Reading Euclid at Eton

“All boys should have a competent knowledge of Mathematics before leaving school.”

Edward Hawtrey, Head Master of Eton, 1851

Eton College Library and Archive were recently approached by the Reading Euclid research project (based at the University of Oxford) for material relating to the role of the mathematician Euclid in the curriculum at Eton between 1500 and 1800.  Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, written in Alexandria around 300BCE, was a crucial text in the mathematical culture of early modern Britain, read by almost everyone with an interest in geometry.  It would be reasonable to expect Euclid to have been read and taught at Eton College.

It was with some regret, therefore, that we had to disclose that – unlike other historic schools like Westminster College and Christ’s Hospital – Eton only began to offer mathematics in the 1820s, and did not make maths compulsory until 1894.  Until then the curriculum was almost entirely focused on classical texts, with other subjects like maths and modern languages being ‘extras’ for which boys’ parents would pay additional fees.

Whilst we have very little evidence of early modern students at Eton reading Euclid, we know that the picture was very different for the academic community around the college.  Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622) was a mathematician and classical scholar as well as Provost of Eton from 1595.  He was a key figure in the study of mathematics in England, both publishing on Euclid and endowing two professorships at Oxford University in geometry and astronomy.  William Oughtred (c.1575-1660) was born at Eton, the son of a writing master, and went on to publish a series of works which helped to promote the study of geometry amongst the English gentry.

Eton College Library holds early modern copies of Euclid and Oughtred, including the six books displayed below.  These books are included in the Seeing Euclid networked exhibition which has been curated by the Reading Euclid project from libraries across Britain and Ireland.

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Fb.7.3. Euclid, Eukleidou ton pente kai deka stoicheion, ek ton tou theonos synodion to proton (Strasbourg, 1564). This copy has clearly been well used. It is rather dirty, but also bears annotations, some of which appear to be entirely unrelated to Euclid! The title page bears a line from the Christian hymn, the Te Deum (‘Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father’) and individual letters perhaps meant as calligraphic exercises. There are lists and geometric diagrams in the margins throughout the text. And the verso of the title page bears the ownership inscription of William Tonstall dated 1631. This copy was given to Eton in 1751 by a Fellow of the College, John Reynolds (1671-1758).

Fa.4.6. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion biblia 13 (London, 1620). This copy belonged to two seventeenth-century Etonians: Richard Herbert, second Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1600?-1655) and his friend William Browne. The inscription indicates that Herbert gave the book to Browne in 1623 whilst they were both at Eton. The volume later belonged to John Free (dated 1738) and Rowland Ingram, reaching Eton in 1962.

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Fa4.4. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion bibl. 15 ek ton theonos synousion (Basel, 1533). A copy of Euclid’s works which was in Eton College Library in the early seventeenth century. It has a typical ‘Eton binding’ of the period, with a large blind-stamped centrepiece of the College arms, broad fillet border, and the traces of clasps and a plate for a chain which were later removed. The title-page verso bears the engraved armorial bookplate of the College.

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Ib1.1.51. Eton’s copy of Oughtred’s ‘The circles of proportion and the horizontal instrument’ (London, 1633) bears intriguing signs of its mathematical use in the seventeenth century. It is bound in a contemporary limp parchment with two other mathematical treatise of the period, and its front board bears a rosette which has clearly been inscribed with a set of compasses. A user has used the front flyleaf to inscribe a series of sums and drawn two architectural cornices with circles and rules marking out their proportions, demonstrating the importance of mathematically determined harmony in classical architecture. This copy arrived in Eton in 1909 as a gift.

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Gb.7.25 and Gb.4.23: Two further copies of works by ‘Willelmo Oughtred Ætonensi’, with an engraved portrait of Oughtred and woodcut geometric diagrams.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

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