A man of rare good sense

Priscilla Waugh introduces Dr John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College...


Wadham College. Painting by David Langford

Wadham college exudes good sense. It comprises fine, substantial buildings designed by master mason William Arnold and built in 1613 of local Headington stone according to the instructions of the founders, Dorothy Wadham and Nicholas, her late husband.

Today its lawns are swept clear of leaves by men with handraken rather thae the absurdity of noisy, petrol-drives garden vacuum.

Wadham has always exuded good sense. At a time when tension was high between Crown and Commonwealth and exciting new discoveries in science were testing the traditional teachings of the church, a certain clarity of thought is apparent.

It was an age ot curiosity. The term ‘curious’ being a term of highest approbation, denoting a mind keen to cut through to the essence of a matter. Not yet, perhaps, the time when those in public life could free themselves from the yoke ot religious dogma entirely. But a time when the discrepanries between the scriptures and science were being publicly confronted by thinking men.

Such a man was Dr. John Wilkins, later (brietly) Warden of Trinity College, Cambridge and Bishop of Chester; but, at the time that concerns us, between 1648 and 1659, Warden ot Wadham College.

“It were happy for us,” he wrote, “If we could exempt Scripture trom philosophical controversies. If we could he content to let it be perfect for that end unto which it was intended, tor a Rule of our Faith and Obedience, and not to stretch it to be a Judge of such natural truths as are to be found out by our own industry and experience.”

For some years prior to his Wadham appointment, Wilkins, then Chaplain to the Prince Elector Palatine in London, attended regular meetings at Gresham College to witness and discuss the latest scientific discoveries.

Christopher Wren was a contributor as was Robert Hooke, perhaps the foremost experimental scientist of the day. Wilkins moved to Oxford at about the same time as fellow Grenham members John Wallis and Jonathan Goddard (Warden of Merton College 1651—1660).

Wren was to join Wadham as an undergraduate the following year and meetings similar to those of Gresham were soon established there. Thus were laid the foundations of the prestigious Royal Society, of which Wilkins would be the first secretary and whose first meeting, held in Londxn in 1660, he chaired.

In truth, Wilkins was not particularly distinguished as either scientist or scholar and trod a fine line in his personal life.  Diarist Anthony à Wood sneers that he was  “. . . a notorious complyer with the Presbyterians (from whom he obtained the wardenship of Wadham); with the Independents; and Cromwell himself, by whose favour he did not onlie get a dispensation to marry (contrary to the College statute) but also (because he had married his sister)...

But Wood’s view was not the popular one. Even Charles II, on the Restoration, could not hold out against one of the most enquiring minds of the time, enjoying his thinking on matters such as telegraphy and the construction of a universal language.

Despite the fact that Wilkins had just had his Cambridge appointment rescinded, Charles II appointed him to the Bishopric of Rochester.

The final word on Wilkins goes to Robert Hooke, a man usually at least as acerbic an Wood, who wrote “There is scarce one invention which this nation has produced in our age, but it has some way or other been set forward by his assistance”.

“He is indeed a man born for the good of mankind, and for the honour of his country. In the sweetness of his behaviour, in the calmness of his mind, in the unbounded goodness of his heart, we have an evident instance, what the true and primitive unpassionate religion was, before it was soured by particular factions.”

A man ot rare good sense. The sort of man who would no doubt seriously investigate the idea of a garden vacuum and then rake the lawn by hand.


The Oxford Limited Edition December, 2005 - Edition 35