England and Ireland
Stalbridge, Oxford and London
Robert returned to England in 1644 and remained in London for some time where he viewed the funeral of the Earl of Essex and provides a revealing comment on the event,
“But I have usually observed, that in these great funeral solemnities, the pageantry of sorrow has eaten up the reality…” and the cost “whilst it wastes that upon a senseless carcass, that is to it as useless as it is needless; whereas it were much better for them to procure the prayers of the living than their admiration.” (14)
It took him some four months to make his way to Stalbridge House which had been left to him in his father’s will. Stalbridge is a small town and parish in Dorset and Stalbridge House was built in 1618 by Mervyn Tuchet in the “Jacobean style.” It was sold by Tuchet’s son James to Richard Boyle and Robert lived there from 1644 to 1655. The house was by 1822 in a state of great disrepair and was demolished in 1827.
Once settled in England he paid a short visit to the Continent, possibly to repay Marcombes for his support. His time at Stalbridge was interspersed with several trips to Ireland but in 1655 he decided to move to Oxford in order to pursue his scientific research. At that time Oxford was the centre of extraordinary intellectual development and boasted as residents such luminaries as Sir William Petty [1623-1687] and Sir Christopher Wren. In 1668 Boyle left Oxford for London where he resided with his sister Katherine in Pall Mall for most of the remainder of his life. Speaking of her, Thomas Birch said “she made the greatest figure in all the revolutions of these kingdoms for above fifty years of any woman of that age.” (15) Among her friends was John Milton whom she supported “by sending him her own son, Dick Jones, as a pupil, but also her nephew, young Lord Barrymore.”
His position at the centre of English society at this time is manifested by Swift’s parody on Boyle’s “Occasional Reflections upon several subjects” in his “Pious Meditations on a Broom-Staff in the Style of the Hon. Mr. Boyle.” It has also been suggested that Swift got the idea of Gulliver’s Travels from Boyle’s “Occasional Reflections” wherein he commented that “he had thoughts of making a short romantick story, where the scene should be laid in some island of the Southern ocean, governed by some such rational laws and customs as those of Utopia or the New Atlantis…” (16)
While Boyle was not in London during the Plague he was present during the Great Fire.
(14) Boyle, Robert. The works Vol. I. pg. xxxii
(15) Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 22 – quoting Burnet
(16) Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 19
Following his return to England in 1644 Boyle made several visits to Ireland before moving to Oxford late in 1654. Richard Boyle had bequeathed him substantial properties in Limerick and the West of Ireland but the condition of these following the Cromwellian Wars was deplorable. Boyle was in no doubt as to the cause and instigators of the rebellion, “the clergy, the main firebrand of this rebellion, expected no less than to be reinstated into their ancient possessions…” (17) Even in 1647 he tells us that from his “Irish estate out of which (he) never yet received the worth of a farthing.”(18) In 1652 he travelled to Ireland, where he remained for over a year meeting his relations and settling his financial affairs. After a short visit to Stalbridge he returned to Ireland and remained there until the middle of 1654.
He described Ireland at that time as “a barbarous country, where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it was hard to make any hermetic thoughts in it.”(19) It is surely no accident that the central core of his criticism was his inability to progress his work while at home. His appreciation of the potential of mining was extremely positive and he “was assured by experienced men that no country in Europe was so rich in mines as Ireland, had but the inhabitants the industry to seek them, and the skill to know them.” (20)
In Ireland he met William Petty who had been a key member of the Oxford Circle and introduced Boyle to aspects of anatomy and blood circulation. Petty had studied anatomy at Oxford and later became, like Boyle, a “charter” member of the Royal Society. Interestingly, Petty had been private secretary to Thomas Hobbes and shared many of his scientific views.
From “a grant of some of the forfeited impropriations in Ireland” Boyle set up a fund for Christian advancement and out of this fund some £700 was contributed for the printing of an Irish version of the Bible. He also contributed towards a Welsh Bible and a New Testament in Turkish.
(17) Boyle, Robert. The works Vol. I. pg. xxxi-xxxii
(18) Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 15
(19) Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 16
(20) Boyle, Robert. The works Vol. I. pg. LIV