The Royal Society of London For Improving Natural Knowledge

by Noel Fermor

Baconiana February 1961


The tercentenaries of the foundation of the Royal Society, commemerated in July, 1960, and the death of William Harvey in 1957 , almost coincide with the impending fourth centenary of the birth of Francis Bacon. Is there an affinity between these events? The available evidence strongly suggests that there is.

In 1667, Dr. Thomas Sprat published his History of the Royal Society. The frontispiece,[401k colorised] an engraving by Hollar, shows a bust of Charles II, the Society's first patron, apparently about to be crowned by a symbolical figure representing Fame. Viscount Brouncker, the first president (to the left of the pillar-base) points with his right hand to a Latin inscription, CAROULUS II SOCIETATIS  REGALIS AUTHOR ET PATRONUS. Francis Bacon , Viscount St. Alban, is seen to the right with his left hand pointing unequivocally away from the inscriptionperhaps to the masonic insignia in the background. At Bacon's feet is the legend ARTIUM INSTAURATOR, which at once reminds us of his great vision for the future, the Instauratio Magma.

This engraving confirms Bacon's great and well known influence on the earliest Members of the Royal Society, and no doubt also that of the Knights of the Helmet founded by him and mentioned in the Gray's Inn records .*

Most of our readers will be aware that the Royal Society was the offspring of earlier meetings in London and Oxford to discuss the philosophical and scientific subjects; but the group studying natural philosophy and called by Robert Boyle the " Invisible College" was probably seperate from the more famous company tht foregathered at Gresham House in London. Robert Boyle (1627-91) the famous chemist, and discoverer of Boyle's Law, was a kinsman of Richard Boyle (1695-1753), the fourth Earl of Cork, but also third Earl of Burlington, and English title. Both Robert and Richard were members of the Council of the Royal Society though in different eras. The latter, in conjunction with Dr. Mead (also of the Royal Society), Thomas Martin of the Society of Antiquaries, and Alexander Pope, the poet and Rosicrucian , (The Rape of the Lock. John, father of Alexander Pope, was one of the earliest fellows of the society) was responsible for the first Shakespeare Statue in Westiminster Abbey, erected in 1741. A peculiarity of this statue is the grotesque mis-quotation from The Tempest contained in the scroll to which the figure points.


* footnote This little known fact was referred to by the Librarian of Gray's Inn, at a Francis Bacon Society Meeting, at which the writer was present. The seal of the Royal Society incorporates a coat of arms, which includs a helmet; sic," the dexter corner of a silver shield our three Lions of England, and for crrest a helm, adorned with a crown studded with florets, surmounted by an eagle of proper colour holding in one foot a shield charged with our Lions : supporters, two white hounds gorged with crowns."

John Evelyn (1620-1706), the famous diarist, a close friend of Robert Boyle, and an earlier promoter of the Royal Society, was outstanding both for personal virtue and for scientific learning. He proposed to Boyle the erection of a "philosophical and mathematical college" in 1659 and must have approved the establishment of a philosophical club at Cheapside, London, by his "dear and excellent friend", Dr. John Wilkens ( 1614- 1672). An interesting note in the famous Diary, dated January 6, 1661, reads as follows :

" I was now chosen (and nominated by his Majesty for one of the Council), by suffrage of the rest of the Members, a Fellow of the Philosophic Society now meeting at Gresham College,.......................but it had been begun some years before at Oxford, and was continued with interruption here in London during the Rebellion" (i.e. Oliver Cromwell's protectorate).

It was Evelyn who designed the engraved title-page to Sprat's History . Lord Arundel, who was a friend of Evelyn, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and after his death in 1678 his valuable library was given to the Society. An exception was made of those books devoted to heraldry which were accepted by Sir William Dugdale. Sir William, as Garter King-of-Arms, and author of Monasticon, was clearly a greatly respected contemporary figure and a man who could be trusted. Among other learned works he wrote the well known book Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656) in which appeared a reproduction of the original Shakespeare Bust at Stratford-on-Avon. The original figure of the Bard is unsatisfying both aesthetically and intellectually, arms and hands appearing in unnatural wooden postures, the latter resting on a grotesquely shaped sack like object which is virtually unidentifiable. The present day bust erected in 1746, is not a notable improvement, mainly because of the incredibly stupid expression on the face, but at least the effigy holds a quill! Baconians maintain that both these busts were intended to indicate to the discerning that the Stratford man was not the author of the Shakespeare manuscripts. Perhaps Dugdale, in addition to John Evelyn, may be included in Horace Walpole's complaint, in his Catalogue of Engravers, that " he knew more than he always communicated." Certainly the shrewd De Quincey states that the exoterci afterwards composed the Royal Society.

