NEWTON, Isaac (1642-1727), of Woolsthorpe, Colsterworth, Lincs.; Trinity College, Cambridge; and Jermyn Street, Westminster
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 25 Dec. 1642, o. (posth.) s. of Isaac Newton of Woolsthorpe by Hannah, da. of James Ayscough of Market Overton, Rutland. educ. Grantham g.s. 1654–6, 1660–1; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1661, BA 1665, fellow 1667–d., MA 1668. unm. suc. fa. at birth. Kntd. 16 Apr. 1705.1
Lucasian prof. of mathematics, Camb. Univ. 1669–1701.
FRS 1672, pres. 1703–d.; member, French acad. of science 1699.2
Warden of the Mint 1696–Jan. 1700, master Jan. 1700–d.; commr. building 50 new churches 1712–d., finishing St. Paul’s cathedral 1715–21; chief manager of tin, Tower of London 1718; comptroller of copper coinage for Ire. 1722.3
Politics intruded as little into Newton’s scientific, academic and professional preoccupations as the brevity of his Commons membership would suggest. His Whiggism, an expression of the violent anti-Catholic prejudice that accompanied his radical brand of Protestantism, was not broadened by reflection. Nor did he possess the gregariousness essential to a successful parliamentarian: ‘he was full of thought, and spoke very little in company, [so] that his conversation was not agreeable.’ Moreover, he spoke his mind. Nevertheless, there were still occasions on which he could be useful to his party, when his intellectual powers were placed at the service of Whig governments and, more exceptionally, when he agreed to put his reputation within his own university to the service of the Whig interest by standing himself as a parliamentary candidate. He had been willing, for example, to be returned for his university to the Convention, but in 1690, his duty done and the constitutional crisis passed, he did not seek re-election. At the poll he voted, as many others did, for the Tory Sir Robert Sawyer*, in protest against the injustice committed against Sawyer in his expulsion from the Commons the year before, but cast his other vote for the Whig John Bennet. Though he had retired from Parliament, he clearly expected to be rewarded with preferment, looking in particular for a recommendation from his former pupil Charles Montagu*, but the prospect held out to him in 1690 of the mastership of Charterhouse did not appeal: it was not worth the ‘confinement to the London air, and to such a way of living as I am not in love with’. Besides Montagu, he had hopes of assistance from old friends like John Hampden† and John Locke, and through Locke had made contact with the Earl of Monmouth, upon whom he placed all his hopes when by 1692 Montagu seemed to have failed him. What he took to be wilful neglect by the ‘great men’ of his party angered him deeply: Montagu, he declared, ‘upon an old grudge, which I thought had been worn out, is false to me’. At this point Montagu’s influence was probably still inadequate to the provision of some suitable employment for a client, but even after the balance of the ministry had shifted towards the Whigs nothing was done for Newton until his particular mathematical and scientific expertise was needed. In the winter of 1695–6, as Montagu and his Treasury colleagues faced a looming crisis over the coinage, Newton was one of those who tendered advice, and it would appear that in return he was promised the mastership of the Mint, an office he had coveted earlier. What he received, in March 1696, was the wardenship. Montagu wrote encouragingly that this was ‘the most proper for you, ’tis the chief officer in the Mint; ’tis worth £500 or £600 p.a. and has not too much business to require attendance than you may spare’. In fact, Newton seems to have given the work of the office his full attention, and to have carried out a thorough reform of the Mint in the process of supervising the details of the recoinage, during the course of which he gave evidence, in April 1697, to the Commons’ committee to inquire into abuses there.4
