Brave Men and Brave Deeds - M. B. Synge

"The City of the Heavens"


In the Sound, between Sweden and Denmark, is a little island, Hven by name. With its high, white cliffs it rises steeply out of the sea, a conspicuous enough object in the surrounding country.

All sorts of traditions and legends are connected with this island, in the middle of which Tycho Brahé, the great astronomer, built his famous castle and observatory, known as "the City of the Heavens."

The Danes had a story that the island was of great importance. They said that a king of England should pay as much scarlet cloth as would cover the island, with a rose-noble at each corner of the cloth, should he wish to possess it.

Another story says that the island was once sold to a merchant. When he came to take possession the people scoffed at him, and bid him take away the "earth he had bought."

A more curious legend, to be found in all the Danish popular ballads, is this:—

The island belonged to a Lady Grimhild, who made a great festival, to which she invited her brothers Helled Haagen and Folker the minstrel, both well-known figures in Danish ballads. She intended to slay the two brothers, with whom she had quarrelled. While they were crossing the Sound, they were warned, first by a mermaid and then by a ferryman, of their sister's intentions. Helled Haagen was so angry with them that he had both of them beheaded. On arriving, the brothers were well received by the Lady Grimhild; but soon she persuaded her man to challenge the brothers to mortal combat. Helled Haagen was made to promise that if he should merely stumble, he would own himself defeated. To bring about this result, the Lady Grimhild had the lists covered with hides on which peas were strewn. Helled Haagan at once slipped, and true to his vow he remained lying and was at once slain. His brother Folker was likewise killed.

Now when Helled Haagen's son Ranke was grown up, he revenged his father's death by shutting up the Lady Grimhild in a castle, and leaving her to die of hunger. He called the island after his mother Hvenhild.

Another tradition says that Hvenhild was a giantess, who carried pieces of Seeland in her apron over to Sweden; but her apron strings bursting on the way, she dropped a piece into the sea, which formed the island of Hven.

And Tycho Brae? Why should he have this little island of Hven to build his observatory on, and to live as a king on this lonely height above the sea?

Tycho Brahe was a Dane of noble birth. He had had a somewhat curious career up to the time of his living on this little island of Hven. One of ten children, his uncle took a fancy to him as a baby. He asked to adopt him as his own, but this request was refused by Tycho's parents. However, when a second son was born, the uncle, George Brahe, having no children of his own, came one day and stole the boy away, and seeing how well the child was treated by his uncle, his parents allowed him to stay.

The child had a good' education. But when, at the age of seven, the boy began to learn Latin, his parents objected strongly, thinking it most undesirable that a boy of high birth should be qualified for high offices in the state.

But his uncle was determined the boy should. study law, and at thirteen he sent him to the university at Copenhagen. It was not till he was sixteen that any special taste for astronomy showed itself. One day, it was August 21, 1560, an eclipse of the sun took place. The astronomers had predicted it, and the whole world watched its arrival with a feverish interest. Tycho shared the prevailing excitement, and when he saw the sun darkened on the very day it was predicted, all the strong love of the marvellous, which all through his after life was one of his characteristics, drew him to a study of that science that was able to give its students glimpses into the future of nature.

From this time forth all his energy, all his enthusiasm was thrown into the study of astronomy. Outwardly he studied law, but his heart was in the heavens, he spent all his pocket money in books on astronomy and such instruments as were within his means.

At night, while his tutor slept, he used to watch the stars with the help of a little globe of the heavens no bigger than his fist.

But his studies, when they became known, met with great opposition from his relations. They rebuked him severely for neglecting his study of law, and laughed at him for following science—a pursuit they regarded as altogether beneath the dignity of a family that for generations had never stooped to intercourse with the learned.

Tycho himself was by no means free from pride in his aristocratic birth and training, as the story of how he lost his nose very plainly shows.

