Wimborne St Giles, Dorset

Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

In the parish church is the tomb of Sir Anthony Ashley (1551-1627/8), which has a handsome framework truncated icosahedron. This has its faces filled in to make a solid shape, but with the edges much raised up like a picture frame. Ashley was Clerk to the Privy Council shortly after Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer's Spiegel der Zeevaert appeared and he translated it into English as The Mariners Mirror of 1588 - Pepys owned a copy [1]. Otherwise, his life was that of a high official with some naval connections, but no mathematical connections. [2]; [3] This truncated icosahedron has already been discovered by the chemists - my informant has sent me a postcard describing it as a 'buckyball' and advertising a book about the discovery of this form of Carbon 60. See also Salisbury for a similar tomb.

I have now visited Wimborne St Giles. The tomb is substantial and was erected by Ashley's son-in-law, whose son became the first Earl of Shaftesbury. The Shaftesburys still live nearby and the church is their local church and is a good deal larger than I expected. The tomb is behind the altar screen so one has to find someone with the key, e.g. John, the organist, who lives in the cottage by the gateway at the end of the public roadway. The polyhedron is supported on a platform held on a pair of hands projecting from the foot of the tomb at the feet of the effigies of Ashley and his wife. It is about 15" (40 cm) in diameter. A guide to the church by A.T.P. Cooper is available and gives three local stories about the polyhedron. Ashley is said, by John Evelyn, to have been among the first to import cabbage seed from the New World and grow them in England - the 'sphere of hexagons' is thought to be a 'heraldic cabbage'. The [3] cites a contemporary account by Nichols for the fact that he was the first to grow cabbages in England. Consulting a book on the history of food reveals that the cabbage is thought to be a native of northern Europe and was well known to the Greeks and the Romans, so I find Evelyn's and Nichols' assertions surprising - perhaps they are referring to some other, cabbage-like, plant, or perhaps it was an improved variety which people could eat. In any case, the polyhedron doesn't look at all like a cabbage to me. A second story is that it is a 'heraldic sphere' commemorating his navigational work. Thirdly, Ashley had been the Queen's representative at the sacking of Cadiz, where he was knighted, but he seems to have felt his rewards were not adequate and he made off with a quantity of treasure, including a great diamond which he sold to London jewellers and which may be represented by the polyhedron.

The second story is clearly the most likely, though I doubt if anyone really confused the polyhedron with a sphere. All of the polyhedra at Salisbury and Wimborne St Giles were in the work of Pacioli/Da Vinci and this was widely known throughout Europe, and the use of such drawings or sculptures would have been a mark of an educated man, particularly someone with a training in geometry as was the case with Gorges and Ashley who were navigators. {The truncated icosahedron appears in Piero della Francesca (not published until the twentieth century), Pacioli/da Vinci (1509), Barbaro (1568, 1569) and Kepler (1619) which would have been widely known to astronomers and navigators, etc.} Unfortunately Mr Cooper was not in when I visited, but the organist was not aware of the polyhedra in Salisbury, though it is only 16 miles from Wimborne St Giles. The nearness in distance and in time between the two tombs makes me wonder if they might have been built or designed by the same person, who might have been the source of the idea of using the shapes. Indeed, because the dates of the two tombs are not definitely known to me, I'm not sure which was built first. The builder of one tomb may have seen the other and said 'I'll have a bit like that'. Or perhaps the polyhedron commemorates his invention of the football (= soccer ball) - a little known fact which I have just made up.

I recently showed slides of both tombs at a conference on mathematics and art, but no one volunteered knowledge of any other examples of the use of polyhedra in this way. If anyone can provide more information on the above examples or on other examples, I would be delighted to hear from them.

John Locke was physician and friend to the first Earl of Shaftesbury and tutor to the third Earl. Indeed he saved the life of Lord Ashley before he became the first Earl. In 1668, a long standing ailment flared up and it seemed that Ashley might die. Locke took charge of the attending physicians and they decided to operate, draining a large quantity of pus from the liver and inserting a silver drainage tube to continue the drainage. The cause was a suppurating hydatid cyst on the liver and Locke gave the first detailed description of this. He was a regular visitor to Wimborne St Giles.

References (show)

  1. Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys M.A., F.R.S; Clerk of the Acts and Secretary to the Admiralty Transcribed by the late Rev. Mynors Bright, M.A. from the shorthand manuscript in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Edited with Additions by Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A.19 September 1666
  2. Taylor, Eva Germaine Rimington. The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor & Stuart England 1485-1714. Cambridge Univ. Press for the Inst. of Navigation, 1954, reprinted several times. E.G.R. pp.327-328
  3. Dictionary of National Biography

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