The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

‘Your astronomers and ours differ exceedingly’: the controversy over the ‘new star’ of 1572 in the light of a newly discovered text by Thomas Digges

STEPHEN PUMFREYa1

a1 Department of History, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK. Email: s.pumfrey@lancaster.ac.uk.

Abstract

This article presents evidence that an anonymous publication of 1573, a Letter sent by a gentleman of England [concerning …] the myraculous starre nowe shyning, was written by Thomas Digges, England's first Copernican. It tells the story of how it arose out of research commissioned by Elizabeth I's privy counsellors in response to the conventional argument of Jean Gosselin, librarian to Henri III of France, that the star was a comet which presaged wars. The text is significant because it seems to contain the observations and opinions that Digges held before he completed his other astronomical treatise, the groundbreaking Alae seu scalae mathematicae. It also casts some light on the development of Digges's radical and puritan views about the star, Copernican astronomy, the infinity of the universe and a belief that the ‘latter days’ of the world had arrived.

(Online publication October 08 2010)

This article has expanded since I first wrote up my Digges's authorship of the Letter in 2005, and I have accumulated several debts since then. First I want to acknowledge the contribution of David Riley, who was doing doctoral research on Thomas Digges under my supervision at the time. David endorsed my suspicion and told me of the significance of the Letter’s mention of Palingenius and of the parable of Apelles. He also did some important checking of the archives and of an earlier draft. I am extremely grateful to Dr Stephen Johnston of the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. As the world expert on Digges, Stephen has shared his expertise generously, confirming or modifying aspects of earlier drafts. Crucially, he also alerted me to the diplomatic correspondence of Sir Thomas Smith. The article has also been improved greatly by the extensive suggestions of two anonymous referees. I am grateful to Dr Frances Dawbarn for deciding to include the Letter in her bibliography of works for our inspection. Finally, I thank Patrick Latour, librarian of the Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris, for making available jpeg images of La declaration.