Dictionary of Welsh Biography


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RECORDE, ROBERT (c. 1512-1558), mathematician and physician.

Robert Recorde was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the second of two sons of Thomas Recorde of Tenby and Ros Johns, daughter of Thomas ap John ap Sion, of Machynlleth. This was a second marriage for Thomas, the first to Joan Ysteven of Tenby being of short duration and childless. Thomas Recorde inherited a mercantile business founded in the town by the boys' paternal grandfather Roger Recorde. It is possible that Robert and his elder brother Richard received their early education from the chantry priests of St Mary's Church, Tenby. Such a religious schooling may have been the beginning of Recorde's lifelong devotion to the church, albeit not to the Catholic faith of his childhood.

In 1525, aged thirteen, Recorde entered Oxford University and on 16 February 1530 he was admitted Bachelor of Arts. The following year he was elected a fellow of the College of All Souls, whereupon he decided to study medicine. He was awarded an Oxford licence to practise medicine in 1533. Like many others at this time, Recorde found solace in Protestantism and began to actively support the Reformation. This brought increasing tension between him and his colleagues, whose dependence on the Roman Church was as much a matter of a future career as of faith. Consequently he decided to move to the much more tolerant milieu of Cambridge University, departing Oxford around 1537.

He arrived at Cambridge as an established academic, possibly taking up residence in St John's College. He began to study advanced medicine and in 1545 the university awarded him his MD. He also read astronomy, geography, the study of minerals, zoology and, it seems, just about anything else that caught his fancy. He was also deeply interested in theology, but above all he immersed himself in mathematics. In the course of these studies he was inspired to write his first mathematical textbook, a work on arithmetic entitled The Grounde of Artes. Written in the form of a dialogue between a master and a scholar, it proved to be phenomenally successful when it was published by the printer Reyner Wolfe in 1543. It could not have been foreseen that the book would remain in print for over 150 years, appearing in more than forty editions.

Recorde returned to Oxford as a qualified physician with the intention of teaching medicine. However, he found himself even less welcome among the conservative factions of All Souls than he was before his long sojourn at Cambridge. He therefore decided to leave academia and seek his future in London as a doctor. He settled in a house in the parish of St Katherine Coleman, close to the Tower of London, and soon set about publishing a medical textbook on uroscopy entitled The Urinal of Physick. Printed by Reyner Wolfe in 1547, it also was successful, remaining in print for about 130 years spread over some eleven editions, the last appearing in 1679 under the revised title The Judgement of Urines. Despite popular legend, Recorde was never physician to either Edward VI or Mary I, the confusion probably arising because he dedicated books to both these monarchs.

Shortly after Recorde arrived in London, the antiquarian John Leland (c.1503-1552) related to him a curious story. Entrusted by Henry VIII with a commission to enquire into the libraries of all religious houses before their dissolution, Leland had discovered many manuscripts, apparently archived and forgotten for centuries, all written in a language that no one could understand. They were in fact written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and it is entirely due to the pioneering efforts of Recorde, Leland and the churchman Robert Talbot (1505/6-1558), that these manuscripts were rescued from loss or destruction and the language eventually recovered. Despite his Anglo-Saxon studies, Recorde found time to write another mathematical textbook, entitled The Pathway to Knowledge. This book, on geometry and written in English, was altogether much easier to understand by practical men unable to read a Latin Euclid or follow complex geometrical arguments.

Recorde's first involvement with the government occurred in July 1548, when he was asked to examine and discredit the troublemaker Richard Allen. This episode brought him into contact with the ‘hot gospeller’ Edward Underhill (1512-c.1576). When Underhill was later sent to Newgate accused of heresy and there became seriously ill, he attributed his recovery to Recorde, saying that he was ‘a doctor in physic and very learned, who ventured several times to visit me in prison to his great peril, if it had been known, who was at charges and pains with me gratis’.

On 29 June 1548 Recorde was present at a sermon which Stephen Gardiner (c.1495-1555), Bishop of Winchester, was instructed to preach in order to show his obedience in matters of doctrine. In the view of some Privy Council members who were also present, he instead showed himself ‘an open great offender and a very seditious man’. He was brought to trial at Lambeth two years later, in December 1550, in one of the defining show trials of the reign of Edward VI. Recorde was called as a witness for the prosecution and his testimony helped to secure a guilty verdict and the imprisonment of Gardiner in the Tower.

Late in 1548 Recorde was tasked by the government with overseeing the Pentyrch iron works near Cardiff, then in January 1549 he was made comptroller of Durham House mint in the Strand. Shortly afterwards he was given the same position at the Bristol mint, under Thomas Chamberlain, when the previous under treasurer William Sharington was arrested and imprisoned for corruption and false accounting. Chamberlain soon departed as ambassador to Denmark, leaving Recorde to become under treasurer in his stead.

