Kent Scientists

The Wingham Clerics

William Rede (c1315-1385), Simon Bredon (died 1372), and William Heytesbury (died c1372) 

Resided at Wingham in the 1360s

Important figures in mediaeval mathematics, astronomy, logic, and natural philosophy.

The 'Old Canonry', near Wingham Church. Parts of it are thought to have been the residences of the canons. 

In the small but picturesque town of Wingham, mediaeval buildings face across the Canterbury road towards the parish church of St Mary’s. In the 14th and 15th centuries they were the residences of members of a small religious community, known as a ‘college’, who maintained the daily round of services in the church. With a provost and just six canons, Wingham College was one of only a handful of such places in Kent.

In the 1360s, the provost of Wingham College and two of the canons were all men whose names are significant in the history of mediaeval mathematics and science. Earlier in their careers, William Rede (or Read), Simon Bredon and William Heytesbury had all been academics at Merton College, Oxford, the leading place in Europe for scientific study and research in the early 14th century.

Rede's tenure as provost is recorded in Wingham church. 

Astronomy, along with arithmetic and geometry, was part of the standard curriculum in mediaeval universities. William Rede in particular is known to have owned a range of observing instruments. These included astrolabes, used for a variety of astronomical measurements, and a map of the constellations. (This was long before the invention of the telescope.)

One of Rede’s major achievements while at Merton College had been the preparation of a revised edition of an important set of tables used for predicting eclipses and the positions of the planets, something useful, he explained, to ‘those wishing to forecast the effects of the planets on earthly affairs'. The task apparently involved him in the calculation by hand of 40,000 digits. His collection of 370 manuscript books, mainly about astronomy and theology, is said to have formed one of the largest private libraries in the country. After Oxford he was appointed Archdeacon of Rochester and provost of Wingham College before being promoted to Bishop of Chichester by the Pope. His home at Amberley castle survives today as a hotel.

An astrolabe thought to have belonged to Simon Bredon

Simon Bredon was a physician as well as an astronomer and mathematician. His reputation was such that the Elizabethan scientist and astrologer John Dee would later include him in a list of ‘heroes of English science’. Bredon bequeathed a number of instruments to Oriel College Oxford. An astrolabe now in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford may be one of them. In later life he had ecclesiastical connections with other places in Kent in addition to Wingham. He was Warden of a hostel for pilgrims in Maidstone, part of which survives as the former church of St Peter’s, and also rector of Biddenden.

The third member of this Wingham trio was William Heytesbury (died 1372/3), described as a logician and natural philosopher. His writings on logic and ‘kinematics’ – the study of the way things move – had earned him a reputation at home and on the continent, and he may have indirectly influenced Galileo. With colleagues at Merton he had derived what is now known as the mean speed theorem. In modern terms this predicts that the distance a car travels when accelerating uniformly from 0 to, say, 60 mph in a given length of time is exactly the same as the distance another car would travel moving steadily at 30 mph for the same length of time. This may seem trivial, but by showing that real-life events could be described mathematically, Heytesbury and his colleagues were paving the way for much that would happen in science in the centuries ahead.

Among his other ecclesiastical posts, Heytesbury was rector of Ickham, near Wingham, for nearly 20 years.