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St Margaret's Church, Lee

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Why was Edmond Halley buried at St Margaret’s ?      ​

The Tomb of Edmond Halley

Why was Edmond Halley buried at St Margarets ?           

Stuart Malin

Why was Edmond Halley, the second Astronomer Royal, buried in St Margaret’s churchyard? St Alfege’s in Greenwich might have been a more obvious choice, being nearer to the Royal Observatory, which was Halley’s home. It was simply that he asked in his will to be buried next to his wife, Mary, who had died six years earlier. We can only speculate on Mary’s reasons for favouring St Margaret’s.

The tomb is inscribed (in Latin): Beneath this marble peacefully rests, with his beloved wife, Edmond Halley, LL.D. easily the prince of astronomers of his age.  Reader, to know his true greatness read his many writings, wherein he illustrated, improved and enlarged on almost all the arts and sciences.  It is just, therefore, that as in life he was highly honoured by his fellow citizens, so his memory should be highly respected by posterity.  Born 1656, died 1741/2.  His two daughters most dutifully consecrated this stone to the best of parents, 1742. Both daughters, a son-in-law and the sixth Astronomer Royal share Halley’s tomb. His son, Edmond, was a naval surgeon who died, and was buried, at sea.

Halley’s views on religion are not entirely clear. Unusually for the time, he graduated from Oxford without taking Holy Orders, but that was because he had “dropped out” to go to St Helena to map the southern stars. He was awarded his MA by order of King Charles II, in whose honour Halley had named a southern constellation Charles Oak. On a subsequent sea-voyage, this time as Captain of the Paramour (the only time a civilian has ever captained a naval ship), he praised God after surviving encounters with icebergs in an Antarctic fog. His investigation into the salinity of the ocean led him to conclude that the Earth was very much older than the few thousand years then believed from Biblical calculations. He withheld this result for many years to avoid offending the “establishment” and thus damaging his career prospects. It is possible that the delay in electing Halley to a chair in Oxford was due to his unorthodox views.

Halley might have been more at home in the wrongly-spelled Edmund Halley pub at Lee Green than in church, since, according to John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, he “swears and drinks brandy like a sea captain.” But why not, since, among his many other achievements, that was exactly what he had been?