The Royal Society is, and has been, many things. Currently it describes itself as ‘the independent scientific academy of the UK and the Commonwealth, dedicated to promoting excellence in science’.1 According to its charter of incorporation (last updated 2012), it remains ‘The Royal Society of London for Promoting Natural Knowledge’, its title since the charter's first revision in 1663.2 It functions simultaneously as a learned society (an elective association of, in this case, senior scientists); as the UK's national academy of science, advising on scientific policy and promoting science nationally and internationally; and as a mid-level scientific publisher and research funder. It is at once a private club for its members and a publicly funded national body, a charitable trust and a business.
Among the things it is currently not are: a professional body, a regulatory authority, a licensed monopoly, or a teaching institution. Yet all these functions were contemplated at various points in its early history, and the chartered corporations of early modern London typically exercised some or all of them. This essay aims to think through the logic, distinctiveness and impact on its early development of the Royal Society's identity as a metropolitan chartered corporation.
This was fundamental from the society's inception,3 customarily dated to November 1660, when a knot of regular attendees at Christopher Wren's astronomy lectures at Gresham College in the City of London proposed founding ‘a college for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning’.4 As has been amply documented, there was a great variety of models and antecedents from which the new institution drew ideas and inspiration – precursor groups in London and Oxford, private and princely academies in Italy and France, more or less formally constituted communities and correspondence circles, as well as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, Gresham College and the Royal College of Physicians. In being incorporated it was like the monopoly companies and trade guilds of early modern London, but, as a chartered corporation operating in a domain that was not yet clearly enough defined to be demarcated by commercial or craft boundaries or by an obviously pre-existing social function, it represented something new.
The new institution did not regulate a trade, bind apprentices or confer particular obligations (other than the payment of dues) upon most of the members. Its charter and statutes were drawn broadly enough to allow the members to participate at the level they found congenial, which in more than a few cases meant never turning up at all.5 The charter gave the Royal Society a very loosely defined remit and purpose and certain privileges – notably the right to appoint its own ‘typographers, chalcographers or engravers’, the right to a certain number of criminal cadavers for anatomical dissection, and the right to correspond freely with the Continent on scientific matters – but it enjoyed no monopoly and few responsibilities.
The fact of the society's incorporation nevertheless had various significant effects. It gave royal recognition to the enterprise of ‘promoting natural knowledge’ (in the phrase of the revised charter of 1663). It formally established a community dedicated to that enterprise.6 It shaped a social order within that community, and gave it legal being, allowing it as a corporate body to own land and property and to receive gifts or bequests.7 Michael Hunter rightly emphasizes the charter's merging of ‘formality of constitution, decision-making and finance with a devotion to research’ and its exemplary importance for the voluntary learned societies that became a vital and growing part of Britain's intellectual culture over the next 150 years.8 But he also crucially insists on the contingency and uncertainty of many aspects of the society's identity during its foundational period, and its capacity to develop in ways that the founders had not obviously anticipated.9 This essay is indebted to and firmly situated within that framework. It deploys new evidence, and reappraises old, to highlight the extent to which early conceptions of the society remained fluid, and to identify the pressures bearing upon them. I suggest that the voluntarist model that emerged from the ferment of the society's foundation was shaped by the distinctiveness of the society's position as a new chartered corporation, based in London, with potentially significant privileges and relatively limited responsibilities, and by friction and negotiation with other metropolitan chartered bodies. The essay is divided into three sections: one on the development of the charter, the second on the representation of the society's relation to London, and the third on the exercise of its chartered privileges in relation to other corporations, notably the Stationers’ Company and the College of Physicians.
Thinking about incorporation: the development of the charter
Perhaps the most obviously contingent and experimental period in the society's early history was the time between its first proposal in November 1660 and its incorporation by charter in July 1662. Much productive attention has been paid to this phase of the society's existence and to the significance of the charter itself. The actual process by which the charter arrived at its official form, however, has remained necessarily obscure for lack of evidence. Thanks to a pair of early drafts, identified and discussed here, it is possible to add significant nuance and detail to our understanding of the early Royal Society and its constitution.10 I particularly discuss several provisions that were dropped or significantly toned down in the final text. These are witnesses to early intentions and ambitions, some of them attested to elsewhere, that the society felt compelled to abandon or defer as having the potential to cause controversy with other institutions and disagreement among the membership. They do not simply fill in a gap in our understanding, however: they also modify the meaning of the charter by showing us what the final text represents a departure from, and help to ground speculations about why it took the form it eventually did.
The drafts are part of the Domestic Manuscripts series in the Royal Society's archives. They are in Latin, described respectively as forms of a diploma regium (a royal charter) and literae patentes (letters patent). These descriptions are contemporary with the documents, and reproduced in the archive catalogue. The former is in the hand of George Ent and the latter of William Croone, both physicians and founding fellows of the society. Croone was also the ‘register’ (i.e. record keeper) of the pre-charter period. The distinction between the labels is curious and its significance hard to parse. Charters envisage a grant in perpetuity and letters patent not necessarily; however, charters are necessarily issued in the form of letters patent.11 As well as the authors’ drafts, fair copies of each survive in a single hand (possibly that of the society's amanuensis, whom Croone had been deputized to find).12 They represent two drafts of a single charter rather than, strictly speaking, two draft charters. Despite significant textual differences, their structure and provisions agree both in the broad contours and in matters of detail. This strongly suggests that they are separate attempts at producing Latin versions of an agreed outline, probably the outcome of collective discussion among the early fellows or at least a group of them.
