Wharton, George

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(b. Strickland, near kendal, Westmoraland, England, 4 April 1617; d. London, England, 12 August 1681), astronomy,

To his contemporaries George Wharton was renowned as a mathematician and almanac calculator whose main interests lay in the astrological possibilities of astronomy. Although he was not a systematic student of natural science, his beliefs and approach to nature probably placed him closer to the mainstream ideas of the educated gentleman of his time than to many of the followers of the “New Philosophy.”

Wharton has been alternatively described as the son of a gentleman of good estate and as the son of a blacksmith who was brought up by a genteel relative. In any case his childhood was comfortable, and in 1633 he went to Oxford. How long he remained there is not known; but he became acquainted with the Durham astronomer William Milbourne, who “addicted” him to astronomy.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Wharton raised a troop of horse for the king; but it was wiped out at Stow-on-the Wold, Gloucestershire, in 1645. He then joined the Royalist artillery at Oxford, where he met Elias Ashmole, and remained in the city until it fell to the Parliamentarian army in 1646.

Almanac calculation required little scientific originality but, rather, routine astronomical computation to determine information regarding the calendar, eclipses, and astrology. In 1641, when Wharton began to issue his almanacs, books were beyond the means of most of the population; and the threepenny almanacs were among the few pieces of secular literature to pass through the hands of most people. The influence of these almanacs came not from their astronomical content but from the astrological interpretations drawn therefrom. Wharton’s fiercely Royalist interpretation of celestial phenomena was directed to embarrass the parliamentary side. This purpose soon brought him into a vitriolic pamphlet battle with its two leading astrologers, William Lilly and John Booker. The conflict illustrates the widely differing interpretations that astrologers could place on the same phenomenon, depending upon their viewpoint. During the Civil War astrology was a serious business that influenced the morale of armies.

Wharton’s world view was that of the astrologer. He showed great deference to Ptolemy and Aristotle; and although respectful toward Copernicus, he apparently considered the earth to be immovable in space. Although not explicit on the subject of the earth’s motion, he probably subscribed to the Tychonic world scheme. Wharton saw the cosmos as possessing both physical and metaphysical dimensions that operated through the macrocosm and microcosm. This balancing of qualities runs through all his ideas: just as a planet had two qualities, natural (physical) and astrological, so man’s personality had natural and astrological aspects that operated within a hierarchically conceived universe in which the moral and physical orders ran parallel. They also help explain Whartin’s political ideas, for he saw the king as appointed by God within this hierarchy; and rebellion against him would lead not merely to social, but also to philosophical and cosmic, anarchy.

After 1648 Wharton’s writings resulted in his being arrested several times by the now triumphant Parliamentarian party. Each time he escaped from prison but was sentenced to death upon his capture in 1650. Fortunately, however, the charitable William Lilly, who had no wish to see his rival hanged, succeeded in securing his pardon.

During the Interregnum, Wharton lived in obscurity although still pursuing his studies and collaborating with his friend, the Oxford antiquarian, Elias Ashmole. Problems of the calendar were an abiding interest: and some of his surviving manuscript material. in the Bodleian Library. discusses the errors in the Julian calendar and their suggested corrections. Elsewhere, Wharton relates his formula for determining the astrological influence of an eclipse. At the Restoration his loyalty was rewarded; and in 1677 he was created a baronet.

Wharton seems to have shown little interest in the scientific movement that developed in the 1660’s. He never joined the Royal Society, nor did he have any concern for the new experimental philosophy,in which emphasis tended to be upon other criteria than the astrological. He did, however on one occasion visit the Royal Greenwich Observatory.


I. Original Works. Wharton’s principal works were collected by john Gadbury and published as The Works of That Late Most Excellent Philosopher and Astronomer Sir George Wharton (London, 1683). The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has a few of Wharton’s surviving astrological and other MSS in Ashmole 242. Some of Wharton’s correspondence with Ashmole is reproduced in C.H Josten, Elias Ashmole, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1966). This work also includes Ashmole’s diaries, which record his acquaintance with Wharton from the 1640’s on.

II. Secondary Literature. Edward Shereburne includes a short life of Wharton in his “Catalogue of Astronomers,” in the Appendix to his The Sphere of’Marc us Manilus (London, 1675). A full bibliography of Wharton’s works is reproduced in the life of Wharton in Anthony Wood’s Athenae Oxoniensis11 (London, 1691), 509-510.

Allan Chapman

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