John Wilkins

John Wilkins

The bare record of John Wilkin's career reveals a man who, after a decade spent as a member of Magdalen Hall between 1627 and 1637, rapidly and seemingly inevitably collected choice offices. He served first as chaplain to two fierce critics of Charles I and then to Charles's own troublesome and disloyal nephew, the exiled elector palatine. In 1648 he was appointed Warden of Wadham by the parliamentarian visitors who were purging the University of Royalists. Eleven years later he exchanged that office for the more lucrative mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge, and although the return of Charles II meant that he quickly lost a new preferment, he was consoled by being made Dean of Ripon, a Prebend of York Minster and (in 1668) Bishop of Chester. To have landed these desirable jobs in the troubled political and religious climate of mid-seventeenth century England suggested that Wilkins was made of supple willow rather than unyielding oak, and that he had no fixed principle other than that of self-advancement. However, when we penetrate behind the public record, we find a man at once more complex and interesting, and also more consistent in his interests and outlook.

Connections had assisted Wilkins in his ascent. Thanks to a grandfather revered by the Puritans Wilkins was early introduced into the circles of the powerful critics of Charles I, and under their patronage began his clerical career. Later, in the 1650s, an opportune marriage to Oliver Cromwell's youngest sister, perhaps the most eligible widow in the land, but described by contemporaries as 'nasty', speeded Wilkin's own preferment, and protected both his college and the university from the malevolent government in Whitehall.

The adroitness of Wilkins in prospering in uncertain and dangerous times may have a modern ring to it, and may explain why he was charged with ambition and a lack of principles. But were this all to Wilkins, that he became head of two colleges and ended his life as a Bishop, we would hardly pause to celebrate him. But underlying his ability to survive was a principle which entitles him to greater respect, namely that of latitudinarianism

a wish in an age of heated and divisive controversies to comprehend and tolerate a variety of opinions, whether religious, intellectual or political

As a Bishop within an established church with increasingly high and exclusive pretensions, Wilkins exercised a valuable moderating influence. Yet his theology and churchmanship, important as they were in the 1650s and 1660s, are dwarfed by his role as a champion and popularizer of the 'new' experimental science. In a series of books Wilkins expounded the discoveries and theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, pleaded for further experiment and observation, defended the universities against ignorant and jealous adversaries, extolled the virtues of cooperative scholarly and scientific enquiries, and, following Francis Bacon, explained how new techniques might improve life.

Later commentators have seized upon Wilkin's willingness to argue for the possibility of life on the moon, and the invention of a submarine and a flying machine, to depict him as a dotty seventeenth-century Jules Verne. This is seriously to underrate him. His open-mindedness, his enthusiasm and his success in winning favour in high places not only made him an academic politician of the first order, able by his efforts to deflect from Oxford University the interference of hostile politicians eager to make the university more responsive to their ephemeral and self-interested concerns, but also an important agent in disseminating and institutionalizing the new science.

While still in London in the 1640s, he had joined in scientific discussion and experiments; after 1648 he turned Wadham into the chief seat of the Oxford experimental science club and attracted to it virtuosi like Thomas Willis, Seth Ward, William Petty, Christopher Wren, Ralph Bathurst and Robert Boyle. Wilkins dipped deep into his own pocket to assist these endeavours. In his lodgings he housed 'a variety of shadows, dials, perspectives, places to introduce the species, and many other artificial, mathematical and magical curiosities'; in his garden he planted experimental crops, tried to develop a new plough and set up glass beehives. Wilkins gave direction and form to enquiries which had hitherto been diffuse and unsystematic, and helped to see these efforts incorporated into a formal Royal Society. His own pivotal place in inspiring that organization was recognized first by his election as a founder fellow and then by his appointment as Secretary. In the later office he continued what he had practised at Wadham, and briefly at Trinity as Master, drawing useful and sympathetic men into the Society, and encouraging those activities which would advance knowledge and benefit society.

Since it was at Wadham that Wilkins was best able to propagate his scientific and religious views, we may legitimately ask what part Magdalen Hall played in his intellectual formation. Two sorts of answer can be proposed. Magdalen Hall in the early seventeenth century attracted a large and diverse group of undergraduates, and thanks to this size and diversity the newer interests in experiment and observation already evident in other colleges may have been catered for unusually well. One contemporary of Wilkins who developed a similarly informed approach to science was Thomas Sydenham; another was Jonathan Goddard, later physician to Cromwell and Warden of Merton and a member of Wilkins's club in the 1650s. Then too the very success of Magdalen Hall in the 1620s may have provided WiIkins with a model for what he had achieved at Wadham in the 1650s, particularly in encouraging him to strive for and to value a tolerant and diverse community of savants.