Precise dating is impossible. They certainly pre-date the actual charters of 1662 and 1663 and do not belong to the revisions of 1669: the drafts are comparatively vague on electoral protocol and constitutional governance, areas in which the official texts are highly and increasingly precise. One circumstantial factor that may at least give a terminus for their dating is that both have Charles II declaring himself the society's ‘Founder and Patron’, possibly based on the king's offer, responding in October 1661 to the society's initial petition for royal approval of their design of incorporation, ‘to be entered one of their Society’.13 At the very least the drafts had to be composed far enough in advance of July 1662 to allow for very significant revision, and for the necessary legal formalities.
The drafts consist of a comparatively short preamble, in which Charles II is made to articulate the logic behind the new enterprise.14 He articulates his sense – gleaned from ‘our own experience while we were in foreign lands’, and ‘the universal consensus of all the learned and wise men with whom we were acquainted’ – of the existing deficiencies in those ‘preeminent parts of the substantial sciences which pertain to the examination of natural things’, namely that ‘men influential in those studies, have propounded their theories and principles excessively hastily, plainly before a sufficient stock of experiments or natural histories, the foundations of these sciences, had been amassed’.15 This is a simple, not to say reductive, statement of Baconian principle (and a judgement that might well have been seen as taking aim at the College of Physicians and the universities). Its presence in the drafts is as close as the society ever came to giving Francis Bacon's preference for direct observation and experiment over premature system building the status of official policy, and its absence from the Charter is correspondingly significant. The 1662 text refers instead to Charles's wish
to extend not only the boundaries of Empire, but also of the very arts and sciences … Therefore we look with favour upon all forms of learning, but with particular grace we encourage philosophical studies, especially those which by actual experiments attempt either to shape out a new philosophy or to perfect the old.
The allusion to experiment as a means to proceed was retained but not, as in the draft, erected into a carefully specified epistemological rationale for a methodological principle; a Baconian echo linking the expansion of political empire with the expansion of the bounds of knowledge is clearly present, but in a form not likely to tie the society's hands.16
There is, in short, a deliberate softening from draft to official text. This is emphatically not to imply a rejection of Baconianism on the part of the society; on the contrary, statements broadly equivalent to those in the drafts can be found in the works of numerous fellows as well as Thomas Sprat's History.17 It represents rather a decision not to inscribe them explicitly in the society's official beginnings, and a desire not to circumscribe the scope and direction of the society's activity at the outset. In this it serves not only to confirm the view of many historians that the society's Baconian commitments were more nuanced and varied than simple discipleship, but also to imply the early fellows’ own understanding of that variety.18
What follows is not a detailed analysis of the draft charters’ differences from the 1662 text and from each other, for which there is not space here, but an identification of three key provisions that were eliminated from, or radically altered in, the adopted version. These indicate just how closely the founding fellows of the society identified their new institution with the power and patronage of the restored monarchy, and, by the same token, their dramatic curtailing shows how thoroughly the society had overestimated how far royal interest was likely to support the society and its ends, while underestimating the entrenched interests of longer-established bodies. The first proposal concerns the rights of the society to secure the benefit of any inventions it produced, and to act as a repository of patent specifications; the second would grant to the society all the same privileges as were granted to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; and the third proposed significant rights in the society's government for members of the nobility.
The first provision divided into two parts. The first was largely to do with the society's internal policy; the second was more outward-looking, and laid claim to an authority that was likely to complicate deeply the society's relations with London's livery companies and mechanical inventors more broadly. It reads as follows:
that the profit of things found/invented by them, should fall to the sole benefit of the College; and that the enjoyment of the same should extend to nobody else without their [i.e. the society's] consent. Moreover, whenever Letters Patent under the great seal of England shall have been obtained for mechanical works or inventions; They [the inventors] shall be bound, to offer a suitable specimen of their machine [mechanism] to this Society, that it may be kept safe with them.19
This provision would allow the society to turn its activity to financial advantage. As is well documented, the question of how the society was to finance itself was an early and abiding preoccupation, and this proposal takes its place among many schemes intended to relieve its dependence on members’ subscriptions – though it is unusual in resting specifically on the society's activity, rather than on proposed grants of income or commercial monopolies. The proliferation of such schemes in the 1660s demonstrates at once the grandeur of the society's earliest ambitions and its awareness of the precariousness of its own existence. It also lends credibility to the fragmentary evidence of early plans to limit the size of the fellowship.20 If the society intended to finance itself through the profits of inventions and discoveries made by the institution, there would be correspondingly less need to rely on membership fees and less reason to countenance a significantly enlarged membership.
The subsequent history of this provision is complex. In the first instance it simply disappears from the charter text. There may have been no need for it; the society was entitled to enter into and benefit from commercial arrangements as a corporate body.21 Robert Moray and the Scottish landowner Alexander Bruce discussed strategies in November 1663 for obtaining an English patent for the latter's efforts, with the Dutch horologist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens, to develop a seagoing pendulum clock, intending to name the Royal Society as one of the beneficiaries.22 This was never obtained, but in March 1665 a pendulum-regulated longitude clock was folded into an omnibus patent of inventions developed under the society's direction.23 This was intended for the society's benefit, but registered in the name of its treasurer, Abraham Hill.
