At his death on 20 March 1727,[1] Isaac Newton left papers relating to all areas of the intellectual pursuits he had followed since arriving at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the summer of 1661.[2] His friend, relative by marriage (to Newton’s half-niece Catherine Barton) and successor at the Mint, John Conduitt, posted a bond for Newton’s debts and claimed entitlement to this material, Newton having died intestate. The appraisers, Comyns and Ward, felt that only the papers later published as Newton’s Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended were fit to be published, and they valued the work at £250.[3] Between 20 and 26 May 1727, Thomas Pellet drew up an inventory listing 81 items of which he considered only five fit to be printed, namely no. 33 (’de Motu Corporum or the liber secundus, in 56 half sheets in folio’);[4] no. 38 (‘31 half sheets in folio being paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius’);[5] no. 61 (‘an imperfect mathematical tract’);[6] no. 80 (‘an abstract of the Chronology being 12 half sheets in folio & the Chronology being 92 half sheets in folio’),[7] and no. 81 (‘40 half sheets in folio being the History of the Prophecies in 10 chapters & part of the 11th unfinished’).[8]

As is evident from a number of manuscripts adorned with Conduitt’s notes and corrections -- for example the manuscript of ‘An historical account of two notable corruptions of Scripture in a Letter to a Friend’ (now New College, Oxford, Ms. 361.4) -- he took a serious scholarly interest in the papers he had acquired, although this was also partly directed towards the possibility of their publication. Given Newton’s unique eminence, as well as his known religiosity, a substantial number of contemporaries (with varying degrees of knowledge of their real content) continued to speculate about the theological views expressed in his manuscript legacy. In 1740 Conduitt’s collection came into the possession of the Portsmouth family following the marriage of Conduitt’s daughter Catherine to John Wallop (Viscount Lymington after 1743). In 1755, a batch of theological and chronological papers was sent to Arthur Ashley Sykes, who compiled a ‘digest’ of them according to a codicil in the will of Catherine Conduitt senior (made in 1737, two years before her death) directing that the executor ’should lay all the Tracts relating to Divinity before Dr Sykes ... in hopes he will prepare them for the press ... all of them I ordain shall be printed and published, so they be done with care and exactness’. Except for the ‘Two notable corruptions’ manuscript, however -- a version of which had appeared in 1754[9] --, Sykes considered that almost none of the papers sent to him was suitable for publication. These papers next passed into the hands of the Reverend Jeffrey Ekins, whose family in turn passed them on to New College, Oxford in 1872.[10]

Aside from the existence of well-founded rumours about his unorthodox theological interests and the aforementioned publications of theological material, a number of Newton’s philosophical, optical and mathematical papers, as well as a large number of his letters, had for some time been circulating among the cognoscenti, though the alchemical material remained almost wholly unknown except to a very few intimates such as John Locke and Fatio de Duillier. In particular, the mathematician William Jones (who had brought out a collection of some of Newton’s mathematical works in 1711) had access to many of Newton’s papers as well as to the transcripts made by John Collins of Newton’s early work.[11] Various people such as Thomas Birch approached Jones for access to these papers which, given the relative difficulty of seeing the Conduitt material, provided the best source for investigating Newton’s private mathematical researches until the Portsmouth Collection (the papers originally acquired by Conduitt) was made available in the 1880s. Similarly, in the light of the various hints dropped in the ‘Queries’ to the successive editions of his Opticks (1704, 1706 (Latin) and 1717), natural philosophers were keen to divine Newton’s private views on the nature of matter, the aether and the cause of gravitation. Siginificant material appeared in Birch’s edition of Bayle’s Dictionary in the late 1730s, in his first edition of the Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle in 1744, in his History of the Royal Society in 1757, and in Four Letters from Sir Isaac Newton to Doctor Bentley containing some arguments in proof of a Deity (London, 1756), which for the first time printed the now famous correspondence of the early 1690s concerning gravitation and natural theology.

In response to this fascination with things Newtonian, Bishop Samuel Horsley edited a supposedly ‘Complete Works’ (1779-85) which, for well over a century, conveyed the most influential impression of Newton’s astonishingly broad intellectual achievements.[12] In preparation for this, Horsley and William Mann Godschall compiled a manuscript catalogue of Newton’s papers at Hurstbourne Park (the home of the Portsmouth family and the location of their collection) in 1777, marking certain items with a star, presumably to indicate their fitness for publication.[13] Despite Horsley’s claims of comprehensiveness in his edition (‘All the works of Isaac Newton which exist’), by modern standards the production was extremely conservative and concentrated largely on republishing material which was already in the public domain. In particular, he shied away from publishing any evidence of Newton’s alchemical interests and he unsurprisingly suppressed the texts (such as the ‘third letter’ to Locke which supplemented the ‘Two notable corruptions’) which betrayed the heretical nature of many of Newton’s religious beliefs. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat wishful thinking of the title, the work largely satisfied the demands of his readership and prompted Edward Gibbon, for instance, to seek out various manuscripts relating to early Church history in preparation for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

For nearly a hundred years after Horsley’s visit, only a very few scholars went to Hurstbourne to investigate the papers there, though scholars such as Joseph Edleston made superb use of other archives -- primarily those of the Royal Society and the University and Trinity College libraries at Cambridge.[14] In the nineteenth century, J.H. Monk, Francis Baily and David Brewster had access to the Hurstbourne collection after Henry Fellowes, nephew of the Third Earl of Portsmouth, gave them permission to consult the archive for the preparation of their respective editions of the lives and works of Richard Bentley, John Flamsteed and Newton. Notoriously, Brewster’s biography of Newton glossed over the ubiquitous evidence of his alchemical interests and perversely claimed that Newton’s theological views were not unorthodox.[15] Along with the then equally unpalatable evidence that Newton had suffered what would now be called a nervous breakdown in 1693, which forced Brewster into further biographical contortions, his view of the heroic Newton was threatened both by Baily’s eulogium of Flamsteed (the Astronomer Royal, Newton’s treatment of whom was less than edifying) and by the potent barbs aimed at Brewster by Augustus de Morgan.[16] As Newton’s character and private life began to be discussed in unprecedented detail, individuals such as William Whewell at Trinity College became deeply concerned at this dismantling and indeed demolition of their hero’s personal moral reputation. If Newton himself could no longer be held up as the unblemished knight of Enlightenment myth, however, his intellect and scientific legacy were still generally seen (and indeed still are) as virtually unassailable.

Continue reading about the donation of Newton’s scientific papers to Cambridge University in 1872

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

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