“Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” – Daniel 12:4
London was an exciting place to be in 1641. The political uncertainty was both thrilling and terrifying: many Puritans, convinced that their suspected crypto-catholic king, Charles I, was in league with the Anti-Christ, were pushing back against his high-handed policies. Their frustration was to lead to civil war within a year. A small circle of London intellectuals, led by Samuel Hartlib, seized the uncertainty of the time to push for what they hoped would be a middle way: a tolerant and enlightened Protestantism that could serve as a foundation for a pan-European utopia.
Hartlib had come to London in 1628 as a refugee from war-torn Poland. He was inspired by Francis Bacon’s vision of an enlightened society built around the pursuit of knowledge, and he saw that such a society could emerge only if education was completely reformed. He maintained an extensive correspondence with savants across Europe, introducing intellectuals with one another and promoting new works of scholarship. He eventually fell into company with John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, who shared his ideals and moreover had access to both money and Parliament. They hatched a plan.