Such vacillating policy and practice indicate uncertainty about the feasibility of collective patenting. It also maps suggestively onto Michael Hunter's analysis of the context which, as he notes, gave rise to the omnibus patent – namely the attempt to mobilize the society's intellectual resources through the institution of specialist committees. This was partly legible as a solution to the problem of yoking the aggregated voluntary efforts of individual members to productive corporate ends, which Hunter shows beset the society from the beginning.24 Putting pressure on the voluntary membership, however, also made more pressing the question of apportioning credit between individual and institution – particularly if money was in question. Creating an institutional structure that framed the inventions claimed in the patent as the work of more than one person – or, as in the case of the pendulum longitude clock, as having already been offered up to the society – bolstered the society's claim to profit from them. By previously suppressing the draft provision about patents from the final charter, the society appeared to acknowledge the potential difficulty of attempting to subsume the innovations of its members wholly to its own benefit. The committee context discussed here, by creating frameworks that made such appropriation more plausible or palatable, shows that the problem had not gone away by 1665. We do not know why the patent was taken out in Hill's name rather than the society's. In the context of efforts to reinforce the society's financial position and related concerns about the legitimate extent of the society's claims upon the work of its members, it may indicate an anxiety about who the patented inventions would revert to if the society were to collapse. The patent was for a term of fourteen years, perhaps pointing to a greater faith in the longevity of an individual and his heirs than of the institution.25
The second part of the provision, and its eventual non-adoption, also signal a problematic aspect, in the institutional context, of the financial benefits hoped for from the new philosophy. This was the proposal that all mechanical inventions for which patents were issued should have a ‘specimen’ of them deposited with the Royal Society. (Ent's use of this term could refer either to a model, a working example or a graphic representation; Croone uses ‘Iconismos’, which more commonly means a diagram or schema.) This provision would have made the society an official repository of mechanical patents and granted them detailed knowledge of the specifics of a variety of (presumably) useful inventions – as well as perhaps assuming the function of evaluating the claims made for their inventions by prospective patentees. In many respects this seems like an obvious function for the society to have assumed, and it is easy to see how it might have been beneficial, helping to facilitate the society's development of new inventions based on the information entrusted to it. Why, then, was it not adopted?
The issue of trust is probably the critical one. By claiming regulatory authority over mechanical invention, and asking for the right to profit by it, the society was expecting to be trusted with much, in a highly contested and ambiguous domain. Patents, as Christine Macleod has shown, cut across issues of law, constitutional authority, guild regulation and public interest, and were expensive to acquire and difficult to enforce.26 Despite nominal protections, it was argued – by fellows of the society, among others – that the Restoration patenting system did too little to prevent anyone who made minor improvements to a patented technology from claiming it as a new invention.27 The two parts of the proposed system risked incurring opposition from mechanical inventors, who would have to hand over detailed descriptions of their inventions to a body of skilled competitors with financial interests of their own; from the gildated trades, whose livelihoods new inventions in the useful arts might threaten; and even from fellows of the society unconvinced of the virtues of surrendering their own interest in their discoveries to the institution.28
Scrapping the provision from the charter did not settle these issues. The society did experience difficulty with people claiming that information or inventions shared with the institution were not treated equitably or with adequate confidentiality, and other mechanisms – ciphers, explicit promises of confidentiality and sealed notes – were employed by those hoping to use the society's credit and resources to secure priority without full disclosure.29 Moreover, the possibility of the society's acting as an adjudicator of patents was three times revived after the charter was issued, in October 1662, March 1663/1664 and, finally, fifty years later.30 In the first instance Robert Moray reported the king's ‘pleasure, that no patent should pass for any philosophical or mechanical invention, but what was first put to the examination of the Society’.31 It is worth noting that the society was particularly eager to make itself useful to the Crown at this time – it resolved on the same date to print the responses it had collated to enquiries about shipbuilding materials from the Commissioners of the Navy, a project that gave rise to John Evelyn's Sylva (1664). March 1664 saw the proposal revived at the society's behest:
It was moved, that the king might be desired by the President, Sir Robert Moray, and Sir Paul Neile, to give a rule to the two Secretaries of State, that all the proposals, that should be made concerning mechanical inventions, should be referred to the Council of the Society, to be examined by them, whether they were new, true, and useful.32
A resolution to the same effect was carried the following week, but there is no evidence that anything came of it. It reads rather like an effort to implement formally the measure that the king had approved eighteen months before. (There is a hint of its informal implementation in Robert Moray's discussing before the society a patent application shown him by the king in June 1663, still pending, and describing a technique for fertilizing barren soils.33) The third instance, in early 1713, also came to nothing, despite apparently originating with the sovereign, and I dwell on the significance of this episode in the essay's conclusion.
The second significant provision in the draft charter is the proposal that the society be awarded all ‘the benefits, immunities, liberties, and privileges whatsoever, heretofore granted to other societies, or to the colleges of either University, either of Oxford or of Cambridge (except the privilege of conferring academic degrees in any faculty)’.34 This is, to say the least, expansive and vague. There were thirty-four colleges founded in the two universities prior to 1661 and the nature of the privileges referred to is unspecified. Several of the college charters specify their standing at law; their size; their various rights in relation to property, inheritances, incomes and exemptions; and the terms of their initial endowments, but little concerning their scope or activity or for that matter the obligations of the members. In casting their net this widely the early fellows made plain that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were their exemplary chartered institutions, but perhaps only insofar as their privileges seemed especially generous and useful. The proviso against awarding degrees was probably a matter of avoiding taking corporate imitation of Oxford and Cambridge to the point of competition, and thereby incurring their hostility.35 It should be noted that although the draft charters do not specify a teaching function for the new institution, this does not mean that none was envisaged, or at least contemplated – various analogies between the society's functions and those of the universities and of Gresham College, drawn by contemporaries, are discussed in the next section.
