Views of a Solar Eclipse

A letter from Canon Henry Cockayne Cust (Canon of Windsor, 1813-1861) to the then Chapter Clerk, Thomas Batcheldor, describes how he viewed the total eclipse of the sun on the 18 July 1860:

“I am glad you had a good view of the eclipse, my family saw it well, and I took a secondhand view of it in a pail of water” [SGC I.E.4/119]

Please do not try this at home!

It seems they may have been lucky to have had a good view of the eclipse. In the same letter, Canon Cust writes of recent terrible weather – perhaps typical of England in the summertime and whenever there is an impending celestial display.

Solar eclipses are usually a great cause of excitement because of their rarity. Some other perspectives on eclipses through the ages can be found in the Chapter Library’s collection of printed sermons.

Fulk Bellers, a Preacher of Gospel in London, gave a sermon just prior to the total solar eclipse in 1652 in which he reassures that firmament [sky] eclipses were not to be feared as “Jesus Christ may still go on to shine into our souls” [SGC RBK B.140]. Bellers included the story of the trick pulled by Christopher Columbus on the indigenous people of America during a lunar eclipse in 1504. Knowing an eclipse was about to take place, Columbus told the people that the gods would be angry if they did not provide him and his men with provisions. When the eclipse occurred, the frightened people rushed to give Columbus and his men anything they wanted.

A sermon ‘Occasion’d by the Total Eclipse of the Sun, Upon April the 22nd, 1715’ by Joseph Burroughs provides another insight into the continuing fears surrounding an eclipse [SGC RBK B.549]. Burroughs describes that an eclipse fills many people with amazement and thoughts of the Power and Wonder of God, but many more have been maliciously persuaded in superstitious fears of “great miseries and calamities”. Burroughs, like Beller, uses his sermon to reassure (or admonish!) people on the occasion of an eclipse with the message: heed not to the ways of the heathen!

According to the printed second edition of Burrough’s sermon, the eclipse in 1715 took place “about a Quarter Past Nine in the morning, the Body of the Sun was wholly hid from us by the Moon for some minutes at which time three of the Planets – Jupiter, Venus and Mercury…appear’d. There was Darkness in part for near an Hour before and as much after it was Total”.

Hopefully, the skies will be clear for the total eclipse of the sun occurring in the morning on Friday 20 March 2015. Enjoy the spectacle – safely!

Gemma Martin
Archives Trainee

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.