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                                             Portrait of Charles I                                          


Not all the seventeenth century heroes were on the battle field. Many were, but those who took on the establishment with their intellect and imagination deserve to be remembered. The people I feature here are all challengers of the received wisdom of the time; an attribute I would be proud to share.

  • Galileo
  • William Harvey
  • Sir Hugh Middleton
  • William Davenant
  • Pope Urban VIII
  • Cardinal Richelieu
  • Joseph Mede

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Born in Pisa in 1564, where he attended University, Galileo accepted a position in the faculty of mathematics for financial reasons, before finishing his degree. He soon moved on the Padua where he taught geometry, mechanics and astronomy. He remained there until 1610 and made many landmark discoveries by exploratory science.

In 1612, when in Rome during the summer months, Galileo made a series of sunspot observations which were published in Istoria e Dimo strazioni Itorno Alle macchie Solari e Lor Accidene (History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their properties, published 1613). They were observed to change in a cyclical way and gave an empirical focus on Capernican theory. Galileo’s support for this theory that placed the sun at the centre of a ‘Solar System’ which the earth, thought to be the centre of the Universe by biblical teachings, led to close scrutiny of his work by the Church of Rome.

Threatened with torture and the subject of an inquisition, Galileo abandoned his theories and was forced into retirement in his villa in Arcentri. Though his voice had been suppressed, the evidence lay there for all to see. In the diary of Margaret Cavendish, during the Earl’s (her husband the Earl of Newcastle) exile in France after Marston Moor, she talks of the latest telescopes and their observations. Galileo had constructed the first three-powered spyglass in 1609 and had turned his twenty-powered instrument to the heavens for all to see for themselves. Then, as it is now, people believed their own eyes and proof that the established Church could be empirically challenged, was there for many to see.

His discoveries and beliefs were many, but his work into the laws of motion were an essential beginning to Sir Isaac Newton's later works. His open air thermometer, discovery that different weights fall with equal velocity and that the path of projectiles form a parabola, attest further to his genius.

In 1638, almost totally blind, he published his final book ‘Two New Sciences’ and died in January 8, 1642: the year of Edgehill, the first major battle of the English Civil War.


A Royalist, Harvey was present at Edgehill and subsequently accompanied the King to Oxford. He was educated at Cambridge and at the University of Padua Where Galileo lectured. He married the daughter of the court physician to Elizabeth the first on his return to England and became a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London (1609–43) and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. During his career, he was court physician to both James and Charles the first.

Though others had previously alluded to a circulatory system, Harvey provided sound scientific evidence. In 1616 and in 1628 he published his work Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals). He dispelled the notion that food was converted in to blood in the Liver and then consumed throughout the body, and argued that blood was pumped around the body by the heart before returning again, and being recirculated in a closed system. The accepted theory, going back to Galen, identified dark (deoxygenated blood) and bright red (Oxygenated blood) as intrinsically different, and by bleeding off the dark (bad) blood, many ails were thought to be cured or prevented. Venous blood (dark) was thought to originate in the liver and arterial blood (bright red) in the heart. Blood was thought to have been consumed by parts of the body.

He was unable to see how the blood transferred from artery to vein, but his theories, led to further research. He also dissected dozens of the King’s deer, in his hunting park, in the vain attempt to find a mammalian egg.  His work led to the eventual distinguishing of the capillaries and encouraged others to investigate the questions raised by his research on both  circulation and embryology.

Though he lost many patients for his controversial work, he paved the way for modern research on heart and blood vessels, and Charles I clearly respected his intelligence because he himself was one of Harvey's patients. When he died in 1657, Harvey's medical and scientific genius were celebrated throughout the European medical community.


Sir Hugh Middleton became known as the Welshman who quenched the thirsts of thousands of Londoners. A goldsmith, clothmaker, banker and entrepreneur, mine-owner and self-taught engineer, he was the sixth son the governor of Denbigh Castle. His father Sir Richard Middleton was also the MP for Denbigh in north Wales.