It seems most likely that these provisions were intended as a form of shorthand, cramming in with maximum efficiency as many as possible of the corporate attributes of the bodies that the society – and presumably others – anticipated that it would most resemble. There are several notable elements to this. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the early fellows had taken a census of extant college charters; much more likely is that they were hedging their bets, and did not know precisely what they were asking. Furthermore, the colleges were responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of their members in a way that the society was ill-placed to emulate. But the claim indicates that a collegiate model, with fellows actually living together, was given serious collective consideration early on. Certainly there were other proposals, including John Evelyn's and Abraham Cowley's well-known designs for a philosophical college, that anticipated a more residential version of the society than was ever realized.36 There were also other privileges, belonging to the universities rather than the colleges, including those of setting up as publishers and licensing books for publication outside the regimes of either the civil and ecclesiastical authorities or the Stationers’ Company of London, that the society may have had its eyes on. (A version of this privilege was, of course, adopted, and some of the points of friction with the Stationers that shaped its use are discussed in the essay's final section.)
In the end the 1662 charter did not rule out a more collegiate vision of the society – the right to build premises, described as a college, was retained – but tied it explicitly to London, without invoking the universities as examples. This approach reflects a degree of nervousness about how the universities would receive the new institution, but also a more basic reality: colleges of any kind, whether on the model of Gresham or Oxbridge, could not be established without an endowment. The shift from draft to official text points to a sharp decline in the society's immediate hopes of securing one – but it also indicates that the possibility had been, at a fairly advanced phase of the society's thinking about its corporate being, still strongly present in the fellows’ minds.
The final provision I discuss here concerned governance. It envisaged a council of seventeen, rules for a quorum, and honorary offices (namely a president, treasurer, register and secretary).37 The initial term of office was to be a year, after which elections could take place, and the composition of the council altered or continued, and it provided that if any ‘noblemen, that are fellows of this College, are present at the time arranged for these Councils, it shall be granted to the same both to attend, and to bear suffrage’.38
Automatic voting rights on council for noblemen in the society would have introduced a powerfully hierarchical element into its constitution, creating a permanent body with significant authority and no power to diminish it. Since the nobility enjoyed its lands, titles and privileges by grant of the Crown, and since much of the nobility at the Restoration was more pragmatically beholden to the Crown for the return of its influence, political offices and sequestered estates, the provision would create a significant bloc within the council whose devotion to the royal interest could be more or less taken for granted.
I believe this is how it should be understood – not simply as a gesture of respect due to rank, but as an explicit show of loyalty and submission. How constraining it might have proved in practice is unclear. On the one hand, most of the titled fellows on the well-known list of desirable recruits to the early society actually served on its council at some point.39 On the other, if the definition of nobility were not fairly restrictive the effect could have been to flood the council with potential voters, which might well have affected subsequent recruitment policies.40 Certainly it is easy to see the society's ongoing tendency to welcome aristocratic figures for their social cachet and potential influence at court developing differently under a dispensation of this kind, since the society could not hope to secure their influence on its behalf without granting them significant, indeed disproportionate, influence in turn. The nobles would admittedly have to be present to exercise their votes, and the power might well have come to seem notional, a rarely used entitlement rather than a real force in the society's government. Yet the fact of its inclusion in the draft points to a deliberate, demonstrative attempt to make of the society a specifically royalist as well as a royal corporation. I intend ‘royalist’ in a limited sense, however: rather than indicating a strongly felt ideological orientation, it is more likely that the society was looking for gestures with which to demonstrate its political soundness in the absence of clear official indications about what this should look like.41
Remarkably, neither the Corporation Act of 1661 nor the reinstatement of the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy by the Cavalier Parliament seem to have clarified this point. Though the society was a public body, the charters allowed it to administer its own form of oath to its officers and council, and it was only with the third revision to the charter in 1669 that the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance were actually prescribed.42 In short, the society actively courted royalist influence in its draft charters, walked it back significantly in the 1662 text, and eventually had a conventional assertion of royal supremacy imposed upon it. This sequence of events maps broadly onto the wider atmosphere of uncertainty about the Restoration religious settlement, as the early hope of toleration receded definitively by the late 1660s.43 Aristocratic candidates continued to receive preferential treatment when it came to election into the society but did not automatically enjoy equal status with the council. The society remained concerned to secure the king's goodwill and patronage, but sought other routes to it than by making large potential sacrifices of their autonomy.44 More broadly, it is important to note how quickly the society moved away from the near-total identification with restored royal power that we find in the draft charter. As much in the language of its preamble as in its actual provisions, the draft conceives of its corporate identity in relation to king and court rather than the city. The emergence of a more distinct metropolitan orientation by the mid-1660s, principally discernible in the postures of the society's rhetoricians and apologists but also in important aspects of its institutional conduct, gains in significance when contrasted with the society's initial intentions.
