Sir Isaac Newton


Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe in the parish of Colsterworth, Lincolnshire on Christmas Day 1642, only son of Isaac, a farmer, and his wife Hannah (Ayscough). His father died before his birth and his mother married again and had three more children. He was educated in Grantham and at Trinity College Cambridge and became a Fellow of Trinity in 1667 and was Lucasian Professor from 1669 to 1702. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1672, Newton served as its President from 1705 to 1727. He became Master of the Mint in 1699 and was knighted in April 1705.

Newton is most commonly known for his conception of the law of universal gravitation, but his other discoveries and inventions in mathematics (e.g. the binomial theorem, differential and integral calculus), optics, mechanics, and astronomy place him at the very forefront of all scientists. His study and understanding of light, the invention of the reflecting telescope (1668), and his revelation in his Principia of the mathematical ordering of the universe are all represented on his monument in Westminster Abbey.

Newton died unmarried at Kensington on 20 March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 28 March. Before the funeral his body lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber (a room in the Deanery) and his coffin was followed to its grave by most of the Fellows of the Royal Society. The Lord Chancellor, the Dukes of Montrose and Roxburgh and the Earls of Pembroke, Sussex and Macclesfield were pall bearers. The Hon.Sir Michael Newton was chief mourner (London Journal 8 April 1727)

Newton's grave is in front of the choir screen, close to his monument. The Latin inscription on it reads:

Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni.

This may be translated as:

'Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton'.

Newton's Monument

Newton's monument stands in the nave against the choir screen, to the north of the entrance to the choir. It was executed by the sculptor Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770) to the designs of the architect William Kent (1685-1748) and dates from 1731.

The monument is of white and grey marble. Its base bears a Latin inscription (see below) and supports a sarcophagus with large scroll feet and a relief panel. The latter depicts boys using instruments related to Newton's mathematical and optical work (including the telescope and prism) and his activity as Master of the Mint. Above the sarcophagus is a reclining figure of Newton, in classical costume, his right elbow resting on several books representing his great works. They are labelled 'Divinity', 'Chronology', 'Opticks' [1704] and 'Philo. Prin. Math' [Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1686-7)]. With his left hand he points to a scroll with a mathematical design shown on it (the 'converging series'), held by two standing winged boys. The painting on this scroll had been erased or cleaned off in the early 19th century and was re-painted in 1977 from details in Newton's manuscripts. The background is a pyramid on which is a celestial globe with the signs of the Zodiac, of the constellations, and with the path of the comet of 1680. On top of the globe sits a figure of Astronomy leaning upon a book.

The monument originally stood out against the flat front of the choir screen, but was enclosed within the present decorative arch when Edward Blore re-modelled the screen in 1834.


The inscription reads:

"H. S. E. ISAACUS NEWTON Eques Auratus, / Qui, animi vi prope divinâ, / Planetarum Motus, Figuras, / Cometarum semitas, Oceanique Aestus. Suâ Mathesi facem praeferente / Primus demonstravit: / Radiorum Lucis dissimilitudines, / Colorumque inde nascentium proprietates, / Quas nemo antea vel suspicatus erat, pervestigavit. / Naturae, Antiquitatis, S. Scripturae, / Sedulus, sagax, fidus Interpres / Dei O. M. Majestatem Philosophiâ asseruit, / Evangelij Simplicitatem Moribus expressit. / Sibi gratulentur Mortales, / Tale tantumque exstitisse / HUMANI GENERIS DECUS. / NAT. XXV DEC. A.D. MDCXLII. OBIIT. XX. MAR. MDCCXXVI"

This can be translated as follows:

"Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25th December 1642, and died on 20th March 1726".

The date of death is given in contemporary Old Style dating, which in present dating is 1727.

The poet Alexander Pope had written an epitaph for Newton but this was not allowed to be put on the monument in the Abbey "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light".

Newton's niece Catherine Barton married John Conduitt, whose monument is at the opposite end of the nave to Isaac's. Conduitt commissioned the Newton monument.

Photographs of the monument can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.

Further reading:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004


His birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor, is open to the public www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Conduitt's sketch for the guidance of the monument designer is in the Keynes Library at King's College, Cambridge.

Kent's original drawing and Rysbrack's terracotta model are in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Rysbrack's sculptors drawing is in the British Museum collection.

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