royal Society began to view the absence of published star data as a sign of Flamsteed’s failure to provide the public service paid for by the Crown. It was believed that the astronomer royal should publish for the good name of the observatory and for other astronomers who wished to use his data. Needless to say, Flamsteed did not agree with this assessment. In his view, the Crown paid him a pittance, only £100 per year, which had to be supplemented with his own funds. He had to purchase his own instruments and pay his assistants. He believed that his star data were his alone, and that he would publish them when he was ready to do so.

Newton, elected president of the Royal Society Royal Society, England in 1703, visited Flamsteed at Greenwich in April of 1704 to determine the publication status of his star catalog. During this meeting, Flamsteed claimed that the catalog was ready for publication, and so Newton asked him to submit a printing cost estimate to the society. Flamsteed, however, stalled and did not comply with this request until seven months later. When the catalog finally found its way to the Royal Society, the society agreed to publish it, and Prince George of Denmark George, Prince (Denmark) (1653-1708), consort of Queen Anne, agreed to pay for the publication.

A society committee, which consisted of Newton and two of his friends, astronomer Edmond Halley and Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, examined the manuscripts Flamsteed provided and were to determine their suitability for publication. Halley had interests in Flamsteed’s data, too, because he desired positional data on the comet that would one day bear his name. Flamsteed loathed Halley, and in his letters he went out of his way to vilify him. To acquire data on the comet, Halley had to use Newton as an intermediary between himself and Flamsteed. The committee ruled that all the manuscripts provided should be published, and the society instructed Flamsteed to set his work into an appropriate format for the printer. Once again, however, Flamsteed hesitated and failed to cooperate. He sent the society a copy of his observations and the catalog of those star positions he had worked out, but at the same time he pointed out that the catalog was incomplete and should not be published. Flamsteed promised to produce a “more perfect copy” at a later date. Printing began in May, 1706, but stopped in 1708 with the death of Prince George. Flamsteed stopped sending data, and Newton retaliated by expelling Flamsteed from the Royal Society. The society, almost certainly with the prompting of Newton, decided that the completion of this project was jeopardized and that definitive action should be taken, since Flamsteed seemed not to be able to work quickly without outside pressure.

Queen Anne Anne, Queen issued a royal warrant in 1710 to the president of the Royal Society to form a board of visitors, which would be given extensive powers to compel Flamsteed to deliver to the board, within six months after the end of each year, finished, printable copies of his annual observations. Thus, by order of the queen, the printing of the catalog resumed in 1711, but Flamsteed had done virtually nothing in the intervening seven years to make his catalog suitable for publication. In the end the Royal Society simply wearied of Flamsteed’s dilatoriness and took decisive action. After reexamining Flamsteed’s manuscript catalog, the Royal Society committee noted the incomplete nature of his work and asked Halley to complete the manuscripts as best he could. Halley supplied whole, print-worthy pages of Flamsteed’s observations and edited the incomplete work, against Flamsteed’s wishes, publishing Historia coelestis Britannica Historia coelestis Britannica (Flamsteed) in 1712. In a letter to Flamsteed dated June 23, 1711, Halley had informed Flamsteed of his work with the catalog and the society’s intent to publish it, which shows that Halley did not edit Flamsteed’s manuscript without Flamsteed’s knowledge.

Flamsteed was outraged that his archenemy, Halley, was allowed to fiddle with his life’s work. Somehow, Flamsteed needed to publish a complete and corrected edition of his observations. With his wife, Flamsteed tried either to suppress the Historia coelestis Britannica or to insist that it not be used. It was not until 1715, with the appointment of a new lord chamberlain, Charles Paulet, second duke of Bolton (1661-1722), that Flamsteed was able to acquire three hundred of the four hundred total copies printed. He publicly burned the catalogs in 1716 on a high mound in Greenwich Park “as a sacrifice to heavenly truth.” After this fit of passion, Flamsteed applied himself to preparing his astronomical catalog and observations in a form he believed to be accurate, but they were not published until after his death. Two former assistants of Flamsteed, Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp, edited his work. The three-volume Historia coelestis Britannica (1725; British Catalogue of the Heavens, British Catalogue of the Heavens (Flamsteed) partial translation, 1982) is a monument to Flamsteed’s exacting labors and skill as an astronomer.

Halley succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal after Flamsteed’s death in 1719. Flamsteed’s widow and assistant, Margaret Flamsteed, was so bitter over Halley’s appointment that she removed all astronomical instruments and other objects from the Greenwich observatory. At an age when most would have thought of retiring, Halley proved a productive astronomer royal and even followed the Moon through an entire eighteen-year nodal cycle.


The astronomy wars hampered astronomical research in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, and the harrying political machinations of Sir Isaac Newton cast a shadow over his character. Little was gained by forcing the early publication of John Flamsteed’s data. It is unlikely that, left to his own, Flamsteed would have completed his star catalog before his death. Using Flamsteed’s lunar data, Newton only slightly improved his description of lunar motion in his second edition of the Principia, which he published in 1713, and had all mentions of Flamsteed expunged. A satisfactory theory of lunar motion continued to remain troublesome for centuries after Newton’s death.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christianson, Gale E. In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times. New York: Free Press, 1984. A deeply detailed biography of Newton that honestly discusses his scientific genius and personal shortcomings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, David, and Stephen P. H. Clark. Newton’s Tyranny. New York: Freeman, 2001. A somewhat useful discussion of the astronomy wars, but rather biased against Newton and Halley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Alan. Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A complete, scholarly biography of the life of Halley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flamsteed, John. The Preface to John Flamsteed’s “Historia coelestis Britannica”: Or, “British Catalogue of the Heavens” (1725). Edited by Allan Chapman. Translated by Alison Dione Johnson. London: Trustees of the National Maritime Museum, 1982. The English translation of the preface to Flamsteed’s major work. Includes an introduction by the editor, illustrations, charts, and appendices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forbes, Eric G., Lesley Murdin, and Frances Willmoth. The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, First Astronomer Royal. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Institute of Physics, 1997. A compendium of Flamsteed’s letters that provide extensive insights into the life and work of this temperamental but highly efficient astronomer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, First Astronomer Royal. Vol. 3. Philadelphia: Institute of Physics, 2001. A collection of Flamsteed’s letters from the last sixteen years of his life, much of which elucidates the astronomy wars from his unique perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ronan, Colin A. Edmond Halley: Genius in Eclipse. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. A sympathetic and insightful biography of Halley.

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Categories: History