None of the provisions discussed here were fully adopted; however, echoes or softened versions of most of them found their way into the charter. This roads-not-taken approach allows us to perceive that much of what was omitted from the charter was omitted consciously. As shown, those omissions included a more obvious Baconian commitment, a regulatory and record-keeping function for mechanical invention and intellectual property, a more collegiate than voluntarist version of the society, and an exceptional rather than official–conventional demonstration of loyalty. Some of these point to the uncertainty of the political and religious situation, others to doubts about how the society's establishment would be received by institutions and interests that saw its potential to infringe upon them, still others to the society's own anxiety about how best to settle and project its identity. All of them indicate the intensely contingent nature of the society's emergence and the sense of flux around its beginnings, one that Michael Hunter and Adrian Johns and others have shown would not be dispersed until quite deep into its existence.
Being of the city: what London meant to the early Royal Society
The evidence of the draft charters makes clear how rapidly and radically its founders were forced to revise their early wishes for the society. If its founding document is to be understood as a compromise measure rather than an ideal statement of ambitions, it follows that readings of the classic contemporary accounts of the society's foundational period should keep in mind the probability that their authors were acutely conscious of its mutability and contingency. Insofar as the apologetic and propagandistic thrust of, say, Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society is very well known, this is a commonplace; insofar as the emphasis on contingency dramatizes the difference between the context in which Sprat's History was written and the one it purportedly addresses, it remains a useful one to make. I am particularly concerned here with the ways in which London is invoked in three contemporary accounts of the society's early history, and how these reflect their authors’ attempts to orient perceptions of the society, its legitimacy as an enterprise and its activity. These are a preamble to a draft charter (by Christopher Wren, c.1662), Sprat's History and John Wallis's Defence of the Royal Society (1678).45
Though Wallis's account is chronologically last, I consider it first because it extends the descent of the Royal Society from the Oxford of the 1650s to 1645 in London – ‘the first ground and foundation’ of the meetings. As Mordechai Feingold has argued in an important essay, Wallis specified this more to amplify his own claims to authority and familiarity with the society than to imply an inherent logic or propriety to the society's metropolitan basis.46 Wallis's testimony is deeply bound up with the society's institutional politics at the time, and the purpose of his deeper identification of the society with London was, Feingold shows, to delegitimize the recent campaign to assume control of the society by a clique of fellows whom Wallis and his allies particularly associated with Oxford.47
Though Wallis's account supplies a vital intellectual genealogy for the early Royal Society – including a nexus of figures holding important official roles in the College of Physicians and Gresham as well as Oxford and Cambridge – London had for him no inherent quality that made it a desirable location for the Royal Society's prehistory.48 He used it instead to confer a sort of typological legitimacy – just as the Royal Society proximately emerged from the Gresham gatherings of the late 1650s, the London group of the mid-1640s soon came to a focus around the Gresham lectures of an earlier professor, Samuel Foster. If the dedication to the society's displaced president, William, Viscount Brouncker, in Wallis's Defence was an assertion of the legitimacy of one faction within the society over another, it becomes reasonable to view the structural parallels between the emergence of the society and Wallis's revisionist account of its ancestor as part of that legitimizing narrative.
Wallis's invocation of London was principally rhetorical. So were Wren's and Sprat's, but in their accounts London's civic attributes matter. As Jim Bennett and Rebekah Higgitt make clear in their introduction to this special issue, Sprat represented the commercial and artisanal vitality of London as not just an asset but the indispensable condition for the pursuit of experimental natural knowledge. In this he echoes Wren, whose draft preamble to a charter of the society connected the situation of the Royal Society with London's craft communities:
The Way to so happy a Government, we are sensible is in no manner more facilitated than by the promoting of useful Arts and Sciences, which, upon mature Inspection, are found to be the Basis of civil Communities, and free Governments, and which father Multitudes, by an Orphean Charm, into Cities, and connect them in Companies; that so, by laying in a Stock, as it were of several Arts, and Methods of Industry, the whole Body may be supplied by a mutual Commerce of each others particular Faculties; and consequently that the various Miseries, and Toils of this frail Life, may, by as many various Expedients, ready at hand, be remedied, or alleviated; and Wealth and Plenty diffused in just Proportion to every one's Industry, that is, to every one's Deserts.49
The point, Wren hastened to add, was not to infringe upon or derogate the function of the universities. Rather, he suggested, natural philosophy was only incidental to their function, and the society should take up for ‘Natural Experimental Philosophy’ the role the universities played as ‘perpetual Fountains of Religion, and Laws’:
Not that herein we would withdraw the least Ray of our Influence from the present established Nurseries of good Literature, and Education … but, that we purpose to make further Provision for this Branch of Knowledge likewise, Natural Experimental Philosophy …
If the date of this document is consistent with the other charter drafts, Wren probably wrote this after becoming Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in late 1661. Again, it is evidence that the pre-charter fellows looked to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge as the obvious analogue to their own foundation (though with a different remit); and, equally obviously, it signals their concern about how the analogy might be received by the universities.50
The pivot from Oxford and Cambridge towards London invokes the analogy and simultaneously enforces the distinction between the types of institution. It draws on an idea of human felicity that is specifically urban and metropolitan, grounded in the notion that the useful arts and sciences are what bring cities, almost by conjuration, into being. A company of natural philosophers – such as the Royal Society – dedicated to the promotion of these for their own sake would be both the flower and the root of the process that constitutes cities in the first place. It would, he suggests, connect and thereby amplify the work of the individual livery companies (which arise ‘by an Orphean charm’ to regulate the useful arts and sciences which produce them).
