Jeremiah Horrocks walked much of the way from his home in Toxteth Liverpool to take up his Cambridge place in 1632.
The son of a watchmaker, he worked as a college servant at Emmanuel to pay the fees, something you cannot do now.
It was fitting somehow because in those days, astronomy was the Cinderella to astrology. The latter was regarded as more useful because it could predict when the stars were aligned for battle.
Horrocks – who Latinised his name to Horrox – changed that, as did astronomer Johannes Kepler (played here by David John) who worked for three Holy Roman Emperors in Prague, one known as Rudolph the Mad, (Rory Lowings) none of whom ever paid him.
Horrox (Luke Malone) and his fellow student William Crabtree (Will Males) observed the transit of Venus as it passes in front of the sun.
They realised that we don’t see this for more than one 100 years at a time. The last occasion was 2017.
Horrox, the play, performed by Corkscrew Theatre at The ADC Cambridge, sets the young student in his time, in the unrest that led up to the English Civil War –and the bitter controversy over the heretical idea that the earth moved round the sun – which Horrox knew. That was a shock to people.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has the line: “Doubt thou that the sun doth move”. If it did, we hear, “birds would fly backwards” and the elderly master of Emmanuel, Laurence Chaderton (played by Peter Simmons) declares that at his age he would fall over.
Emmanuel, founded in 1584, by Sir Walter Mildmay, Elizabeth I’s chancellor and a Puritan, intended the college to train Anglican preachers. Horrox, Crabtree their fellows are convinced Puritans – as one might be a loyal member of a political party now.
Our hero, who accurately described the elliptical orbit of the moon, died aged 22, back in Toxteth, it is not certain how, and then was largely forgotten, though he is listed on Emmanuel’s website as a famous alumni, a founding father of astronomy.
Written by David Sears and co-directed by him and Corkscrew’s Lesley Ford, this is an ambitious play with several strands weaving together the historical, scientific, and social background of a young man whose head was in the stars.
Horrox is by no means a household name and he predicted that for a long time his work would be forgotten.
His words are the last line of the play: “Posterity shall witness, years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes.”
Horrox is at the ADC Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday, April 1.
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