His appointment as warden of the Mint cemented Newton’s party-political loyalties, which had been wavering in 1695, when he plumped for the Country Whig Henry Boyle* in the university election. At the next election, he cast two Whig votes. It also restored his personal relationship with Montagu, with whom he became even more closely associated after 1698, when, with the death of Montagu’s wife, Newton’s niece Catherine Barton moved in as Montagu’s housekeeper and almost certainly as his mistress. Newton’s promotion in 1700 to the mastership of the Mint, a post worth twice his salary as warden, was one of Montagu’s last acts of patronage as the Junto administration crumbled. Earlier Newton had also been considered as a possible tutor to the Duke of Gloucester, and in 1700 Archbishop Tenison tried to persuade him to obtain ordination and to accept the mastership of his college. This he refused, but he did let his name go forward for the university at the second general election of 1701, in order to keep out the High Tory ‘Poussineer’ Anthony Hammond*. Such was Newton’s standing, and Hammond’s unpopularity, that he was chosen by a majority of nearly 120 votes. Lord Spencer (Charles*) naturally calculated his victory as an electoral ‘gain’ for the Whig party, and he was also classed with the Whigs in Robert Harley’s* list. However, aside from bringing in and managing the bill to continue the Act to prevent counterfeiting the coinage, in which he had an obvious official interest, Newton does not appear to have been a particularly active Member, and declined the opportunity of re-election in 1702, informing the vice-chancellor and friends that he was too ‘ill’ to canvass votes personally and thus did not think it possible that he could be returned: ‘to solicit, and miss for want of doing it sufficiently, would be a reflection on me’, he wrote. He preferred to ‘sit still’ and give ‘other gentlemen . . . their turn’. Indeed, he did not even attend the poll.5
Newton’s last tilt at a parliamentary election occurred in 1705, when, again reluctantly, he fell in with the desires of leading Whigs in the ministry, notably Charles Montagu, and partnered Hon. Francis Godolphin*, son of Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†), against the Tacker Hon. Arthur Annesley*. Despite being knighted by the Queen during her visit to Cambridge a month before the election, in a move calculated to boost his status still further, it was clear long before the poll that his chances of success were poor. In the highly charged atmosphere that year, Tories could not be shifted from their party loyalty, even though ‘the glory of our university and nation’, as one High Church writer called Newton, ‘should be . . . sent down to tempt us from our duty, by the great and just veneration we have for him’. Moreover, Newton’s association with the new master of Trinity, the abrasive Dr Richard Bentley, weakened his popularity in his own college. The Tories shrewdly put up against him another Trinity man, Hon. Dixie Windsor*, and Newton could not even carry the majority of Trinity’s voters. Before the poll he and Godolphin were abused by undergraduates as ‘fanatics’ and ‘occasional conformists’, to the disgust of some senior members of the university, and Newton, who withdrew before the end in order to help Godolphin’s chances, suffered the indignity of trailing in last. He did not stand again.6
After long service at the Mint and as president of the Royal Society, Newton died on 20 Mar. 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, lamented by observers of all political persuasions as ‘the greatest man’ of his generation. There was no will. The paternal estates of Woolsthorpe passed to his uncle’s great-grandson, John Newton, while his large personalty, in total some £32,000 (including £24,000 in Bank and South Sea stock), was divided between the children of his stepbrother and stepsisters, one of whom was Catherine Barton, now the wife of John Conduitt†, Newton’s successor as master of the Mint.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. HMC 8th Rep. I, 392; Misc. Gen. et Her. n.s. i. 169–73.
- 2. Newton Corresp. iv. 311.
- 3. Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1358; xv. 248–9, 314; xxix. 207; xxxii. 213; Newton Corresp. iv. 320–1; vi. 407; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1720–8, p. 190.
- 4. Hearne Colls. vi. 132; ix. 293–4; Newton Corresp. iii. 83, 185, 192, 281–3, 390; iv. 189–90, 195; HMC 10th Rep. VI, 256; Camb. Univ. Lib. univ. archs. OIII/9/1, 3; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 229; 1695, p. 71; Brewster, Mems. of Newton, ii. 117; Burnet, iv. 289; Shrewsbury Corresp. 400; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 163, 188; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, p. 519; CJ, xi. 775–7.