Writing in the mid-1660s, Sprat located the society's immediate ancestry not in London in the 1640s but in Oxford in the 1650s. He did more than Wren to acknowledge the university's ancestral significance for the society but made less of their parallel functions in different spheres of learning. He also represented the Interregnum gravitation of philosophically minded men towards Oxford as a regrettable necessity rather than some ideal state of affairs,51 his rhetoric becoming more forceful when he contemplated the positive virtues, for the enterprise of experimental natural philosophy, of being of the city:
By this [the fellows] have broken down the partition wall, and made a fair entrance, for all conditions of men to engage in these Studies … Thus they have form'd that Society, which intends a Philosophy, for the use of Cities, and not for the retirements of Schools, to resemble the Cities themselves: which are compounded of all sorts of men, of the gown, of the Sword, of the Shop, of the field, of the Court, of the Sea; all mutually assisting each other.52
The singular mutual adaptation of London and the society was predicated, for Sprat, on London's maritime orientation and the strength of its trade: ‘if we should search through all the World, for a perpetual habitation, wherein the Universal Philosophy might settle it self; there can none be found, which is comparable to London, of all the former, or present Seats of Empire.’ The comparison is drawn out exhaustively, and it is only when compared at length with Holland, and Amsterdam and the Hague in particular, that the emphasis on London and the particular qualities of its merchant community comes into focus:
… we have another help in our hands, which almost forces this Crown on the head of the English Nation: and that is, the Noble, and Inquisitive Genius of our Merchants.
This cannot be better shewn, than by comparing them, with those of that one Countrey; which onely stands in competition with us for Trade. The Merchants of England live honourably in forein parts; those of Holland meanly, minding their gain alone: ours converse freely, and learn from all; having in their behaviour, very much of the Gentility of the Families, from which so many of them are descended: The others, when they are abroad, shew, that they are onely a Race of plain Citizens, keeping themselves most within their own Cells, and Ware-houses; scarce regarding the acquaintance of any, but those, with whom they trafick.53
What was Sprat's manoeuvre? His argument was absurd – but if it was not demonstrably the case that English merchants were more inquisitive and less crudely acquisitive than their Dutch counterparts, why invoke them?54 Sprat gives pride of place to the Dutch Republic as England's most direct rival. It was also the culture which England, in some significant respects, most resembled, and recent relations between the two states had vacillated between war and the contemplation of both a royalist dynastic alliance and (briefly and abortively, under the Commonwealth) republican political union.55 The move draws attention to an important difference between the English and Dutch scientific and commercial environments, namely the absence of a learned society or scientific academy in the Low Countries at this time. The Royal Society is the difference, and linking it explicitly to the supposedly unique intellectual curiosity of England's merchant venturers draws attention to its singular status while entwining the society in its urban context. As with Wren, the society is figured as being both an inspiration to, and inspired by, London's commercial and intellectual vitality.
In the light of the language of the draft charters – Ent's and Croone's particularly, and Wren's to some extent – Sprat's logic of incorporation, and of the society's metropolitan basis, looks opportunistic, making a virtue of what could not be helped. More broadly, the significance of London as a context and comparator for the society gains force from the failure of the analogy to Oxford and Cambridge, and its inability to realize itself as an endowed philosophical college. This also helps explain Sprat's insistence on the virtues of a membership composed chiefly of disinterested gentlemen, ‘free and unconfined’, since it had become apparent that without their support the enterprise could not continue.56
Sprat's conspicuous praise of London's merchants should also be considered against his more guarded praise of its artisanal communities, which he represents as important to the city's prosperity while echoing Francis Bacon's warning about their propensity for keeping valuable craft secrets locked up in their workshops.57 Wren's invocation of London, and the parallel devotions of the Royal Society and the companies that regulated the city's trades to the ‘useful arts and sciences’, located the value of the city more in its artisans than in its merchants. Clearly the society's history-of-trades project was fundamental to this understanding.58 Sprat also invoked the history of trades as a major part of the society's enterprise, and included exemplary Baconian histories as evidence of its performances to date. The society's rhetoricians both translated the project from the learned institutions where Bacon had hoped to establish it to a metropolitan context.59 By 1667, however, some of the difficulties inherent in bringing this work to fruition had become apparent. It was also the case that overseas correspondence had come to assume a much greater significance in the Royal Society than the founders appear to have anticipated.60 Sprat's greater emphasis on the mercantile community, and on the singular fitness of London as a centre for global knowledge-gathering projects, also reflects this change in orientation – or, more charitably, this new string to the society's bow.
It is also possible that this mercantile turn in Sprat reflects recent developments in the society's financing and its hopes for the future. In 1664 the council of the society had enthusiastically received Sir John Cutler's proposed endowment of a lectureship in the history of trades for Robert Hooke and then redesignated it as a contribution towards the £80 salary they had promised Hooke as curator of experiments, effectively institutionalizing what had been intended as a personal benefaction to one of their employees.61 This was significant for several reasons. For one, Cutler had in effect created a lectureship in the useful arts parallel to those endowed by Thomas Gresham based on the liberal ones. For another, by absorbing the lectureship into its own arrangements with Hooke, the society became involved by default in a form of public teaching – a sphere of activity not commonly associated with the Royal Society but a core function of many different types of chartered body.62 And it hints at a prospective identity for the society as an alternative Gresham College, one dedicated to the useful arts or perhaps to Baconian natural philosophy more broadly, also with endowed lectureships. In this context, Sprat's praise of London's merchants acknowledges at once a change in the orientation of the society's activity, a specific recent benefaction, and perhaps the hope of future funding from similar sources. As late as 1673, explaining their decision to return to Gresham College after they were displaced by the Fire of 1666, the fellows gave part of their reason as ‘the hopes, which they find grounds to entertain, of meeting with some considerable benefactors at that end of the City’.63
Corporate privileges in action and in competition
Another obvious area of crossover between the Royal Society and the chartered bodies of Restoration London was its licensing privilege. This was the basis of the society's corporate engagement with the Stationers’ Company, the guild for the London print trades. The charter of 1662 stipulated that the society might ‘appoint one or more typographers and printers, and chalcographers or engravers’, who would have ‘faculty to print such things, matters and affairs touching or concerning the aforesaid Royal Society’. This exemption was unusual in two respects. First, it allowed the society to determine for itself what might be published, without reference to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Second, an independent licensing power set it outside the structure of copy ownership embodied in the Stationers and their registers.
