The Astronomer Royal is the best-known and most prestigious post in astronomy, with illustrious names holding the title such as John Flamsteed and Edmond Halley.

What is the Astronomer Royal?

The title Astronomer Royal is an honour awarded to an eminent astronomer, who is expected to advise the monarch on astronomical matters.

It was a position created by King Charles II at the same time he established the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Today the post is largely an honorary one. The Astronomer Royal receives a stipend of £100 a year, and is a member of the Royal Household.

Who was the first Astronomer Royal?

The first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, was charged by King Charles II with drawing up an accurate map of the night sky which could be used for navigation.

As part of the founding of the Royal Observatory, Charles II instructed the Astronomer Royal to work on:

“the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation."

While the Observatory was being constructed, John Flamsteed took up residence in the Tower of London. According to legend, his astronomical duties were often disrupted by the ravens at the Tower, who would perch on and foul his telescopes.

The King was on the point of giving orders for the ravens to be disposed of when he was told of the tradition that said when the ravens left the Tower, the Tower and the crown itself would fall. The ravens at the Tower are still cared for to this day.

Engraving of John Flamsteed, used as the frontispiece in his 'Atlas Coelestis', the star map published after his death and based on his life's work at the Royal Observatory mapping the heavens (ZBA0744)

Flamsteed subsequently moved all his equipment to the Queen's House in Greenwich, allowing him to also oversee the building work on the Observatory.

When the Observatory was complete, John Flamsteed moved in. The main building in the historic part of the Observatory is still known as Flamsteed House.

At the time Flamsteed was known as the King's Astronomical Observator. His long tenure was matched by his immense industry and he left a large body of work mapping the stars. He was however rather unwilling to share his results, and famously Isaac Newton published them against his will.

Discover the history of the Royal Observatory

List of Astronomers Royal

John Flamsteed (1675-1719)

Perhaps the most famous of the Astronomers Royal, Flamsteed was integral in establishing the Royal Observatory and its reputation as a centre of astronomy and timekeeping.

Edmond Halley (1720-1742)

Edmond Halley by Sir Godfrey Kneller (detail)
Detail of Edmond Halley by Godfrey Kneller (BHC2734)

Best known for the comet bearing his name, Edmond Halley worked on a wide range of scientific problems before becoming Astronomer Royal in 1720, at the age of 64. 

Halley was responsible for re-equipping the Royal Observatory Greenwich, using a grant from the Board of Ordnance, a government body that acted as custodian of British lands. He was forced to do this after Flamsteed's widow removed all the equipment and furniture there, regarding it as her late husband's property.

Halley saw his main task as improving the accuracy of the lunar tables, mathematical tables that charted the position of the moon. However, despite his efforts these measurements were still lacking in accuracy. Although they were eventually published, their limitations soon became obvious.

James Bradley (1742-1762)

Painting of astronomer James Bradley
Object ID: ZBA0722

A priest and astronomer, Bradley made star observations that are the oldest still of use to astronomers today.

He also established 'Bradley’s Meridian', which defined zero degrees longitude in the early editions of the mariner’s bible, the Nautical Almanac, and in the first Ordnance Survey or OS map of Britain in 1801.  

This meridian is still used for most British Ordnance Survey maps today. 

Nathaniel Bliss (1762-1764)

Painting of astronomer Nathaniel Bliss
Object ID: BHC4144

Many of Bliss's observations were to become key in solving the problem of Longitude. 

Nevil Maskelyne (1765-1811)

Portrait of astronomer Nevil Maskelyne
Object ID: ZBA5100

Nevil Maskelyne also played a key role in solving the problem of longitude, through his advocation of lunar tables

John Pond (1811-1835)

John Pond was Astronomer Royal for 25 years, during which he reformed practical astronomy in Britain. 

Sir George Biddell Airy (1835-1881)

Object ID: BHC2507

Airy designed the telescope which determined exactly where the Prime Meridian lies today. 

Find out more about Sir George Biddell Airy

Sir William Henry Mahoney Christie (1881-1910)

Astronomer Sir William Henry Christie
Object ID: PAH5622

Originally chief assistant at the Royal Observatory, Christie was brought in after Airy's death. 

Sir Frank Watson Dyson (1910-1933)

Astronomer Royal Frank Watson Dyson
Object ID: ZBA1818

Dyson is remembered best for introducing the Greenwich time pips which played out after the news, as well as working to prove Einstein's theory of relativity.

Sir Harold Spencer Jones (1933-1955)

Photograph of Harold Spencer-Jones wearing a suit
Object ID: ZBA1819

It was under Spencer Jones that the Observatory was officially moved away from Greenwich.

Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley (1956-1971)

Photograph of Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley
Object ID: ZBA1820

Woolley was a sceptic when it came to space travel, claiming its expense did not match up to what we could learn from it. 

In 1972 Astronomer Royal became an honorary title. The Astronomer Royal still can however advise the monarch on scientific and astronomical matters.

The four Astronomers Royal to hold the title after this change were Sir Martin Ryle (1972-1982), Francis Graham-Smith (1982-1990), Professor Sir Arnold W. Wolfendale (1991-1995) and Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow (1995-present).

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