Frances Rolleston: British Lady, Scholar and Writer of Mazzaroth
A group of young scholars stood in the British Museum, absorbed by a newly arrived object. The Rosetta Stone promised to be the key to the here-to-fore unreadable Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stele had been discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and surrendered to the British upon his defeat in 1801.
One of that group of scholars was Frances Rolleston. She would learn to read hieroglyphs fifty years later, but now as a student of astronomy she was asking herself this question: If God created the heavens for his own glory, as the Scriptures say, why is the celestial planisphere covered with pagan images of heroes, gods and goddesses?
The discussion at the Rosetta Stone that day began for Frances, who claimed a love for astronomy almost since infancy, a search for the original star names and constellation figures. Finding that the science of astronomy never existed apart from the constellations, she felt that her search might turn up their original purpose. Already a linguist—a gift found elsewhere in the Rolleston family—Frances traced those names and meanings back to their earliest use. Developing a theory, supporting it with ten years of research at the British Museum, and preparing for publication turned into a fifty-year endeavor.
One has to ask, what kind of person would put that much time and effort into one book?
What kind, indeed! One motivated by her love of both astronomy and the Bible, who kept current on discoveries and theories in both science and religion, and who spoke out her convictions in newspapers and journals. “Newspapers educate the people, and sway public opinion, therefore I am indefatigable just now in sending ‘articles’ right and left, comforting myself for people not reading my book with finding they do read my paragraphs.”
But there is much more to this woman than is guessed by those who know Frances Rolleston only as the writer of Mazzaroth: The Constellations.
In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, polarization in religion, politics and morals dramatically increased. Theories within the new science of geology (and later, astronomy) challenged the traditional understanding of Genesis. Since up to that time many scientists were also clergymen, division marked the educated classes—those in the church, particularly. John Wesley’s Methodism brought moral improvement to the lower classes, while upper class morals degenerated. There was foment for more rights for the lower classes and demand for freedom for women. Sometimes one led to violence, and the upper classes (who controlled the government) pushed back. Sometimes the demand for women’s rights led to the flagrant practice of free love, which assaulted traditional values.
Into the fray stepped a small group of upper class Anglicans who sought to improve society through social and political means. They wanted to abolish slavery, help people get out of debt, raise the moral consciousness of the upper classes and educate the poor. They were sniffed at in Parliament as “the Saints.” Many of them lived in or near Clapham, a community southwest of London. Its main leaders, John Thornton and William Wilberforce, were relatives of Frances Rolleston on her mother’s side, haling from Yorkshire. Frances aligned herself with the group—for anti-slavery and education of the poor—sharing in both its adulation and ridicule.
Entering her forties, Frances pioneered infant schools in England. She began this work near London, ten years later relocated to continue that work among her father’s people in Nottinghamshire, and her mother’s people in Yorkshire. This work entailed locating building sites, finding people to underwrite the costs, preparing curricula and training teachers. It required diplomacy as well as time, for she worked with people from differing religious denominations and political persuasions. She also promoted infant schools in Sierra Leone and among Native Americans and negroes.
At age 67 Frances ended her work with infant schools and relocated to Keswick where she gave herself in earnest to organizing and printing her notes for Mazzaroth. She also spent long hours exploring the Lakes District, serving as an unofficial guide to tourists and painting “effects.” Her writing included numerous tracts, fables, ballads, sonnets, letters to newspapers and journals, and at least four books. Mingled with these pursuits, she nursed the sick and collected for those suffering famine.
Although Rollestons were gentry and Frances rubbed shoulders with men of science and letters, her life was not devoid of trouble. She experienced threat of financial ruin, sickness and loneliness. She triumphed through prayer and perseverance. She continued writing and painting until confined to bed three days before passing peacefully from this life.
Two fountains stand at the extremes of Frances’ life. At the beginning is Aldgate Pump, not far from St. Katherine Coleman Church in the old city of London where she was christened in 1781. The fountain had long been an important water source, known as far back as the days of King John. This fountain represents, for me, Frances’ immersion in the history of England and appreciation for her place in it.
Marking the end of Frances’ life is a fountain in Keswick, Cumbria. The inscription on its stone arch reads IN MEMORY OF FRANCES ROLLESTON. WHOSOEVER/DRINKETH OF THE/WATER THAT I SHALL/GIVE HIM SHALL/NEVER THIRST./JOHN IV:14
The metal plaque on the fountain reads: “Frances Rolleston a scholar/Who helped the People of Keswick.” Frances’ contemporaries celebrated her for her kindness, and so this fountain represents the impact of her life on her world.
Frances’ book Mazzaroth today is at the center of a controversy between those who accept her solution to the origin and purpose of the constellations, and those who reject it. And sadly, on both sides are Christians whose faith is most akin to Frances Rolleston’s own. Part of the motivation for writing about her is to defend her from undeserved attack.
I share Frances’ story just as I learned it, by opening windows on her life from her collected letters, edited and published by Caroline Dent in 1867. Sometimes my responses to her experiences enter in. I have occasionally asked myself if her letters were always accurate, and looked at other sources. But in the end, what does it matter—they are her view of her life, her telling her own story.