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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Thomas Sprat (1635-1713)

The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge 1667

RCIN 1057783

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The Royal Society was founded in 1660, the year of the restoration of the British monarchy. Already in 1663 the Fellows were discussing plans to publish a history of their institution, in order to broadcast their intentions to a wider audience. Thomas Sprat, a protégé of Royal Society Fellow John Wilkins, was chosen to write the work. It was first published in 1667, with a magnificent frontispiece by Wenceslas Hollar showing a bust of Charles II flanked by Francis Bacon on the right, and on the left by William, 2nd Viscount Brouncker, the first President of the Society.

The new King, Charles II (1630-85), granted the Society a royal charter in 1662; ever since then the reigning monarch has been the Patron. Charles was fascinated by science and conducted experiments himself: this curiosity led him to also found the Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital in 1673 and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. He supported the Royal Society’s proceedings, and attended some of their meetings. He posed questions for them to answer, such as why some ants’ eggs were larger than the ants themselves. The Society had varied interests, from the nature of gravity to investigating whether a spider could be captured within a circle of ground unicorns’ horns. Uppermost in their concerns, however, was that knowledge be gained from observation and experiment, rather than from preconceived theories. Such an attitude was fundamental to the Enlightenment, and the Royal Society has been described as laying the foundations of the modern world. Today the Royal Society is a learned organisation which provides scientific advice to policy-makers and continues to inspire excitement in scientific discovery.

The fact that the magnificent collection of 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, including all his anatomical drawings, were added to the Royal Collection by Charles II, was symptomatic of the King’s interest in both art, and science.