Seth Ward


Born: 1 April 1617 in Aspenden, Hertfordshire, England
Died: 6 January 1689 in London, England


Seth Ward's parents were John Ward, an attorney with a good reputation who was quite poor, and Martha Dalton. John Ward's father had been a rich man with a sizable estate, but had squandered his wealth. Seth was the second of his parents' three sons, there being six children in the family. Pope, who was a close friend of Ward, writes ([5] or [6]):-

I never heard Ward speak of his father, but that he often spoke fondly and admiringly of his mother, and believed that his character was due to her.

He was educated at the grammar school in Buntingford, then at Sidney Sussex College of the University of Cambridge, which he entered on 1 October 1632 as a sizar since his family was poor. He was tutored by Samuel Ward, who was not a relation, and lodged in his lodgings. He appears to have been somewhat shy and worked long hours in the library rather than spend time in the city. He showed considerable promise in mathematics and he impressed John Bainbridge, the first Savilian professor of astronomy. After disputing the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, he was awarded his BA in 1637. In 1640 he was elected a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, then three years later he was appointed as a mathematics lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He went to study privately with William Oughtred, an ordained an Episcopal minister who taught mathematics to students who came to live in his house during their period of instruction in 1643. When he returned to Cambridge, Ward introduced ideas from Oughtred's Clavis Mathematicae (1631) into the syllabus there.

The First English Civil War began in 1642, before Ward was appointed to his lectureship. The Parliamentarians opposed the Royalists and the first battle in the war took place at Edgehill in October 1642. Early in 1643 Royalist forces were doing well and the Parliamentarians sought an alliance with the Covenanters in Scotland. This led to a document called the Solemn League and Covenant which promised a reformed religion in England and Scotland in return for military support from the Scots. Early in 1644 a Scottish army marched south to support the Parliamentarians, and in turn the English Parliament decreed that the Covenant was to be taken by every Englishman over the age of eighteen. It became a prerequisite for everyone holding office under Parliament. Ward opposed the Solemn League and Covenant and as a result he was removed from his fellowship and lectureship by the Parliamentarian Commissioners in 1644. He left Cambridge, living with friends near London, also spending a period with Oughtred at Albury. He then acted for several years as a tutor to the family of Ralph Freeman in Aspenden.

Charles I made his own alliance with the Scots in 1648 and the Solemn League and Covenant was no longer a prerequisite. Ward was able to hold positions again and was now in favour with the Parliamentarians having signed allegiance to the Commonwealth. He was appointed to the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford in 1649, a post which he held until 1661. The Savilian Chair had become vacant in November of 1648 when Oxford was visited by representatives of Cromwell's parliamentary party with the purpose of ensuring that the scholars in post there were loyal to Parliament and they dismissed the holder of the chair John Greaves. However, Greaves was a friend of Ward and, before leaving office, was able to organise that Ward succeed him. The same Commissioners who dismissed Greaves appointed John Wilkins as warden of Wadham College, and Wilkins invited Ward to live in rooms in Wadham.

Ward set up an observatory at Wadham and was the first person at Oxford to teach the Copernican system. He describes his activities in this area in a letter written on 27 February 1652 (see [10] where Ward's old-fashioned English is preserved):-

I have spent much of my time (beside my readings which excepting Xmas to have been continual since the 10 of October) in building a slight observatory for the matter of my profession and in procuring and fitting Telescopes and other instruments for observation so that the account I can give of those 2 designs, I mentioned to you, is but small yet somewhat I have done in both of them, and in that which I look on as the chief I have in Xmas time made not only a progress but an alteration to a good advantage.

He was a founding fellow of the Royal Society, elected in 1663. In fact he was a member of the Oxford Philosophical Society which was a fore-runner of the Royal Society. Robinson writes in [10]:-

At that time Oxford was the home of many illustrious men of science, among whom may be mentioned John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham; Robert Boyle; Thomas Willis; Jonathan Coddard; and John Wallis. These men constituted a brilliant intellectual group and they, together with Ward and others, formed the Oxford Philosophical Society. All of the above took an active interest in the formation of the Royal Society in 1660 and became original Fellows.

In the same letter we quoted from above (written on 27 February 1652), Ward describes the activities of the Oxford Philosophical Society [10]:-

... our Club ... consists of about 30 persons. We have (every one taking a portion) gone over all or most of the heads of natural philosophy and applied mathematics collecting only a history of the phenomena out of such authors as we have in our library and sometimes trying experiments as we had occasion and opportunity. Our first business is to gather together such things as are already discovered and to make a book with a general index of them ....

