This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer

King Charles II – patron and founder of the Royal Society. What was it that grabbed the King’s attention? What did he get out of the Society that encouraged him to support the sciences at this key moment in his life?

Jenny Uglow speaking at One Culture

1660 was an important year for both the King and for British society, as Charles II returned to London after exile. Charles brought with him new ideas about ruling, wanting to be seen as a king of understanding, who welcomed and embraced new ideas, rather than as a tyrant. In this event at the Royal Society’s One Culture festival, Jenny Uglow succeeded in painting a picture of King Charles II as a sensitive, understanding and encouraging man; bringing us closer to understanding the King’s thoughts and motivations behind encouraging the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660.

Charles studied mathematics with Thomas Hobbes, and this close relationship may well have helped shape the Royal Society. Charles was also a competent chemist, having his own laboratory; whilst his brother, Prince Rupert, was very interested in mathematics and physics. But, like any man or boy today, Charles was most interested and excited by new toys. The King was said to have seven clocks in his bedroom, all set at different times, and each one more complex and novel than the last.

Robert Boyle’s air pump was of special interest to the King, and many of the weekly experiments of the Royal Society revolved around this ‘new toy’; and so the Society became an exciting diversion for the King. The members of the Society, realising his enjoyment of these surface displays, made an effort to show the King their most surprising and spectacular experiments. Jenny Uglow managed to bring to life the relationship between Charles and the founding members of the Royal Society, by giving an example of when Charles requested an understanding of why Prince Rupert Drops stir and contract themselves when touched; a subcommittee of the Society spent an entire half day experimenting with these drops in St James’s park to try answer the King’s curiosity. The relationship between Charles and the members of the Royal Society appeared to be a playful one, where Charles enjoyed questioning the scientists, as well as laughing at them for ‘spending time in weighing of air’.

However, after his initial burst of interest in the Society, Charles took a back seat; although he did still enjoy throwing them a few enquiring messages from time to time. Charles’ interest in science, his curious nature and want for change in society, made the foundation of the Royal Society possible and introduced the founding members to a web of scientific knowledge across Europe.

After the talk I caught up with Jenny – click here to watch a film of our conversation (m4v).

Jenny Uglow at One Culture

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