Margaret Flamsteed

Flamsteed House Greenwich (National Maritime Museum)

Margaret Flamsteed (née Cooke) (c. 1670-1730) is the first woman on record to be associated with astronomy in Britain. Daughter of a London lawyer she was a well-educated woman, both literate and numerate. She married the 46 year-old John Flamsteed when she was just 22 years old. The age gap was not unusual at the time as men often waited until they were financially secure before marriage and John had just come into the inheritance from his father’s estate. Despite the age difference the Flamsteed’s were to enjoy 27 years of what seems to have been a happy and compatible marriage.

John Flamsteed (1646 – 1719) was a largely self taught astronomer but showed great promise and was tasked by the King with finding a method of determining a ships position at sea using astronomical observations. He was designated Astronomical Observer (a post that became known as Astronomer Royal) and provided with funds to allow him to lay the foundation stone of the new Greenwich Observatory in 1676. He was 30 years old and would live and work at the observatory for the rest of his life.

Flamsteed House Greenwich (National Maritime Museum)
Flamsteed house in Greenwich in 1680 – around the time that Margaret Flamsteed began living there. (National Maritime Museum)

Margaret clearly knew, or accepted, the strange new life she was to have at the Royal Observatory: the late nights, the long hours and the many, often uninvited, visitors. Notebooks, in her handwriting and from soon after the marriage, show a competency in, and willingness to learn, mathematics and astronomy. In one entry from John Flamsteed’s notes it states the observation was done “solus cum sponsa” (alone with wife). This, and other clues, suggest that while Margaret was not a regular assistant, she was clearly able and willing to assist her husband in his nighttime observations. She also spent daylight hours copying or writing letters for her husband, especially later when his hand became shaky.

It is possible she would have spent more time assisting in her husbands work but for her household responsibilities. She acted as house keeper ensuring that John, his assistants, and pupils were well fed and cared for. She would also have to welcome the numerous visitors to the observatory. The precarious nature of John Flamsteed’s position, and his often less than genial nature, meant that the quality of the welcome for guests could impact his position and funding. Luckily, Margaret seems to have both enjoyed, and been good at, this part of her role as she was remembered in glowing terms in many of the letters John received from people who had visited. Letters that also directed discussion of scientific matters to her so suggesting that she took an interest in science across various fields.

John’s major work was to be his Historia Coelestis Britannica, an atlas of unprecedented accuracy which included the nearly 3,000 stars. During his life he resisted calls to publish this work until it was finished – although data was stolen and published, to John’s fury, by Edmond Halley. Most copies of the stolen data were later destroyed by John, but it was nevertheless important as the first publication to contain an English star catalogue and the stolen data was used by Newton in developing his theories.

When John died in 1719 it would be down to Margaret to publish both the Historia Coelestis Britannica in 1725 and later his Atlas Coelestis (1729) which contained many beautifully rendered star charts showing the constellations visible from Greenwich. Margaret oversaw the work and took charge of finances. She was assisted by Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp two of her husbands assistants. The publishing of these two great works was an expensive process and one she had to complete while dealing with the complicated fall out of her husbands estate and with diminished funds as many of her savings were lost in the collapsing of the South Sea Bubble of 1720.

Margaret Flamsteed died aged 60 only one year after publication of the Atlas Coelestis. Without her efforts John Flamsteed’s two great works would never have come to fruition. Works that were relied upon by subsequent generations of astronomers.

Further reading

The Royal Museum’s Greenwich have a series about Women at the ROG which includes a piece on Flamsteed. Otherwise, I have taken the majority of the information here from the book “Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy” by Mary Bruck and from the chapter “Astronomy and the Domestic sphere” by Rob Iliffe and Frances Willmoth in “Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700

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