According to Sir Geoffrey Keynes, writing in The Listener of July 21, 1960, the Invisible College probably owed its origin to Bacon's account of the founding of such a society in the New Atlantis, published in 1627, where the objects were defined as the Knowledge of Causes and Secret Motions of Things, And the Enlarging of the bounds of Humane Empire to the Effecting of all Things possible.

The phrase "the Effecting of all Things possible" is a valuable key to Bacon's behind-the-scene activities, and I believe his inspiration may be traced in every phrase of the astonishing emergence of practical and theoretical learning dating from the last decades of the 16th century. In this period there functioned in England several groups of experimental philosophers, many of whose members were acquainted with the great thinker. Meyrick H. Carre, formerly Reader in Philosophy at the University of Bristol, has pointed out (History To-day, August, 1960) that all these men, including William Gilbert, and Henry Briggs, who first adapted Napier's logarithms for practical use, were interested in the application of mathematics to problems of navigation, and Bacon who was so vitally concerned in the colonization of the New World, was certainly well aware of these activities from the very beginning.

The foundation of Gresham College in 1598 gave a valuable impetus to the arts and sciences, which continued until the inception of the Royal Society on November 28, 1660, and in the meantime Briggs had moved to Oxford University, where other meetings took place. By 1645, subjects discussed at Gresham College included physic, anatomy, geometry, astronomy and navigatonal aidsaccording to John Wallis, the brilliant mathematicianand inevitably Dr. William Harvey's work on the circulation of blood. Harvey was personal physician to Bacon, and might well have discussed his theory before delivering the Lumleian Lectures in 1616, at the Royal College of Physicians. William Gilbert established a laboratory at the College, which doubtless proved an attraction to other able men. We have pointed out before (Baconiana, No. 157, November, 1957 : article, Dr. William Harvey and Francis Bacon.) the curious fact that Coriolanus, printed in 1623, contained a reference to the circulation of blood, despite the fact that Shakespeare died in April, 1616. It is, of course, stretching credulity to believe that the actor was responsible for the discovery or was even a confidant of William Harvey. Is it so unreasonable to believe that Bacon had a hand in this?
We have already mentioned the Invisible College, but not the interesting circumstance that leading Continental Baconian protagonists (such as Comenius and Hartlib, a German-Pole by birth) as well as the youthful Robert Boyle were among the most prominent members. All these men sincerely believed in Bacon's vision. We may also note that there appears to be no record of the disappearance of the College, although it is now usually supposed to have been absorbed into the Gresham College, and later the Royal Society. However, it is equally tempting to believe that the Invisible College continued to exist sub rosa, and tht the gentlemen subsequently responsible for the erection of the Shakespeare Statue in Westminster Abbey had a definite object in view. Is it conceivable that the transposition of a whole line and other glaring inaccuracies in the quotation from The Tempest could have been accidental? Ex hypothesi, carelessness is ruled out of court. It almost seems that Saloman's House of the New Atlantis continued its function. Not for nothing, surely , was Robert Boyle known as "the most skilled interpreter of experimental science in the land"; not for nothing did Stubbe, that violent antagonist of Bacon and the Royal Society, name the one "Philosophical father" to the other. (Professor Fowler's Introduction to his edition of Novum Organum.)

After the Restoration of Charles II the founding of the Royal Society gave outward form to the inner vision,* and the aristocratic Bacon would have been pleased to observe that so many of the Founding Members were of noble descent or well connected.
*footnote- Mr. Crowther has pointed out that the official Record opens with the statement that "the foundation of the Royal Society was one of the earliest practical fruits of the philosophical labours of Francis Bacon," and that Dr. Spratt in his History says "Some of Bacon's writing" gave a better account of the aims of the Royal Society than anything he could compose. Francis Bacon, by J.G. Crowther, 1960).
Indeed, before long the rules stipulated that no person should be admitted a Member without scrutiny unless of the degree of baron or above! The motto of the Society, Nullius in verba, which has been translated as "take no theory on trust," directly reflected the master's insistence, in particular in Instauratio Magma (1620), and later more pragmatically in Sylva Sylvarum (1627), that philosophical dogma must be replaced by inductive reasoning coupled with physical experiment. Bacon's influence on the Royal Society in the early years of the 17th century had been considerable, and even in the 1670's the Council was still running into considerable financial difficulties owing to its strict adherence to the rule of not debating "any hypothesis or principle of philosophy" until "a sufficient collection of experiments, histories, and observations had become available."

The tercentenary celebrations of the Royal Society held last July have great significance in this modern era of startling scientific developments, and to the discerning eye can justly be regarded as a timely prelude to the four hundredth anniversary in January, 1961, of the birth of the Father of Experimental Science, and the greatest Englishman (in Ben Jonson's phrase), who had been in many ages,Francis Bacon.








 - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning