Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge

Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge, £10,000 at Hansons.

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The book is the first comprehensive and original astronomical treatise to be published in English and one of the first English astronomy books to mention Polish astronomer Copernicus’ (1473- 1543) De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), placing the sun rather than earth, at its centre.

Born c.1512 in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Recorde studied at the University of Oxford and later Cambridge. He taught mathematics, practised medicine and was head of the Royal Mint.

However, his life had a tragic ending and after being sued for defamation by a political rival, Recorde was arrested for debt and died in prison in 1558. Hansons’ Jim Spencer said:

“Recorde was a brilliant Welsh academic, physician and mathematician whose name should be more widely known. As well as inventing the equals sign (=) he introduced the pre-existing plus (+) and minus (−) signs to English speakers in 1557. And yet many people have not heard of him, partly perhaps because of his tragic end.”

His other well-known books were The Pathwaie to Knowledge (1551) and the Gate of Knowledge (now believed to be lost).

The vendor consigned the work in a large box full of antiquarian books. Notes in The Castle of Knowledge copy mention it being owned by the family of Dr Edward Swinfen (1742-1801) of Long Buckby, Northamptonshire.

Spencer added: “I can only find one other copy sold at auction. It fetched $90,000 (£74,200) at Bonhams in 2007. The same book previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1971. Admittedly our copy is not so well preserved, but it’s just incredibly rare.”