As Mario Biagioli has argued, exemption from state oversight in the matter of licensing implied a transfer of responsibility: it became the duty of the society to ensure that material published under its imprimatur was not politically seditious or religiously heterodox.64 In practice, it was more significant that the provision potentially trespassed, in ambiguous language, on the regulatory domain of the Stationers. Did it give the right simply to license, or actually to set up as a printer in its own right? Could it do so without infringing the right of the Stationers’ Company to regulate the trade? The licensing privilege of Oxford University, for example, had required careful negotiation with the London body, and the local printers contracted by the university were forced to make significant commercial concessions to the London Stationers.65
The right to publish or reprint a particular title was vested in the stationer who entered it in the company register – without having to show a manuscript or specify more than the title. Books published under Royal Society license were only entered long after the fact. The purpose of the register was to clarify ownership of assets within the company, and because the Royal Society appointed its own printers from within the company, there was (as far as Stationers were concerned) no possible dispute as to which members of the company the works licensed by the society belonged to. Thus it is only after one of the society's two original sworn printers died in 1670, and ownership shares were transferred between company members, that we find references in the register to works licensed by the society.66
This is strongly revealing of the Stationers’ attitude to the significance of the society's licensing privilege – essentially, that it did little beyond specifying in advance which member of the company would hold the copy. The society initially acceded to this interpretation – an important concession because, as Adrian Johns has argued, adapting itself to the Stationers’ model of ownership in this way caused the society significant difficulties.67 Even within this dynamic, however, much else was left ambiguous. Could the society compel its sworn printers to print something they didn't want to? Could it appoint other, additional printers at pleasure?
The society appeared to believe that it could; the Stationers, that it could not. The issue came to a head in July 1665, at the height of a plague epidemic in London. The society adjourned its meetings until further notice and many senior fellows decamped to Oxford. Though the society could not meet officially outside London they continued to do so unofficially, with the encouragement of the king.68 Among those who remained behind was Henry Oldenburg, the society's secretary and publisher of the Philosophical Transactions. An intriguing letter from Robert Moray, at Oxford, to Oldenburg highlights the key issues:
Before you take any new course for printing your Transactions, I would have you to consult with our president, and withal do nothing till you have given up with Allestre & Martin. Which you may do by writing to them, for if you have not told them you will get a licence for printing though the Council of the Society meet not, they will have a further pretence for doing as they have done. However I would have every thing done so as they may be no wise cause of grievance on either side. And the rather because you might have had them tyed if you pleased.69
From Moray's letter – the only surviving half of the exchange – I make the following inferences. First, that Oldenburg had asked the society's printers, John Martyn and James Allestry, to continue printing the Transactions. Second, that they had refused to honour, or at any rate tried to renegotiate, the business terms of their arrangement with Oldenburg.70 They appear to have invoked the suspension of the society – the temporary cessation of its corporate being, by reason of not meeting within ten miles of London – as a reason to stop printing, since it could not therefore issue a licence. More speculatively, I would suggest that Oldenburg had threatened to take his business elsewhere, in violation of what the Stationers assumed was their monopoly, and that they sought in the first instance to prevent it; and lastly, that Moray thought that Oldenburg could have held the printers to their original agreement.71
Allestry eventually relented and signalled permission to Moray to get the Transactions printed elsewhere – at Oxford, using the university's licensing authority and printers.72 In general, it appears that Martyn and Allestry wanted to retain the society's business. They insisted on the exclusivity of their status as licensees and tried to leverage what they took to be a position of temporary power to get better terms out of Oldenburg.
The situation was complicated by technicalities. Transactions, as a periodical, was licensed issue by issue; if it were licensed by another body (such as Oxford) then it would fall outside the agreement by which all material licensed by the society was published by its appointed printers. But this sat awkwardly with the Stationers’ norms of copy ownership, under which property in a title was continuous unless voluntarily transferred: the identity of the licensing authority was irrelevant. The force of this kind of constraint is made apparent by Evelyn's lament, after it became clear that Sylva was a significant publishing success, that the society had not received the profit of it.73 He evidently believed that he could not seek another publisher for the second edition, or renegotiate the terms of his original arrangement with Martyn and Allestry.
