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The introduction of the telescope into astronomy at the start of the 17th century revolutionised people's understanding of the Universe. The immediate discoveries supported the Copernican model, which put the Sun at the centre of the planetary system rather than the Earth. Among the pioneers of the telescope in astronomy were Galileo Galilei, Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius, and in Carmarthenshire, Sir William Lower and John Prydderch.

This page is an extended version of an article written in 2003 for the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers.

Early life

William Lower was born in Cornwall in either 1569 or 1570. [2] He was the eldest son and heir of Thomas Lower of Winnow in Cornwall. His brothers included Nicholas Lower (later Sir Nicholas) and Alexander Lower. [2]

He went to university at Oxford, entering Exeter College in June 1586 at the age of 16. In 1589 he studied at the Middle Temple in London. He was elected to the English Parliament in September 1601 as member of parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall, and later represented Lostwithiel from 1604 to 1611. He was knighted by King James I of Great Britain in 1603. [2,6,8]

A Carmarthenshire scientist and landowner

Despite his strong Cornish background, William Lower married Penelope Perrot from Carmarthenshire around 1601, and moved to her family's estate at Trefenty in southwest Wales (which has also been spelt Trefenti, Treventy and even Tra'venti). Penelope Perrot had inherited her father's estate on his death. Her mother had remarried the Earl of Northumberland in 1586, the Earl becoming her stepfather. This brought Lower and the Earl into close contact.

Trefenty Left: Lower's estate at Trefenty from page 266 of Seryddiaeth a Seryddwyr. [4]   Silas Evans credits a Mrs. Davies, The Vicarage, Llanfihangel-Abercowin, for the picture.

Meanwhile, the Earl became the chief patron of the distinguished English scientist Thomas Harriot; Harriot moved to the Earl's estate at Syon House, Isleworth, Middlesex, which was then a short distance outside London. It was here that Harriot carried out much of his research. Lower and Harriot became good friends. They corresponded regularly on scientific issues including astronomy, mathematics and physics; the surviving correspondence is the main source of information about Lower's astronomical activities. [1]

In 1607, from Carmarthenshire, Sir William Lower observed the bright comet which had appeared in the sky that September; we now know that this was Halley's Comet. He observed it regularly between 17th September and 6th October with the naked eye and used a cross-staff to measure its position in relation to the stars. His first observation on the 17th September was made as he travelled on a ship across the Bristol Channel to Wales, when he saw the comet in Ursa Major. He attempted to follow it each night if the weather permitted. Lower sent his measurements to Harriot at Syon House, who also made his own measurements. While these observations were not published at the time, some were published by F. X. von Zach in 1784; these data were subsequently used by an obscure apprentice named Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel to refine the orbit of Comet Halley. As a result of this work, Bessel was appointed to a position in an observatory and went on to become one of the most important astronomers and mathematicians of his day, thanks in a very small way to the observations of Lower and Harriot! [1]

A pioneer of the telescope in astronomy

The invention of the telescope is conventionally credited to Lippershey in the Netherlands in 1608. Within a year, news had reached Galileo Galilei in Italy and Harriot in England. Harriot, who was an expert in optics, constructed his own telescopes and used them to observe the sky. He sent a telescope to Lower in Wales. [1,3]

Sir William Lower turned the telescope to the sky, working with his friend John Prydderch (or Protheroe) of Nantyrhebog, Carmarthenshire. [1,4] He established his observatory on some high ground near his house. In a letter to Harriot dated 6th February, 1610 - the most famous of their correspondence - Lower described the appearance of the Moon through the telescope:

According as you wished, I have observed the moone in all his changes. In the new manifestlie I discover the earthshine a little before the dichotomie; that spot which represents unto me the man in the moone (but without a head) is first to be seene. A little after, neare the brimme of the gibbous parts towards the upper corner appeare luminous parts like starres; much brighter than the rest; and the whole brimme along looks like unto the description of coasts in the Dutch books of voyages. In the full she appears like a tart that my cooke made me last weeke; here a vaine of bright stuffe, and there of darke, and so confusedlie all over. I must confess I can see none of this without my cylinder.       [3,8]
This description shows that Sir William had observed the irregular character of the Moon's surface, seeing craters (though he did not recognise their exact character).