While in charge at Bristol Recorde was involved in an unpleasant altercation with Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (c.1501-1570). Pembroke demanded funds to provision the army he was marching to the West Country in order to suppress a peasant rebellion. Recorde refused to provide any money without the king's sanction. Pembroke, one of the most powerful men in England and Wales, was furious and accused him of treason. The closure of the Bristol and Durham House mints swiftly followed.

It is often repeated that Recorde was punished for the Bristol incident by being confined to court for sixty days. This was probably nothing more than Lord Protector Somerset keeping Recorde close by his side for this length of time, most likely to prevent him speaking out of turn, since he was himself implicated in both the Sharington scandal and Pembroke's brutal suppression of the rebellions in Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall.

Recorde next became involved with the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands (later the Muscovy Company), and the planning of a first voyage of exploration to find a northerly sea route to China and the Far East - the legendary and fabulous North-east Passage. He was at this time writing a book intended for use by the company's navigators, which he entitled The Castle of Knowledge. Reverting to the style of his first textbook on arithmetic, it also was written as a dialogue between a master and a scholar. It was eventually printed by Reyner Wolfe in 1556.

In May 1551 Recorde was recalled to government service by an appointment as surveyor of the Mines and Monies in Ireland. By letters patent he was made inspector-general of the Dublin mint, and was also required to oversee the activities of Joachim Gundelfinger, a German mining captain from Augsburg. Gundelfinger, and the band of foreign miners who accompanied him, were hired to work the silver mines at Clonmines, County Wexford. Things went badly from the start and soon Recorde and Gundelfinger were locked in acrimonious dispute over the small amount of silver that was actually produced, despite a prodigious capital outlay by the Crown. In June 1552 a commission arrived in Ireland to investigate all the technical and financial aspects of the Clonmines operation. The miners were dismissed and Recorde returned to London under a cloud.

In 1553 King Edward VI died and his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic, succeeded to the throne. During Mary's reign many unfortunates were burned at the stake as heretics, and as a Protestant intellectual Recorde began to fear for his safety. These fears compounded his worries about the silver mines debacle and his health began to suffer. Under great stress, he unwisely addressed a letter to the queen, complaining about the charge of treason made against him by Pembroke and in turn accusing him of malfeasance. In the meantime he completed his last book, a work on algebra entitled The Whetstone of Witte, in which occurred the famous explanation of his mathematical shorthand for the sign of equality, two parallel lines =, ‘because no two things can be more equal’.

In his letter to the queen Recorde used some cryptic Latin phrases which Pembroke did not understand but assumed denounced him as a traitor. In October 1556 he sued Recorde for libel. The lawsuit was heard at Westminster Hall in January 1557 and despite Recorde's valiant attempts to defend himself, he was ordered to pay Pembroke £1,000 damages with costs. There is no evidence that he was ever pressed to pay this fine, but nevertheless at the beginning of 1558 he was arrested and taken to the King's Bench prison at Southwark. His imprisonment was probably due to the Privy Council wishing to keep him in custody until the investigations into the silver mines were concluded. Perhaps a more important reason was to prevent him fleeing abroad, as so many others did, before Mary's Catholic hierarchy of churchmen could examine his religious beliefs for the taint of heresy.

In the close and noisome conditions of his imprisonment, Recorde's health deteriorated rapidly and at the beginning of June 1558 he realised he was dying. He made his will, leaving small bequests to his family and friends, and died shortly afterwards without regaining his freedom. His burial place is unknown. Recorde remained a life-long bachelor, the ‘four sons and five daughters’ frequently said to be his were in fact sired by his nephew and namesake Robert Recorde, the eldest son of his brother Richard.

Sources:

  • Jack Williams, Robert Recorde: Tudor Polymath, Expositor and Practitioner of Computation , Springer, London, 2011;
  • Gareth Roberts and Fenny Smith (eds.), Robert Recorde: The Life and Times of a Tudor Mathematician , University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2012;
  • Gordon Roberts, Robert Recorde: Tudor Scholar and Mathematician , University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2016;
  • TGR Renascent Books, facsimile copies of the first editions of the extant works of Robert Recorde: The Ground of Artes, 1543 (Derby, 2009); The Urinal of Physick, 1547 (Derby 2011); The Pathway to Knowledge, 1551 (Derby, 2009); The Castle of Knowledge, 1556 (Derby, 2009); The Whetstone of Witte, 1557 (Derby, 2010).

Author:

Gordon Roberts

Published date: 2016