The society opted for a limited interpretation of its privilege of appointing printers, one that initially entailed a negotiated monopoly with its chosen stationers and therefore, in normal circumstances, effectively reproduced the ownership norms of the Stationers’ register without actually using it. When it moved outside those norms, contestation between the society and its stationers threatened the viability of the works it wished to see published under its imprimatur. The broader point is that the society endeavoured to exercise a corporate privilege that was notionally quite expansive in terms that would not directly infringe upon the privileges of another corporation.74
The society was equally careful about managing its relationship with the College of Physicians, a body whose interests and membership overlapped significantly with those of the society. Much of its early activity concerned anatomical and physiological research and was undertaken by fellows of the college. Despite this, institutional cooperation between them was lacking; a proposal from Christopher Merrett, fellow of both, for sharing quarters after the Great Fire, which destroyed the college and displaced the society, was squashed. An anatomical committee proposed in the early 1680s was never set up after Croone, also a member of both, ‘objected College of Physicians’, presumably because it would be seen as poaching on their territory.75 Nothing came of a 1667 attempt to appoint Richard Lower, who had performed numerous demonstrations before the society, as anatomical curator.76 Equally, some physicians were not especially sympathetic to the enterprise of the Royal Society or to the idea of research-driven medicine, which might shine an unflattering light on their professional practices.77 The Royal Society also distrusted the physicians’ motives. It was full of wealthy, clubbable Londoners who could afford the services of physicians, who were in turn accused of angling for election to the society merely to swell their practices without ever contributing usefully to its activity – a concern that continued to be articulated down the eighteenth century.78
At the outset we noted that the Royal Society did not regulate a profession or trade, exercise a monopoly, or teach. It did, however, flirt with all three functions. The absorption of the Cutlerian Lectureship of 1664 into the society's financial arrangement with Robert Hooke, one of its very few salaried employees, coupled with Sprat's hyperbolic praise of London's mercantile community, indicates not only an experiment with turning the society's research agenda on the history of trades into a form of public service but also the hope of further establishments like it. In the mid-1660s, short of cash, it proposed appealing to the king for the grant of a revived royal monopoly on alum mining in England – or, more broadly, for the grant of monopolies which had hitherto proved unremunerative, or a payment on all future patents and monopolies.79 The importance of the move lay in seeking a regular source of income other than direct subventions from the Crown, shortly before the society began exploring options for securing itself a more permanent home.80 We should also note that the terms of the proposal were reflective of the early society's optimism; it proposed for itself explicitly the grant of monopolies that had proved unprofitable, surely with the idea that the knowledge and skills of its members, or its own commitment to experiment, would find ways of making them worthwhile.81 Finally, as we have seen, it also explored the idea of exercising wider regulatory authority – with the suggestion that it should evaluate all proposals (i.e. patent applications) brought before the Privy Council and for the society's council to assess whether they were ‘new, true and useful’.
These unrealized schemes raise far-reaching questions about the scope of the society's activity; the nature and extent of its epistemic authority (and how comfortable the fellows were with the prospect of wielding it); and its relationship with the crown, with the city, and with public life more broadly. They mimicked the function of existing bodies such as Gresham College, various monopoly companies and patentees, and (in the matter of the patent registries) proposed extending to themselves one of the functions of state, in much the same way as the society's licensing privilege was both an exemption from state oversight and a duty to carry it out. Such considerations were always linked to the size and composition of the fellowship, its search for funding and (relatedly) its social and even geographic orientation – witness its explicit rejection of a strand of continuing aristocratic patronage in 1673 in favour of a return to Gresham College and further possible endowments from city sources, as it turned down the Duke of Norfolk's invitation to continue its seven-year sojourn in Arundel House on the Strand. The society's diminishing hopes of substantial support from the Crown are encapsulated in its deflection of an assignment from the king to raise wrecked ships from the Thames at Woolwich in June 1669, on the ground that the society was ‘destitute of the necessaries for undertaking such a work’. Instead they offered the assistance of selected members. The pointed corollary to the lack of substantive Crown patronage was that the society could not contemplate undertaking Crown projects; an advisory role was more or less the limit of its capacity, and the fellows told the king as much.82
In 1712/1713, the society was ordered by Queen Anne to take up the function it had solicited for itself in the draft charters of 1661, and then again in 1662 and 1663/1664, of evaluating patents for mechanical inventions. The society did not, according to its own records, refuse these instructions, but nothing was ever done about them either. Why did it avoid, fifty years on, a responsibility it had initially been anxious to adopt? The short answer is that it was no longer the same institution – or, more precisely, that what it had become was not what it had originally envisaged. Its identity as a voluntary learned society – one sustained by the interest, membership fees and (above all) the communications of its English and foreign members and other interested amateurs – was by that point effectively settled, and would largely remain so for the next hundred years. It amounted to a deliberately limited interpretation of the privileges and possibilities set out in its charter. As I have endeavoured to show here, this was in many respects an effect of its encounters with the other types of institution, and especially of the corporate bodies of Restoration London. The society consistently made concessions to the privileges, anxieties and customary practices of those bodies, partly as a result of the relative weakness of its position as a newcomer, and the absence of a clearly defined domain over which it was supposed to wield regulatory authority and protective interest. The financial weakness of the society's establishment also constrained its relations with other corporations – it did not have the resources to test its privileges to their apparent legal limits – but this did not mean that the society conceived its privileges in such limited terms. The evidence of the draft charters, and much else besides, shows a desire to frame them, and to use them, much more expansively. The non-adoption of Queen Anne's proposal is an indication not just of how the society had changed, but also of its learning to make a virtue of an identity that had come to feel familiar – a process that began almost before the society was born, and which significantly shaped the efforts of its founders, historians and apologists.