Lower then went on to describe his work with his Carmarthenshire colleague John Prydderch (or Protheroe):

Yet an ingenious younge man that accompanies me here often, and loves you, and these studies much, sees manie of these things even without the helpe of the instrument, but with it sees them most planlie I mean the younge Mr. Protheröe.       [1,8]

Sir William Lower and John Prydderch Left: the cartoon of Lower and Prydderch on page 265 of Seryddiaeth a Seryddwyr. [4] Lower looks through a telescope while Prydderch holds a cross-staff. The cartoon had been used earlier by Arthur Mee in his book The Story of the Telescope in 1909. [5] The artist was J. M. Staniforth, the artist-in-chief of the Western Mail newspaper.

Several weeks later, Galileo published his own observations in his book Sidereus Nuncius. We see that Lower and Prydderch had made their observations at a similar time to Galileo. However, they, like Harriot, failed to publish their discoveries. For that reason, the scientific credit for discovering the irregular character of the lunar surface goes to Galileo, who also published his discovery of satellites of Jupiter, the phases of Venus and sunspots. [1,3]

Following Galileo's announcements, in December 1610 Harriot and Lower themselves observed the satellites of Jupiter while Lower was visiting Syon House. Lower was present when Harriot first observed sunspots at sunrise. On returning to Carmarthenshire, Lower and Prydderch were, however, unable to see the Galilean satellites, which suggests that Lower's own telescope was of lower quality than those of Harriot. On a later visit to Syon house in December 1611, Lower himself saw sunspots. [1]

His later years

Sir William Lower continued to live at Trefenty. He died on 12th April, 1615, aged 45 years. [1,2] He was survived by his wife Lady Penelope and a daughter, Dorothy. At the time of his death, Penelope Lower was pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a son, Thomas, the heir to Sir William. Penelope later remarried, to Sir Robert Naughton and moved to live with him in London. [1] Of the children, Thomas died in 1660. [1]


Some of the reference materials can be found on the companion page here.

[1.]   John W. Shirley, Thomas Harriot: A Biography, publ. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983.
[2.]   J. Foster, Alumni Oxoniensis 1500-1714, publ. Parker & Co., Oxford, 1891.
[3.]   Henry C. King, The History of the Telescope, publ. Charles Griffin and Co. Ltd., London, 1955.
[4.]   J. S. Evans, Seryddiaeth a Seryddwyr, publ. William Lewis (Printers) , Cardiff, 1923, pp. 264-267.
[5.]   A. B. P. Mee, The Story of the Telescope, publ. privately by Arthur Mee, Cardiff, 1909. [A scan is available at the Internet Archive.]
[6.]   W. T. Lynn, Sir William Lower's Observations of Halley's Comet in 1607, The Observatory, 14, 347-348, 1891.
[7.]   W. T. Lynn, The first Welsh Astronomer, The Observatory, 17, 302-303, 1894.
[8.]   S. P. Rigaud, Supplement to Dr. Bradley's Miscellaneous Works: with an Account of Harriot's Astronomical Papers, published by the Oxford University Press in 1833 (reprinted by the Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, 1972). [A scanned version is available at the Google Books resource.]
[9.]   J. O. Halliwell, A Collection of Letters Illustrative of the Progress of Science in England from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to that of Charles the Second, published by the Historical Society of Science, London, 1841. [A scanned version is available at the Internet Archive.]

Further reading

A short, but excellent, account of the lives of both Lower and Prydderch can be found in the book Thomas Harriot: A Biography by John W. Shirley, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983.

J. J. Roach worte an authoritative article about Lower for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Arthur Mee of Cardiff researched the work of Lower and Prydderch. Mee quoted articles by himself in the magazines Knowledge in December 1908, and The Nationalist in October 1908. Shirley quotes an article by Mee in the transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, IV, 43-44 (1908-1909). An article also appeared in the magazine Wales in 1894. The author of this page has not had the opportunity to examine these publications.

Some of Sir William Lower's letters to Harriot were published by S. P. Rigaud in 1833 (Supplement to Dr. Bradley's Miscellaneous Works: with an Account of Harriot's Astronomical Papers, published by the Oxford University Press; it was reprinted by the Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, 1972). A biography of Lower appeared on pages 68-70 (as Note I).

Transcriptions of other letters by Lower to Harriot appeared in A Collection of Letters Illustrative of the Progress of Science in England from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to that of Charles the Second by J. O. Halliwell, published by the Historical Society of Science, London, 1841.

No entry about Lower (nor John Prydderch) appears in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, the Dictionary of Scientific Biography or in the old Dictionary of National Biography.

Information on John Prydderch can be found on a companion page.

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