Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Book of the Week (27th February 2012)

Selenographia, sive Lunae Descriptio by Johannes Hevelius (1647)

Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) was a German-Polish brewer, town councillor and astronomer.  Although he played a leading role in the government of Danzig throughout his working life, Hevelius loved to study the night sky.  He built his own observatory and acquired the very best astronomical instruments.  Between 1641 and 1647 he charted the topography of the moon’s surface, publishing the results in his Selenographia of 1647.  His engravings were so detailed and accurate that it was over 200 years before the next significant development in lunar mapping occurred when, during the ‘Space Race’, US and Soviet agencies vied to be the first to glimpse the far side of the moon.  Hevelius went on to discover four comets, and write further treatises on stars and the movement of heavenly bodies.  In 1679 his observatory was destroyed by fire, and he lost his precious notes and instruments.  The astronomer never fully recovered from the shock; although he rebuilt the observatory and refurnished it, he did not live to see the publication of his complete celestial map in 1690.

The Cathedral Library has a splendid edition of Hevelius’s Selenographia, printed in Danzig in the mid-seventeenth century.  Its frontispiece shows the figure of ‘Contemplatio’ holding a telescope.  The sun appears to her right and the moon to her left.

Inside the book there are engravings of Hevelius’s instruments, including this one of the telescope on the roof of his observatory.

The detail in the map of the lunar surface is outstanding for its time.  In addition to his topographical studies, Hevelius also charted the phases of the moon.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

King John and Worcester

Worcester Cathedral has two royal tombs.  One belongs to Prince Arthur (Henry VIII’s older brother and first husband of Katherine of Aragon), and the other to King John.  John’s rise and fall occupies a prominent place in English medieval history.  When he inherited the crown from his illustrious brother, Richard the Lionheart, in 1199 he succeeded to the kingdom of England, the lordship of Ireland, the dukedoms of Normandy and Aquitaine, and the county of Anjou.  However, by the time of his death in 1216 John had lost most of his French territories and the loyalty of his leading barons.  Today he is best remembered for signing the Magna Carta, a ‘Charter of Liberties’ drawn up by the barons to limit the authority of the monarch.

King John's tomb in the chancel of Worcester Cathedral

Less well-known is John’s connection to Worcester.  The Cathedral Library holds some fascinating documents and artefacts relating to the king, including his will, his thumb bone and a fragment from his burial clothes.  John was a frequent visitor to the town.  He is known to have stayed here on at least nine occasions, both as an envoy of his brother and also as king.  Worcester was an important garrison town in the Middle Ages, close to the border with Wales.  Indeed, two of John’s visits (in 1189 and 1209) involved negotiations with Welsh noblemen.  Although we only have records of the visits he made for political purposes, we know that the king had a special affection for the area.  The royal forests of Kinver and Feckenham were among his favourite hunting grounds, and he chose to spend the Christmases of 1207 and 1214 at Worcester.  John was also attracted by the shrines of the Anglo-Saxon Saints Oswald and Wulfstan, the latter of whom was canonized during the king’s reign.  In his will John requested to be buried between the shrines, even though Worcester had formally declared for the barons against the king.

King John’s will is thought to be the earliest surviving copy of a royal will in England.  Although small, it is one of the treasures of the Cathedral archive.  Among the signatories were some of his most loyal and trusted friends.  They included William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby.

John's will

Alongside this document we also have relics taken from the King’s tomb during an antiquarian study in 1797.  One of these is a thumb bone.  Could it have come from the hand which signed the Magna Carta?  At the same time the bone was removed workmen recovered fragments of cloth believed to be part of the King’s shroud and hose.  So next time you see John appearing in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, remember that the originals can be found here in Worcester Cathedral Library!

The thumb bone taken from John's tomb