On 4th March 1675, the clergyman and mathematician John Flamsteed was appointed ‘Astronomical Observator’ by Charles II with an annual salary of £100 funded by the Office of the Ordnance.
He was tasked with making observations to correct the Navy’s navigational tables, and spent the spring and summer of that year lodged at the Tower with his patron, Sir Jonas Moore, Surveyor General of the Ordnance. His first recorded Tower observation was dated 18th April 1675. That summer work began on building the Royal Observatory at Greenwich to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. The building costs of £520 were funded by the sale of spoilt gunpowder from the Ordnance. Further economy was achieved by recycling stone and lead from the demolition in 1676 of the Coldharbour Gate at the Tower of London. Although there is no contemporary evidence where exactly Flamsteed’s initial observations were carried out, it seems reasonable that he might have made use of the roof of the White Tower as the highest point on site. Today the north east tower of the White Tower is still known as the Flamsteed Tower.
According to popular myth one of the main legacies of Flamsteed’s association with the Tower are the modern ravens. Finding his astronomical observations compromised by the resident ravens’ incontinence, Flamsteed complained to Charles II who ordered their destruction. Conveniently, one of his advisors reminded him of the legend that if the ravens left the Tower, then the English monarchy would be under threat. His grip on the throne by no means certain, King Charles was naturally unwilling to take any unnecessary risks and changed his mind. In August 1675 work began on a new, purpose-built observatory at Greenwich and the building inaugurated with the observation of a partial solar eclipse in June 1676.
Sadly there does not appear to be any contemporary corroborating evidence for the connection between Flamsteed and the ravens. In fact evidence for the ravens’ official residence at the Tower is patchy until the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the first written account of this legend appears only to have surfaced in the 1940s.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
J. Charlton, ed., The Tower of London: its buildings and Institutions (London, 1978)
F. Willmoth, Sir Jonas Moore: Practical Mathematics and Restoration Science (Woodbridge, 1993)
F. Willmoth, Flamsteed’s Stars: New Perspectives on the Life and Work of the first Astronomer Royal, 1646-1719 (Woodbridge, 1997)
E. Impey, ed., The White Tower (New Haven and London, 2008)
During the reign of King Henry VIII, if not earlier, guns were capable of firing cannonballs faster than the speed of sound – the first supersonic weapons!