Sir Hugh left Wales for an apprenticeship to a goldsmith in London. He was so successful that he was appointed James the first’s Royal jeweller. In 1603 he succeeded his father as the MP for Denbigh and became a very wealthy merchant and clothmaker; finally standing down as the MP for Denbigh in 1628.

In 1613 he supplied the city of London with an additional fresh water supply from Hertfordshire, brought from a distance of thirty-nine miles. Deep channels had to be cut through rocks, and eight hundred bridges erected before it reached the New River Cistern at Clerkenwell. Despite tremendous obstacles and only six hundred workers, the scheme was completed in the incredibly short period of four-and-a-half years.

Besides demonstrating his extraordinary scientific skill on the project, Sir Hugh spent practically the whole of his great wealth in his effort to supply London with water. Even though the lead and silver mines which he worked in Cardiganshire yielded him a clear profit of £2,000 a month, he would have become bankrupt had not King James I assisted him. Shares rose at one point from £100 to £241,200 each. Though he was knighted and created baronet in 1622 for his achievements by King James, he died in 1631 before the concern began to pay any dividend.


Godson of William Shakespeare, Davenant was born to the Mayor of Oxford in 1606. He attended Oxford around the 1620s but left without a degree. By 1638 named poet Laureate of England after the death of Ben Johnson the year before.

Manager of a new theatre in Drury Lane following his success with Madagascar and other Poems in 1638, the Civil War checked Davenant's prosperous career. He was among the most active supporters of the Royalist cause. The Long Parliament of 1642 had accused him of attempting to seduce the army to overthrow the Commons. Imprisoned for two months in London, he escaped to France where he made his way to the Queen. He remained based in France and was later appointed Emissary there in 1645. He voluntarily carried military stores, from France for the army of his old friend the Earl of Newcastle, and was persuaded by the Earl to take the post of Lieutenant General of Ordnance. So brave and skilful was he, that after the siege of Gloucester in 1643 he was knighted by the King.

After Naseby he became a Roman Catholic in Paris, and wrote his epic poem of Gondibert. In 1646 he was sent by the Queen to advise the King to "part with the church for his peace and security." The King dismissed him sharply so he returned to Paris. Despite this rebuke from Charles, Charles II made Davenant treasurer of the colony of Virginia in 1649. The following year he was made Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, but was captured at sea, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. He spent all of 1651 in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned at the time Gondibert was written. He was later released, perhaps by the personal intercession of Milton.

In 1643 he wrote the play The Unfortunate Lovers, but his best play, Love and Honour, was published in 1649, and was absolutely forbidden by Puritan law. Davenant obtained permission to open a sort of theatre in a room in his home; Rutland House in Charterhouse Yard, where in May 1656 he began a series of representations which he called operas, as an inoffensive term. This word was then first introduced into the English language. He was able to argue, that unlike the ‘lewd’ and ‘effeminate’ pre-war stage, operas could be used to teach the people obedience to the Puritan regime and that they would promote nationalism. A performance of his The Siege of Rhodes at Rutland House in 1656 is considered to be the first performance of an English opera, and also included England's first known professional actress, Mrs. Coleman.

Davenant was associated with Sir George Booth’s disastrouse uprising of 1659, in support of the resotoration. By this time the protectorate had full inteligence of Royalist sympathisers and were able to isolate the insurgents and undermine the plot. He was imprisoned and released in the same year and fled to France. He returned to London upon restoration and died there in 1668, shortly after the performance of his final play ‘The Man’s the Master’. He is buried in the Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.



Born to an important Florentine family in 1623, the pontificate of Urban extended over one of the most critical periods in history: the Thirty Years War. It is believed that he intended to humiliate the two Houses of Hapsburg (Austria and Spain), whose great power was a constant menace to Italy and Rome; hence he favoured France and did not subsidise Emperor Ferdinand II in his war against Gustavus Adolphus and the Protestants. He refused to join the alliance which France had made with Venice and Savoy against Spain in 1624. He also refused to enter the league which France had concluded with Venice and Savoy at the beginning of the war of the Mantuan succession in 1629. Nevertheless, he sent (1632-34) two million francs to Catholic troops in Germany. 

