Allen, Thomas

(1540-1632), mathematician and antiquary

by A. J. Turner

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Allen, Thomas (1540-1632), mathematician and antiquary, was born on 21 December 1540 at Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, the son of William Allen. His family were local gentry who are known to have had Roman Catholic connections. Two of his four uncles also lived at Uttoxeter. Nothing is known of his activities and education before he matriculated as a scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, on 4 June 1561. He proceeded BA in 1563, became a fellow of his college in 1565, and took his MA in 1567. Though formally an adherent of the Church of England, his own beliefs and inclinations tended towards Roman Catholicism, with an Erasmian tinge. About 1570, not wishing to take the oath of supremacy and allegiance incumbent upon fellows on college foundations, he joined the independent Gloucester Hall (which provided a home for notionally conforming church papists).

Allen spent his life at Gloucester Hall, together with several other members of Trinity College who had similar beliefs. It is not known when he first became interested in mathematics and astrology. As early as 1563 he had begun acquiring manuscripts and he gradually built up one of the largest private manuscript collections in Oxford, from which something over 250 titles are still extant. He was particularly orientated towards mathematical and scientific manuscripts, and is primarily responsible for the preservation of the works of Roger Bacon and of the Merton school of astronomers and mathematicians.

Allen had a lively, affable, and sociable disposition and took an active part in university affairs. In 1598, with the vice-chancellor and the two proctors, he served on a commission of four charged to reorder the university statutes and to have them copied. In the same year he was appointed to the committee set up to assist Thomas Bodley in the establishment of his library. He played a major role in this undertaking, soliciting gifts from his patrons, pupils, and friends, besides presenting twenty-one volumes to the library himself.

Although he wrote little and published nothing, it is clear that Allen was an active and successful teacher of mathematics. Lectures that he gave on the subject were so popular 'that it was feared the rooms would burst' (Burton and Bathurst, 5). Among his pupils were Sir Philip Sydney, Robert Fludd, and Sir Kenelm Digby. His influence as a mathematician was also exerted through his contacts with Thomas Harriot, John Dee, and a number of other mathematical practitioners and scholars.

Allen was well known to scholars outside Oxford. Among his acquaintances and correspondents were Camden, Selden, William Gent, Robert, earl of Leicester, Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, and Sir John Scudamore of Holme Lang. However, he consistently refused honours (such as a bishopric from Leicester) which would remove him from his studious life at Oxford. In 1583 he was strongly solicited to join the circle of Albert Laski in Poland but declined to do so. He may nevertheless have spent some time residing with the circle of mathematical practitioners supported by Northumberland, which, as well as Harriot, included others with whom he is known to have been acquainted, such as the geographer Robert Hues. In addition he made a regular tour through the country to Staffordshire each summer, visiting fellow lovers of antiquities, mathematicians, and Catholics en route.

Like a number of other mathematicians, Allen was popularly supposed to be a necromancer--an impression actively encouraged by his college servant, John Thuragh. He did indeed have a high reputation as an astrologer, and this was enhanced by the remarkable accuracy of his prognostications concerning William Herbert, earl of Pembroke (1580-1630), and Robert Pierrepoint, earl of Kingston. He was also consulted on other matters relating to the occult such as the laying of ghosts. His only extant extended piece of writing is a commentary on the second and third books of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, an astrological text. In his will he left a large concave mirror, given to him by John Dee, to Sir Thomas Aylesbury, and probably also his other instruments and some manuscripts. The bulk of his book collection, however, was left to Sir Kenelm Digby who, after having them bound, was two years later persuaded to present them to the Bodleian Library where they remain. Allen died at Gloucester Hall on 30 September 1632 and was buried the following day in Trinity College chapel.


Wood, Ath. Oxon.
Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, 1 (1898), 26-8
J. Aubrey, Letters from eminent persons (1813), 2.202
W. Burton and G. Bathurst, Orationes binae (1632)
W. Camden, Epistolae (1691)
M. Foster, 'Thomas Allen (1540-1632), Gloucester Hall and the survival of Catholicism in post-Reformation Oxford', Oxoniensia, 46 (1982), 99-128
A. G. Watson, 'Thomas Allen of Oxford and his manuscripts', Medieval scribes, manuscripts and libraries: essays presented to N. R. Ker, ed. M. B. Parkes and A. G. Watson (1978)
M. Feingold, The mathematicians' apprenticeship: science, universities and society in England, 1560-1640 (1984)

BL, Cotton MS Julius C.V., fol. 353
Bodl. Oxf., Ashmole MSS
Bodl. Oxf., Digby MSS

stained or painted glass, 1632 (after portrait, 1628), Oriel College, Oxford
oils, 1633 (after portrait, 1628), Trinity College, Oxford
J. Bretherton, engraving (after oil painting, 1633), repro. in R. T. Gunther, ed., Early science in Oxford, 11: Oxford colleges and their men of science (1937), 286
pastel drawing, Bodl. Oxf.
portrait (after oil painting, 1633), Bodl. Oxf.

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