Charles’ Oak: the lost constellation to honor a King’s escape.
In 1651, after the battle of Worcester, Charles II, who would go on become the king of England, climbed a tree. Nothing strange….the future monarch would later say to have ensconced himself in the branches of the oak in Boscobel Wood, while the troops who fought the Royalists over how England should be governed, passed below. According to the legend, he had to stay there, dead quiet, until his enemies buggered off. His hiding spot, later called the Royal Oak, once the monarchy was restored, was commemorated also on pieces of pottery. And, for a little while, was also mapped in the cosmos.
Years before he discovered and observed the comet that would bear his name, in 1676 the young astronomer Edmond Halley set up an observatory on the volcanic island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. From this middle of nowhere, he wanted to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. When Halley returned to England, with a slew of observations, included a new constellation, Robur Carolinum, or “Charles’s Oak.” The once-besieged king had become a patron, and had made Halley’s journey possible.
In this time it wasn’t uncommon for scholars like astronomers and cartographers to transplant earthly concerns, for example political allegiances, debts or cultural values into their maps. In national mythology, the oak tree had become a protective symbol for the monarchy, and it was probably a way for Halley to curry favor with Charles II. And in fact, when he presented his findings to the Royal Society, he included a note that read: “In memory of the hiding place that saved Charles II of Great Britain, deservedly translated to the heavens forever.” As well as to maintaining the king’s good graces, Halley’s constellation was also a way to resolve an problem that had long confounded astronomers with a love for constellations: the stars don’t always organize themselves into the imagined image. For example, in Argo Navis, named for the mythological ship that Jason and his compatriots took in search of the Golden Fleece, there aren’t a complete set of stars with which to define the ship. Some stars could credibly form the hull, mast, and other parts, but there aren’t the prow of the ship. And what were doing astronomers to compensate the fact that part of the boat was literally missing? Cartographers drawing the constellations disguised its absence with a strategically placed atmospheric occurrences, a cloud, for example.
The French did not agree, probably due some patriotic reasons, and include the oak would have honored the king of a foreign country that still claimed ceremonial sovereignty over France. And the tree wasn’t rooted for long, in fact, describing constellations in the 1750s, the French astronomer Nicolas-Louis De La Caille accused Halley of “detaching” some stars from Argo Navis, and it wasn’t proper to have the stars belong to both. De Caille cannot approve of the way in which Mr. Halley took the stara to make up his constellation.