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’
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