Sunday, 24 October 2021

The Savalian Professor of Astronomy and Halifax


One of the most prestigious positions in astronomy today is to be the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford. You have probably guessed it, it was a Yorkshire man who established that position, Sir Henry Savile November 1549 – 1622. He was born at Bradley, near Halifax.

He was an English scholar, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, and Provost or chairman of the governing body of Eton College. He was also a Member of Parliament. In 1583 Henry Savile together with John Chamber and Thomas Digges were asked to sit on a commission to consider whether England should adopt the Gregorian calendar, as proposed by John Dee.

The Gregorian calendar had been introduced into catholic Europe in 1582 when ten years were lost but in protestant countries such as Britain it would not be adopted until 1752. This meant that when the Gregorian calendar was eventually introduced in Britain and its colonies much later than most of Europe the error  had increased so much that to replace the Julian calendar eleven days were lost. If you was living anywhere in Britain  in 1752, Wednesday September 2nd was followed by Thursday 14th September!

Savile was one of the scholars who would translate the New Testament from Greek into English.

In 1604 Savile was knighted and in 1619 he established at the university of Oxford the position of Savilian Professor of Astronomy. It has to be filled by a scholar of distinction, with an outstanding teaching, research and publication record.

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Captain Scott, the South Pole and a Cooke


Most people know of the story of Captain Scott and his expedition trying to become the first people to reach the south pole on Antarctica during the summer of 1911/1912. Unfortunately when he arrived he discovered that he had been beaten by the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. 

Amundsen reached the south pole on the 14th December 1911, while Scott reached the south pole on January 17th 1912. Sadly on the return journey Scott and his team perished in the very cold conditions.

However what is perhaps less well know is that Captain Scott and his team took a light weight theodolite specially made by Thomas Cooke of York with him the mark the position of the south pole. It was one of only 6 of these special theodolites made by Cooke’s for the expedition.

When the rescue team found the bodies of Scott and his team in their tent they also found the Cooke theodolite that was used by Scott to mark the south pole.

This instrument was on display at the physics department at the University of York, however I cannot say if it is still there today.

Friday, 22 October 2021

John Field the proto Copernican of Yorkshire


John Field 1527-1587 was born in Ardsley to the SW of Leeds in the West Riding, an astronomer who seems to be missed off many people’s radar. His describes himself as being a farmer, and sometimes student in the mathematic sciences. Yet this farmer would become a trail blazer and was the first person to publish an ephemeris or movements of the stars and planets in England that was based on the Copernican theory. John Field was known as the proto Copernican of England.

The Copernican theory was put forward by Nicolas Copernicus a Polish canon and astronomer who said that the Sun was at the centre of the solar system and not the Earth. The idea of the Earth centred system had been proposed by Aristotle around 350 BCE. This idea had been promoted by the church through monasteries.

As a young boy John Field went to Woodkirk Priory which was a cell of the Augustine monastery at Nostell Priory near Wakefield. Woodkirk would be closed during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. This is almost certainly where his mathematical talents were first seen.

Amazingly he became astronomer/astrologer of the young Princess Elizabeth Tudor; an associate and friend of John Dee who was astronomer/astrologer of Queen Mary Tudor. Dee would later become astronomer/astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.

In 1554 Following the failure of Wyatt's rebellion, a popular uprising in England over the concern of Queen Mary to marry Philip of Spain, Queen Mary imprisoned Princess Elizabeth in the Tower of London and later moved her to Woodstock under house arrest. In 1555 the Privy Council also ordered the arrest of astrologers John Field and John Dee over charges of "endeavouring by enchantmentes to destroy Queen Mary" in the matter of her failure to produce an heir; and bewitching children; etc. They were jailed, it was here that the young princess Elizabeth met John Dee and John Field. Although it was in April 1555 that Elizabeth was released Field and Dee were not released until Christmas 1556. It was probably during their imprisonment as they had little else to do that the two friends had worked on their recognition and ideas of the Sun-centric planetary system as propounded by Nicholas Copernicus. The following year 1557 John Field published his work based on the Copernican system, with a preface by John Dee. The book is an almanac of star and planet positions.

During 1558 John Field of Ardsley was granted a coat arms in recognition for his work in navigation. The crest has the slogan SEMPER IN MOTU which translates to “Always in Motion” for his work on the shifting positions of the Sun, Moon and Stars.

In November 1558 Queen Mary was executed and her half sister became Queen Elizabeth the first. John Dee as court astrologer had to set the date for the coronation. Maybe he tired of court life and wanted to return to his roots in Yorkshire. Following on after the death of his father, John Field returned to Yorkshire and to Ardsley to go back to farming.

It is worth noting that at this time astrologers were often mathematical astronomers and the two subjects were very similar to each other. However at this period in time astrologers would produce almanacs with very little science value while astronomers would produce a more scientific version. However this story does show that it could be dangerous to be an astrologer in the 1550s.

