The scientist and adventurer Thomas Harriot (c.1560–1621) caught our eye back in the 2009 Year of Astronomy, when his telescope observations of the Moon – pre-dating those of Galileo by several months – were celebrated. At the time, we visited the Bank of England‘s foyer plaque, which marks the approximate site of Harriot’s original burial place. Now Harriot is on our radar again, as we delve deeper into the history of exploration, so we decided to go looking for his ‘new’ final resting place.
Not content with being a telescope pioneer, author, mathematical whiz, linguist, and all-round brainiac, in 1585 Thomas Harriot journeyed to the new English settlement of Roanoke, Virginia, along with the colony’s first governor Ralph Lane, artist John White, and other settlers, soldiers, and speculators. Their aims were to set up a permanent English outpost, trade with the Indians, and reap valuable new resources, but despite several attempts the venture failed spectacularly, going down in history as the ‘Lost Colony‘.
Thomas Harriot’s involvement with Roanoke came about through his friendship with the dashing Sir Walter Ralegh, sometime favourite of Elizabeth I. Harriot lodged on and off with Ralegh in Durham House, along with two Algonquian Indians - Manteo and Wanchese - who had been delivered to Ralegh in 1584, following an initial reconnaissance voyage to Virginia. Harriot set about teaching them English, and devised a phonetic alphabet in order to transcribe their language, learning much about their native lands and culture as he went. Manteo and Wanchese both returned with him to Virginia in1585, and Manteo in particular became a valuable ally to the English cause. In 1588, Harriot published A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, a compilation of his own observations and information gleaned from his Algonquian friends.
Durham House, below left, no longer exists – Durham House St and John Adam St, off the Strand, mark the site today. To learn more about the history of Durham House, click here.
Harriot later moved to Syon House as a guest of its owner, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. As well as a roof over his head, Percy gave Harriot financial support, allowing him to concentrate on his scientific investigations. Here on 26 July 1609, Harriot observed the moon with a telescope and documented what he saw – the first person to do so, pre-dating Galileo’s much more famous observations by several months. To see more of Harriot’s moon drawings, click here.
Thomas Harriot died on 2 July 1621, and was buried in St Christopher le Stocks, but the church was demolished around 1781 to make way for the Bank of England. The congregation joined Saint Margaret Lothbury, and its interments were eventually removed to Nunhead Cemetery. Today, the Bank of England’s central garden courtyard marks the spot where St Christopher le Stocks once stood. Harriot’s original memorial plaque was apparently destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but a replacement hangs inside the Bank of England. Its location is just inside the main entrance, to the left, but it is not visible on regular Bank of England tours, and you need to make a special appointment to see it. The Latin inscription reads:
Stay traveller, lightly tread; Near this spot lies all that was mortal of that most celebrated man, Thomas Harriot. He was that most learned Harriot of Syon on the river Thames; by birth and education an Oxonian, who cultivated all the sciences and excelled in all, in mathematics, natural philosophy, theology. A most studious investigator of truth, a most pious worshipper of God, at the age of sixty or thereabouts, he bade farewell to mortality, not to life, July 2, 1621.
A sepulcher at Nunhead Cemetery in Linden Grove contains the remains of those removed from St Christopher le Stocks, and we travelled there last week to find it. At the time of writing, Thomas Harriot is not mentioned on Nunhead cemetery’s website, nor its Wikipedia page, nor its on-site information panels, nor in any of the ‘Famous Burials’ publications by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. This is strange, as he is arguably the most significant person of historical interest to be laid to rest there. If all of St Christopher le Stocks’ interments were brought to Nunhead – and we know that Harriot was among them – then it stands to reason that he must be there too. According to Ron Woollacott, our contact in the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery group, Thomas Harriot is mentioned in their ‘Victorian Catacombs at Nunhead’ , publication, and will also be included in a new Friends publication currently in progress.
You can locate the spot yourself by taking the first path to the left, after entering the cemetery’s main gate. Soon after, you’ll come to a fork in the path (below) – keep left. Shortly, you’ll find some steps on your right – these lead onto the roof of the St Christopher le Stocks vault.
There is a large flat stone at the rear of the raised vault section, with a Latin inscription that says:
SUB HOC SAXO
CIVIUM LONDINENSIUM RELIQUIAE
SUBITER AEDEM JAMDUDUM DIRUTAM
SANCTI CHRISTOPHERI LE STOCKS
OLIM SEPULTAE EXHUMATAE TANDEM REQUIES
I rely on Google translate to decode Latin inscriptions, and in this case I think it means something like, ‘Under this stone are the citizens of London’s St Christopher le Stock … when their church was destroyed long ago they were exhumed and are now at rest’. Latin experts, please feel free to correct my translation in the comments section below.
To learn more about Thomas Harriot, I recommend the videos below, featuring Harriot expert Stephen Clucas. You can also read a short biographical sketch of Harriot by Allan Chapman, here.
(thanks to ECU for these You Tube clips)
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
Many thanks to Ron Woollacott at Friends of Nunhead Cemetery
- Big Chief Elizabeth: How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World by Giles Milton
- Thomas Harriot, Science Pioneer by Ralph C. Staiger
- Thomas Harriot and His World: Mathematics, Exploration, and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England by Robert Fox
- Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
- A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia by Thomas Harriot