Magazine article History Today

Sir William Lower (1570-1615)

Magazine article History Today

Sir William Lower (1570-1615)

Article excerpt

The History of Parliament mainly concentrates on political careers, but there were many who sat in the House of Commons who possessed little political ambition. Some of them preferred less dangerous pursuits, for example the early seventeenth-century Cornish MP Sir William Lower.

Born around 1570, Lower was the eldest son of a wealthy Cornish gentleman. Little is known of his early life, though he attended Oxford University and the Middle Temple, and probably also travelled on the Continent. Always sociable, even boisterous by nature, he was expelled from the Middle Temple in 1591 for participating in a student riot. Unabashed at this abrupt termination of his legal studies, he joined in a similar escapade there a year later, bringing upon himself a prosecution in the infamous Court of Star Chamber.

Lower relied on his Cornish connections to gain election to Parliament, first at Bodmin in 160 I, then at Lostwithiel three years later. However, by 1604 he had probably entered the circle of the 3rd Earl of Essex, and around February 1605 he married one of the Earls relatives, Penelope Perrot. Although not herself a great heiress, Penelope was also stepdaughter to the 9th Earl of Northumberland, and therefore a considerable catch for a man of Lower's background.

Unfortunately, the social benefits of this marriage proved to be short-lived. In November 1605 Northumberland was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, and Lower himself was examined as a potential witness to the Earl's guilt. Although nothing was proved against Northumberland, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for the next fifteen years, while Lower, his fingers burnt, retired to the seclusion of his wife's estates in Carmarthenshire. There, he passed much of his time dabbling in science.

His mentor was another member of Northumberland's household, Thomas Harriot, the pre-eminent scientist of Jacobean England. Harriot was an authority on mathematics, physics and astronomy, a pioneer in such fields as algebra and optics, and Lower was dazzled by his intellectual breadth and prowess. Inspired initially to try his hand at exercises in algebra and the refraction of light, by 1607 he had become fascinated by astronomy in particular. Since Harriot lived in London, while Lower spent most of his time in Wales and Cornwall, they communicated primarily by letter. This early correspondence course was not without its hitches. Lower could not always obtain the books that Harriot recommended, and might wait for months to have his questions answered. Similarly, although he had privileged access to the first true telescopes manufactured in England, other equipment was harder to come by. …

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