Between 1543 when Copernicus wrote his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and 1600 there were less than a dozen astronomers or scientists all with very well-known names including Thomas Digges and Thomas Hariot in England; Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei in Italy; and Johannes Kepler in Germany who supported these new ideas, and yet there is not a mention of John Field. He not only agreed with Copernicus he was the first person to write about those ideas in England so should be included on any distinguished list of astronomers who supported the Copernican view of the solar system.

Here is another example of a Yorkshire man who made a massive contribution to astronomy , yet is hardly know.

John Field died in 1587 and is buried at the church of St Michael’s with St Gabriel’s in East Ardsley near Wakefield. It is here that there is a plaque dedicated to John Field on the wall of the porch entrance of the church.

The plaque reads ‘Beneath this porch lies John Field 1520-1587 he was the first astronomer in this country to make known the discoveries of Copernicus’ 

My astronomy podcasts at are now in the top 25 astronomy podcasts on the web according

Thursday, 21 October 2021

The Milky Way, Watling Street and a Yorkshire Monk


Following the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 there was a period during the next 200 years of a series of building not only building castles but also Abbeys and Monasteries. In Yorkshire alone there were over a dozen built, and these were built of stone and replaced the wooden Anglo Saxon structures. They did have one thing in common though; they had extensive libraries, which allowed them to become great places of learning, and as we all know knowledge is power.

One chronicler who we do know off and came from Yorkshire was Roger of Hoveden or Howden in the East Riding of |Yorkshire, we believe he dies around the year 1201, among the many things he did was around the year 1192 was to write a general history of England from the year 732.

He does make an interesting reference to the Milky Way, Roger says that the Anglo Saxon name was Waetlinga Straet or the paths of the Waetlings, these were giant sons of King Waetla who were the legendary founders of the path. It is possible that Waetla was one of the Saxon mythical heroes. However remember that if we are going back even further in time than the Saxons it would have been based on Celtic mythology.

 We all know that the Romans constructed Watling Street which ran from Kent to Shropshire for over two hundred and fifty miles. The Milky Way in the sky looks slightly curved, Watling Street is slightly curved, and could the Romans be using the Celtic/Saxon mythology and placing the Milky Way on the ground in England?

 It’s what a Yorkshire monk is suggesting!

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Alcuin, Charlemagne, Constellations and York


One of the greatest Saxon scholars, Alcuin (735-804) was born in Northumbria possibly in York itself in 735 , he would go on to become one of the best sources of information during the latter part of the eighth century. The young Alcuin went to the cathedral church school of York during the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert who had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede. Here Alcuin became a monk and teacher. Within the monastic world he was able to gain access to magnificent libraries, he wrote educational manuals and copied classical texts including those of the great scientists of Greece, it was here that Alcuin became aware of was astronomy.

Don’t forget monasteries were the centre of learning at this time.

In 781 when he was returning from a visit to Rome he met with the King of the Franks, better known as Charlemagne who would unite most of Western Europe the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, and apart from building a massive empire Charlemagne was also very interested in astronomy.

At the Charlemagne’s invitation, Alcuin joined the royal court in 781, and became one of the king’s chief advisers on religious and educational matters. Alcuin was made head of the palace school at Aachen, which was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families, and he established a great library there.

Charlemagne was fascinated by the movements of the stars and studied them carefully with the help of Alcuin and it was probably this work that produced some wonderful images of the constellations the Leiden Aratea this were copies of images of the constellations that had been produced by the Greek poet Aratus 310 BCE- 240 BCE whose work described the constellations and other celestial phenomena. The images are based on 38 drawings.


Alcuin would have been aware of this work and possible encouraged Charlemagne to get them re produced, but he did not live to see the work completed dying on 19th May 804 CE. The constellations themselves were produced probably near Aachen around 816 CE and even Charlemagne never saw this work being completed as he died in 814 CE.

If it had not been for Alcuin setting up the great library at Aachen the wonderful Leiden Aratea constellations images would probably never have been reproduced and could possibly have been lost for ever.

One of the colleges at the University of York is named Alcuin College.

You can also follow me on my podcasts at which according to  is now in the 25 top astronomy podcasts on the web

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

The Devils Arrows


We stay with pre historic sites but move from features in the earth to standing stones. Keeping the North Yorkshire theme we travel to a site near Boroughbridge in the Harrogate district. We move forward in time to about 2,000 BCE to discover the Devils Arrows a line of three huge stones sometimes called ‘the three sisters’ there are suggestions that originally there were four stones.

The stones which are made from millstone grit which is believed to have been quarried at Knaresborough which is around seven miles away and then dragged to their present positions. The stones each weigh around 25 tons so moving them using the technology available 4,000 years ago was no mean feat.