As common father of all Catholics Urban was unable to join the League of the Catholic Estates because it was directed not only against Gustavus Adolphus, but also against France. He urged Louis XIII and Richelieu to stop subsidising the King of Sweden, but refused to excommunicate them, as he feared a repetition of what had happened in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth

In 1642 he reduced the number of holy days of obligation to thirty-four, besides Sundays, and during his pontificate occurred the second trial and condemnation of Galileo by the Inquisition. Urban was a great patron of Catholic foreign missions, giving both his word and money. He extended the sphere of activity for the Congregation of Propaganda, and founded a college for training foreign missionaries. He strictly prohibited slavery of any kind among the Indians of Paraguay, Brazil, and the entire West Indies.

In his efforts to restore Catholicism in England Urban had little success. In 1624 he sent Richard Smith as Vicar Apostolic who insisted on exercising full episcopal authority in England and Scotland. This brought him into public conflict with the Jesuits and other missionaries. The Government issued new hostile measures against the Catholics, and in 1631 Smith fled the country. Three years later Urban sent Gregorio Panzani who gained greater liberty for the Catholics and was succeeded in 1638 by George Conn, an Englishman. Forced to return to Rome in 1639, through ill health, he was replaced by Rossetti. Repeated requests made through him to the Pope for financial aid for the impending English Civil War were refused by Urban except on condition of the King's conversion. The ensuing war put an end to all negotiations.

He fortified Castelfranco, greatly strengthened the castle of Sant'Angelo in Rome and fortified the harbour of Civitavecchia. He created an arsenal in the Vatican itself, an arms factory in Tivoli, and to make cannon and Vatican decoration, he pillaged massive tubular girders of bronze from the portico of the Pantheon. Urban was the last Pope to increase the lands owned by the papacy before he died in 1644.



Armand du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, was the greatest French statesman of the seventeenth century and his death during the Civil War must have created uncertainty about political allegiances: after all, the Queen of the British Isles was the Roman Catholic daughter of the French King.

In Richelieu's hands the power of the crown extended as he crushed the Huguenots and overthrew the power of the privileged and great vassals of France. Proud arrogant and vindictive, he became secretary of state for war and foreign affairs in 1616 and in 1624 he was made a member of the Council of State. How he managed to support the protestant forces in Europe against the Spanish and Austrians, without incurring the wrath of the Pope, is a testimony to his greatness.


An English man, Joseph Mede was a theological scholar who interpreted the Book of Revelation in a unique way. He challenged the notion that events had already occurred and reasoned that the Apocalypse would occur in 1660. Though he was not a politically motivated person, his work written in latin, Clavis Apocalyptica (Key of the Revelation), published in 1627, was translated into English in 1643 and was widely used in pulpits of the Anglican Church.

He identified "the Sea in the Antichristian world" as "the whole compasse of the Papall Society". He regarded Elizabeth I and Luther as human agents in a divine scheme and he looked to the Church of England for the re-emergence of the true, hidden church. So encyclopedic was his knowledge that his interpretation was taken as evidential and he gave England reason to believe it was building a new Jerusalem at the time.

These great men challenged established theories outrageously. Imagine now someone proving the world is really flat and they have pictures of ships falling off the end, and that the Bermuda triangle was never really an enigma, but an end of the world! A cave is found where we can pass through time and tours of the cave are conducted for all to see a real living dinasaur. Let your imagination run wild, these people did, and proved it to be true. These are radical thinkers who proved the earth is not the centre of the Universe: that the heart does not think and feel: that Opera is morally justified under Puritan law: that slavery is illegal. All this happened in the great seventeenth century.

 
More names will be added to this page as time goes by.