St Albans, Hertfordshire

Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

Richard of Wallingford (1292?-1336), the Father of English Trigonometry, came to St Alban's Abbey in 1314 after his degree at Oxford. Deacon in 1316; Priest in 1317. In 1317, he returned to Oxford for further study. In 1327, the Abbot died and Richard returned to St Alban's Abbey and was elected Abbot. In 1328, he began to show symptoms of a disease which was thought to be leprosy and which would have caused his banishment from normal life, but his abilities were so appreciated by the Church and the King, that he was allowed to continue as Abbot until his death. He started construction of a great astronomical clock which was completed about 20 years after his death by William of Walsham. It was the first clock to be clearly described, in his Tractatus Horologii Astronomici of 1327. He introduced a new and improved type of escapement, but it was too complex to ever be copied elsewhere, though Leonardo da Vinci re-invented a similar escapement. Sadly, the clock was destroyed during the Dissolution in 1539, but the book and other records are sufficiently detailed that Peter Haward, of Suffolk, was able to make a working reconstruction, now in the Time Museum at Rockford, Illinois. The case and face are not adequately recorded, but the reconstruction was based on a slightly later case in Durham Cathedral. [1]; [2]; [3] Henwood shows some illustrations from the fourteenth-century Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani which depict Richard and the clock - are these the earliest contemporary (or nearly so) pictures of a mathematician? Henwood also shows the reconstructed version.

Incidentally, the Wallingford Screen in the Abbey is due to a 15C William of Wallingford.

Gorhambury, about 2½ miles NW of St Albans, was the country seat of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). His father built Old Gorhambury House in 1563-1568 and Francis lived here from 1568. He was a student at St Alban's school. He inherited the old house in 1601, enlarged and rebuilt it and then built a summer house, Verulam House, about a mile away. After his fall from power in 1621, he retired here. A doorway and some walls of Old Gorhambury House survive, but nothing remains of Verulam House. His tomb (or monument) in St Michael's Church has a figure of him. Some guidebooks say he is buried in the vault underneath. The present Gorhambury House was built by the Earl of Verulam, a collateral descendent, in 1784 and is occupied by the current Earl. It is open and displays various memorabilia. [4]; [5]; [6]

Lord Grimthorpe, designer of the clock at Parliament (cf under London), restored the west front of the Abbey in the late nineteenth century. His restoration work was not always well received, particularly here and at Lincoln's Inn, and 'to grimthorpe' was used for 'to do a rotten job of restoration' [7].

H.T. Flather, the crystallographer who built the "very beautiful set of miniature models of all the fifty-nine (stellations of the icosahedron)" was living in St Albans when he offered the models to the University of Cambridge and Coxeter came to see them. [8].

References (show)

  1. Gunther, Robert T. Early Science in Oxford: Vol. XI: Oxford Colleges and Their Men of Science. Printed for the author, Oxford, 1937, pp.40-41
  2. Field, J.V. & Wright, Michael T. Early Gearing. Geared Mechanisms in the Ancient and Medieval World. Science Museum, London, 1985, pp.16, 26, 47-48
  3. Henwood, George. Abbot Richard of Wallingford: Fourteenth Century Scholar Astronomer and Instrument Maker, Wallingford Museum, 1988
  4. Crosland, M., ed. A Traveller's Guide to Literary Europe. 3 vols., Hugh Evelyn, London, 1965-1967. vol. 2, p 36
  5. Glendinning, Victoria. Victoria Glendinning's Hertfordshire. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989, pp.51-53 with photo of the Old House between pp.116 & 117
  6. Eastman, John. Who Lived Where in Europe: A Biographical Guide to Homes and Museums. Facts on File, NY, 1985. pp.184-185.
  7. Espy, Willard R. O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun. Clarkson N. Potter, NY, 1978. p.111
  8. Coxeter, Harold Scott Macdonald; Du Val, Patrick; Flather, H. T. & Petrie, John Flinders ( -1972). The Fifty-Nine Icosahedra. (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1938), p.5-10

The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles was created by David Singmaster.
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