We have conceived it requisite to examine all the books of our public library (every one taking his part) and to make a catalogue or index of the matters and that very particularly in philosophy, physics, mathematics and indeed in all other faculties, that so that great numbers of books may be serviceable and a man may at once see where he may find whatever is there concerning the argument he is upon, and this is our present business which we hope to dispatch this Lent.

The library Ward refers to in this letter is the Bodleian Library which had been founded in 1598. In addition to his work in astronomy, Ward wrote several mathematical works, in particular Idea trigonometriae demonstratae (1654), but he is perhaps best known for his defence of the teaching at Oxford. In 1654 John Webster, a chaplain in the army, published Academiarum Examen in which he claimed that the universities were blindly devoted to Aristotle but outside the universities:-

... some private spirits have made progress, as Napier, Briggs, Oughtred. and some others. [However] it had lain as a fair garden unweeded or cultivated, so little have the Schools done to advance learning or promote sciences.

Ward, in collaboration with John Wilkins, replied to Webster in Vindiciae Academiarum (1654). They pointed out that:-

... natural science and all new forms of knowledge are welcomed, mathematics has been considerably advanced, chemistry and magnetism are studied, and projects are afoot for establishing a laboratory for chemical, mechanical and optical researches. Those who cry out upon the university exercises in the schools close their eyes to the work done in college halls and in tutors' chambers.

Arithmetic and geometry are sincerely and profoundly taught, analytical algebra, the solution and application of equations, containing the whole mystery of both those sciences, being faithfully expounded in the Schools by the Professor of Geometry, and in several Colleges by particular tutors.

It was not only with Webster that Ward disputed. He also disputed with Hobbes for his attack on mathematics and the universities. His main attack was In Thomae Hobbii philosophiam exercitatio epistolica (1656) in which he examined Hobbes' philosophy and theology, to which Hobbes replied in the last of his Six Lessons to the Savilian Professors of the Mathematics (1656). Pope ([5] or [6]) reports that relations between Hobbes and Ward reached such a low point that when Hobbes was invited to visit a mutual friend he would first check whether Ward was invited before accepting.

On the astronomy side Ward disputed with Ismael Boulliau in what has become known as the Boulliau-Ward controversy over Kepler's laws. In 1645 Boulliau, although accepting elliptical orbits for planets, argued strongly against Kepler's laws, claiming that the planets were self-moved and totally dismissed Kepler's mathematics as "a-geometric". He called Kepler a "mediocre geometer". Ward opposed Boulliau's assumptions, methods and conclusions. The argument was a difficult one where accuracy of prediction, simplicity of hypothesis and physical basis of the hypothesis all played a major role. The hypothesis which gave results most closely matching observations was not necessarily physically correct.

Ward was awarded a divinity degree from Oxford in 1654. In 1657 he was elected to the position of President of Jesus College, Oxford, but Cromwell preferred another and he never took up the post. In 1659 he was elected President of Trinity College, Oxford, and this time he took up the post. However following the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, the previous Royalist President, was reinstated and Ward removed from the post. Already Dean of Exeter, he resigned the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661 in order to became Bishop of Exeter in the following year. Wren was Ward's successor as Savilian professor at Oxford. Ward's career in the church is described by Richard John King [4]:-

In 1662, not long after the Restoration, he succeeded John Gauden to the See of Exeter. He was already Dean of that City. Very severe to Nonconformists, he was a greater benefactor to his Cathedral than any bishop since the Reformation. He first cast out the buyers and sellers who had usurped the cloister and caused the partition in the Cathedral Church to be pulled down. He repaired and beautified the building, the expenses whereof amounted to £25,000. He also bought a new "pair of organs," esteemed the best in England, which cost £2,000. Bishop Ward was translated to Salisbury in 1667 where he also set about repairs necessitated by the disorders of the Civil War. The Bishop's Palace, he completely restored, it having fallen into ruin. A survey of the entire Cathedral at Salisbury was made at Bishop Ward's request to Sir Christopher Wren, principally with a view to the security of the spire. Beside other benefactions to Salisbury, he founded in it a hospital for widows of the clergy of the diocese. Bishop Ward's learning was considerable, his charity and hospitality very great. He was one of the first to assist in the establishment of the Royal Society. He died in Knightsbridge in January 1688, having long since lost his faculties and therefore unaware of the great events of the Glorious Revolution during which king James II lodged in his Episcopal Palace. Bishop Ward was buried in his own Cathedral at Salisbury, where a tablet to his memory exists in the south transept.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

July 2008


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Ward_Seth.html]