Library Spotlight: The Star Gazing Bishop | Salisbury Cathedral

Search form

Saturday 26 September Cathedral and Magna Carta CLOSED until 1pm - limited visitor spaces available for the afternoon please click here.  Shop and Refectory Restaurant open from 10am.


You are here

Library Spotlight: The Star Gazing Bishop

Posted By : Emily Naish Wednesday 24th May 2017

Seth Ward - The Star Gazing Bishop

Written by Ken Smith, Library volunteer at Salisbury Cathedral. View gallery here.


A percentage of the books in the Cathedral library are the result of gifts or bequests from past Bishops. One of these was Bishop Seth Ward who was Bishop from 1667 until 1689. Many books, originally from his personal collection, are in the library. These are not easy to recognise as they often lack signatures or other clear marks of ownership. However, by reviewing Seth Ward’s career and interests, it is possible to identify some books that may once have been his.


When I began looking at books possibly associated with Seth Ward, I had little knowledge of him. Beyond his repairing of the Cathedral and building the Matron’s College, my background on him was very limited. Now that I have spent time researching the outline of his life in order to better identify library books that might once have been his, I have a better picture of him as a person.


From an early age, Seth Ward had an aptitude for, and interest in mathematics. He entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge aged fourteen, in 1632 as a sizar*, his family being relatively poor. He was tutored by Samuel Ward (no relation) with whom he lodged. The library possesses a small octavo volume entitled: “Magnetis Reductionium Theologicum in quo ejus” by Samuel Ward, printed in 1637. We believe that Seth Ward originally owned this book by his respected tutor.


After graduating and becoming a fellow of the college, he became a mathematics lecturer. During much of of the Civil War, Ward stayed with William Oughtred, in Hertfordshire, who taught him higher mathematics. The library holds a book by Oughtred, which is entitled: “Trigonometria collecta ex charta….” from 1657. Once more, it is feasible that Ward may have kept this memento of his mathematics mentor. In 1644, for refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, Ward lost his fellowship and lectureship. Later, after the execution of the King, he declared his allegiance to the Commonwealth. This allowed his appointment to the Savilian chair of Astronomy at Oxford in 1649.


Ward was the first person in Oxford to teach the Copernican system of planetary rotation. The cache of astronomical books in the library, including works by Brahe, Galileo and Kepler also have once belonged to Ward and may have informed his teaching. Ward also set up an observatory at Wadham college where he recalled: “I have spent much of my time (beside my readings which excepting Christmas to have been continual since October 10th) in building a slight observatory for the matter of my profession and in procuring and fitting telescopes and other instruments for observation….”


As Savilian professor, Ward also disputed with Thomas Hobbes for his attack on Mathematics and the Universities. The library has a Latin copy of Hobbes’ “Six lessons to the Savilian professors of the mathematics”, London 1660. On page 151 of this copy Hobbes’ proposition 41 has been altered and partly crossed out in ink, possibly by Ward. On the astronomical side, Ward disputed with Ismael Boulliau over Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Boulliau claimed that planets were self-moved and ridiculed Kepler’s geometry. It is therefore, perhaps not by chance, that the library has copies of Ward’s refutation of Boulliau in “De Cometis” and “Idea Trigonometriae Demonstratae” both printed in Oxford, in 1653 and 1654 respectively. These short treatises write powerfully against Boulliau’s ideas. Perhaps, these too, are from Ward’s library recording his championing of the truth as he saw it. Finally, in a copy of the ”The Scepticall Chymist” by fellow Royal Society founder member Robert Boyle, there is the title of the book on the flyleaf in what may be Ward’s own fine hand.


All these books with links to Ward, chart the varied life of this 17th century polymath. He was in turn, mathematician, astronomer, Dean of Exeter and then Bishop of Exeter and then Salisbury. Moreover, Ward left an enduring legacy at Salisbury, not only with his repair of the Bishop’s Palace but also Wren’s survey of the Cathedral and the building of the celebrated Matron’s College.


It may be that I have missed seeing them when perusing the library catalogue, but I was surprised by the absence of any of Ward’s books on religious topics. It is known that several volumes of his sermons were printed in his lifetime and after, as well an essay on “…the being and attributes of God…” It’s a mystery that others may be able to shed light on.


So what was Seth Ward like? Perhaps we can ask a contemporary of his who knew him well – John Aubrey. In his “Brief Lives” Aubrey describes him thus: “…he is the pattern of humility and courtesie so he knows when to be severe and austere; and he is not one to be trampled or worked on. He is a Batchelor and of a most magnificent and munificent mind.”


* A sizar was an undergraduate at Cambridge receiving allowances for expenses from the college.