The Head of the Observatory – the Astronomer Royal / Director

From its founding in 1675 until 1972, the Observatory was headed by the Astronomer Royal. From 1972 until its closure in 1998, it was headed by a Director.



John Flamsteed, the First Astronomer Royal. Line engraving by G. Vertue, 1721, after T. Gibson, 1712. Copyrighted work reproduced courtesy of Wellcome Library, London under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 (see below)

Edmond Halley, the second Astronomer Royal in about 1736. Engraving by William Thomas Fry from an original picture ascribed to Dahl in the possession of the Royal Society. From Portraits of Eminent Men, Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, C Knight, London (1845)

James Bradley, the third Astronomer Royal. Engraved by E. Scriven from an original painting by Thomas Hudson in the possession of the Royal Society and published in The Gallery of Portraits with Memoirs (Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge), volume VI, p.69 (1836)

Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth Astronomer Royal. Engraved from a pastel drawing by John Russell and published by J. Asperne, 1 March 1804

George Airy, the seventh Astronomer Royal. Woodburytype by Lock & Whitfield. From Men of Mark, Volume 2, London (1877)

Before 1972, the head of the Observatory was appointed by the Crown. Until the appointment of Christie in 1881, these appointments were made by Royal Warrant, the post-holder being referred to as ‘Our Astronomical Observator’. Over time, and in the absence of any formal title, the post-holder was referred to by a variety of titles both by others and himself. They included: ‘Mathematicus Regius’, ‘Regius Professor of Astronomy at Greenwich’, ‘The King’s Astronomical Professor’, ‘Royal Astronomer at Greenwich’ as well as the now more familiar title of ‘Astronomer Royal’. The first of the Astronomical Observators to consistently style himself as Astronomer Royal was Maskelyne, who adopted the title following his appointment in 1765. From that time onwards, the use of ‘Astronomer Royal’ became more or less the norm except in legal documents, where its adoption took much longer. The use of the term ‘Astronomer Royal’ in a Royal Warrant for example, first occurs in the 1838 warrant reconstituting the Visitors. The 1806 Longitude Act continued to use the term the ‘Royal Astronomer at Greenwich', whereas the later Longitude Act of 1818 uses both ‘Royal Astronomer at Greenwich’ and ‘Astronomer Royal’. In modern usage, ‘Astronomer Royal’ is used as the title for all eleven of the individuals who headed the Observatory between 1675 and 1971.

The newly formed Science Research Council, which took over the Observatory’s funding in 1965, decided that when the then Astronomer Royal, Woolley retired, the Observatory would be run by a Director, who might or might not also be awarded the title of Astronomer Royal. Since 1972, the position of Astronomer Royal has been largely honorary, appointments being made by the Sovereign upon the advice of the Prime Minister. The Astronomer Royal receives a nominal stipend of £100 a year and is a member of the Royal Household.  

After 1971, no Astronomer Royal ever held the post of Director of the Observatory at the same time. The specific post of ‘Director, Royal Greenwich Observatory’ ceased to exist after the re-organization of March 1993 when Boksenberg, the then Director, was appointed to the new post of ‘Director Royal Observatories’ (Royal Greenwich Observatory Cambridge, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Isaac Newton group of Optical Telescopes Canary Islands, Joint Astronomy Centre Hawaii (UK dir Gemini Telescopes Project)). In 1995 the merged observatories were turned back into four independent entities and the post: ‘Director, Royal Greenwich Observatory’ reinstated.

For the sake of clarity, the pre 1972 Astronomers Royal were sometimes referred to as the Director of the Observatory. An example can be found in the Proceedings of the Observatories which were published annually in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. There, the term Director in conjunction with the Royal Observatory Greenwich started to be used in 1905. Another example is in the 1971/72 Science Research Council annual report, where for that particular year only, Woolley is listed as ‘Astronomer Royal and Director’.

The post of Astronomer Royal was originally a post for life. The first five Astronomers Royal all died in Office. The sixth (Pond) was the first to retire. The seventh (Airy) retired at the age of 80, whilst the eighth, ninth and tenth all retired around the age of 65. The announcement in July 1971 that after the retirement of Woolley (the eleventh Astronomer Royal), that the title of Astronomer Royal would no longer go automatically to the Director of the RGO together with the appointment of Burbidge as the new Director while Woolley was still in office, left open the possibility of Woolley continuing to lay claim to the title – something that he was to subsequently make a joke of in an interview in The Guardian on 13 November 1971. When Woolley ceased to have responsibility for the Observatory at the end of 1971, whether or not he had also ceased to hold the post of Astronomer Royal remained ambiguous. In an attempt to resolve this once and for all, on 16 May 1972, a letter was sent to him from Downing Street to let him know that it was the intention of the Queen to shortly appoint a new Astronomer Royal and to convey her gratitude for his distinguished service during the years in which he held this office. In effect, he was being put on notice that his tenure as Astronomer Royal was about to be terminated. This done, the Prime Minister wrote to Martin Ryle on 25 May, asking if he would be happy for his name to be put to the Queen as Woolley’s successor. Ryle agreed and the matter was put to the Queen who approved the appointment. An announcement to this effect was made from Downing Street on 27 June. Since 1972, the Astronomers Royal have no longer been obliged to resign the post at the age of 65. Ryle was informed by the Prime Minister at the time of his appointment merely that he would be expected to resign if he were to accept an appointment abroad of if he retired from active professional life. It is presumed that something similar was conveyed to the later incumbents.


Astronomers Royal (as Head of the Observatory) 1675–1971

1675–1719      John Flamsteed
1720–1742      Edmond Halley
1742–1762      James Bradley
1762–1764      Nathaniel Bliss
1765–1811      Nevil Maskelyne
1811–1835      John Pond
1835–1881      George Airy
1881–1910      William Christie
1910–1933      Frank Dyson
1933–1955      Harold Spencer Jones
1956–1971      Richard van der Riet Woolley

Burial places of the first nine Astronomers Royal


Directors (as Head of the Observatory) 1971–1998

1972–1973      Margaret Burbidge*
1973–1975      Alan Hunter
1976–1981      Francis Graham Smith
1981–1995      Alexander (Alec) Boksenberg
1995–1998      Jasper Wall

* Alan Hunter was Acting Director from 1 January to 11 July 1972.


Astronomers Royal (honorary post, not connected to Observatory) 1972–present

1972–1982      Martin Ryle
1982–1990      Francis Graham Smith
1991–1995      Arnold Wolfendale
1995–present  Martin Rees


Image licensing information

The 1721 image of John Flamsteed is reproduced in compressed form and at a reduced size under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 courtesy of Wellcome Library, London