The stones that are still standing are aligned southeast to northwest and they form a line 374 metres long. The stones are between five to six metres high and are sunk into the ground to a depth of about 1.5 metres. The Devils Arrows today are actually less than 200 metres from the A1M motorway.

The name the Devils Arrows only dates back to the 1700s when according to legend the devil threw the stones at the next town which is Aldborough however much to the annoyance of the devil the stones fell short of their intended target and landed near Boroughbridge instead! I am not sure what a town in Yorkshire did to get the devil so annoyed?

As with many of these standing stones across the country there almost certainly was an astronomical connection. I am not sure if anybody is certain just what the connection might be. It certainly is not as clear cut as with the Thornborough Henges and the link with Orion. The fact that they align southeast to northwest suggests a possible link with the Sun and Moon. If as astro-archaeologists believe that there were originally four stones at this site it could suggest a connection with the position of the Sun and Moon during the four seasons during the course of the year. I am afraid that as with many of the stone circles and standing stones we will probably never know for certain.

The Devils Arrows like Thornborogh Henges are also listed as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

Monday, 18 October 2021

Thornborough Henges


We now travel back in time not this time thousands of years to around 3,500 BCE (Before Christian Era) to discover one of the most important ancient sites in Britain, this is the Thornborough Henges. They are located near the village of Thornborough which is in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire near to Bedale. The henges consist of a series of three circular mounds with ditches and banks that were probably in use for over a thousand years. This site is often referred to as the ‘Stonehenge of the North’.

Thornborough Henges

Thornborough Henge is the world’s only triple henge with the length of the three circles covering a distance of about one mile. The henges are aligned northwest to southeast, and laid out at approximately 550m apart. All are of similar size and shape, have a diameter between 240 and 275 metres, and stand some three meters in height. We cannot be sure why it was built some astro archaeologists think that Thornborough may have been a pilgrimage centre where people sought spiritual salvation and that it served an economic and social needs however there does appears to be a definite astronomical connection.

The Thornborough Henges align with one of the most famous star patterns in the sky, Orion’s Belt. The henges do not form a straight line but instead were intentionally shaped like a ‘dog leg’ to reflect the shape that the stars of Orion’s belt form in the sky. The constellation of Orion is very well known and is one of the two main signposts in the sky which help astronomers to find their way around while learning the positions of the stars in the night sky. The other is the Plough or Big Dipper as the Americans prefer to call it. The Plough is part of the constellation of Ursa Major the Great Bear, and while the Plough is visible all year around while in Britain Orion can only be seen in the winter sky.

Orion is one of 88 constellations recognised today be astronomers today. These are just like giant pictures in the sky and if you can find them it is possible to start reading the stories they are telling us. Of these 48 were designed by the Greeks and therefore by convention we tend to use the Greek myth and legends attached to them. Most other civilisations had their own versions of the ones we use here in the west. The other 40 constellations were added from the sixteenth century onwards by astronomers filling in the gaps between the main star groups in the northern hemisphere. When European explorers travelled into the southern hemisphere they saw stars that cannot be seen in Europe so created a series of constellation in the southern sky. Many of these are depictions of what were at the time newly invented scientific instruments. This explains why in the southern hemisphere we see constellations such as Telescopium the Telescope and Microscopium the Microscope. The vast majority of these modern constellations both in the northern and southern hemispheres are comprised of faint and obscure stars.

Orion on the other hand is a magnificent constellations easily recognised by four bright stars that form a large rectangle in the sky inside which are the three stars that form Orion’s Belt. The top left hand star of the rectangle is the famous red star Betelgeux which is often called Beetlejuice! As we look at the belt stars from left to right they are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The stars names may seem a little different to us this is because they are Arabic. When we translate the stars of Orion’s belt into English we discover that Alnitak means The Girdle, Alnilam the String of Pearls and Mintaka is the Belt.

This same astronomical alignment can be found in the great pyramids in Egypt, but the Thonrborough Henges are about 1,000 years earlier than the Egyptian pyramids. This could be the first known monument to align with the constellation of Orion. Was this co- incidence that the people of Yorkshire and those in Egypt created the same pattern on the ground or maybe people travelled around the world thousands of years ago exchanging thoughts, ideas and customs?

The structures of the henges were aligned so its western end pointed towards the mid-winter setting of Orion which also meant that the eastern end aligned towards the midsummer solstice.

Today we talk about light pollution and how difficult it is for people who live in cities to see the stars properly. We can be certain that the night skies were much darker when the henges were constructed over 5,000 years ago, there would be no light pollution at all. Today Orion is still an amazingly wonderful constellation to look at but with darker skies it must have looked even more impressive and this perhaps is one of the reasons why they had such a fascination for this one particular group of stars.

Today, all three of the Thornborough Henges, as well as the land connecting them together, are listed as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.