It was December 10, 1566, when he was present at a marriage feast in Germany. Here he met a countryman of his own, and a quarrel sprang up as to which of them knew most mathematics. So fierce did the quarrel become that a duel was arranged and fought with swords in total darkness, at seven o'clock in the evening of the twenty-ninth. In the course of the fight, Tycho's nose, which from his portraits would seem to have been somewhat large, was cut off. In a short time, however, he appeared with a new nose. Some said it was made of gold, some silver, some brass, and others putty—anyhow he appeared with some sort of metal resembling human flesh glued on to his face. We are told that he constantly carried about with him a box of ointment, which had to be applied whenever the nose came off, as it periodically did. A great deal of admiration was bestowed on this false nose, and many people thought much more of this clever invention of Tycho Brahe's than of his far more important discoveries in astronomy.

But he was making a name for himself as an astronomer. When he returned from Germany to his relations, his fame had gone before him, and he found himself received with open arms. He was taken to the court and presented to the king, and generally made much of.

One day, it was the evening of November 11, 1572, Tycho Brahe had spent some time in the laboratory, and was returning home for supper, when he chanced to look up into the sky. He was startled by noticing a very bright star in a part of the heavens where never before had star been seen. Thinking he must have made some mistake, he turned round to some servants who accom¬panied him, and asked whether they saw the star. Yes, they saw it too. Thsa he shouted to some passing peasants. Could they see it? Yes, they too saw a very bright star just where Tycho had described.

The star increased in brightness from day to day, until in about three months it was brighter than Jupiter; then it slowly died out, and two years later it had dis¬appeared.

But it troubled the astronomers. To what region of space did it belong? Was it a planet, or a fixed star?

Tycho Brahe set to work, and after long and laborious study he declared to the world that it belonged to "the region of the fixed stars." He wrote and published a book on the subject, after which he intended to go abroad and leave his native land for ever. He travelled to Germany and Switzerland, and finally determined to set up his observatory at Basle.

But in the meantime great things were preparing for him at home. It was represented to Frederick the Second, King of Denmark, that the work of such a man as Tycho Brahe would reflect honour on the country, and that it was the king's duty to aid his plans, and not to let him go out of the country.

Accordingly, the king offered the astronomer several castles for a residence, but Tycho refused them all. King Frederick, however, was fond of learning, and anxious to keep in his kingdom so promising a man. So soon after he sent off a messenger with orders to travel day and night, till he could deliver into Tycho's own hands the letter he bore from the king. It was one winter day, the eleventh of February, early in the morning, as Tycho was lying in bed turning over in his mind the plan of leaving the kingdom, when a youth of noble family was announced, and was at once brought to his bedside to deliver the king's letter. In it the king commanded Tycho to come over and see him without delay.

The astronomer started at once, and arrived the same evening at the king's hunting-lodge near Copenhagen.

"I have heard from my courtiers that you are thinking of returning to Germany," said the king, when Tycho stood before him. "Have you refused the royal castle fearing to be disturbed in your studies by affairs of court and state?"

The king went on to say that when he had been at Elsinore lately, building his castle of Kronberg, his eye had fallen on the little island of Hven in the Sound, and that it had occurred to him that this lonely little spot might make a suitable home for the astronomer, where he could live perfectly undisturbed. The king offered him the island, and promised at the same time to supply him with means to build a house there. Tycho must think the matter over for a few days. If he accepted, the king would at once give orders for a sum of money to be handed over for the building.

Having returned home, he was strongly advised to accept the king's liberal offer, which he did a week later, and the king granted him five hundred thalers, to be paid every year, with the following document:—

"We, Frederick the Second, make known to all men, that we of our special favour and grace have conferred and granted in fee to our beloved Tycho Brahe, our land of Hven, with all our tenants and servants who thereon live, with all rent and duty which comes from that, to have, enjoy, use, and hold, quit and free, without any rent, all the days of his life, and as long as he lives and likes to continue and follow his studies. But he must keep the tenants who live there under law and right, and injure none of them against the law, and in all ways be faithful to us and the kingdom, and attend to our welfare in every way, and guard against danger and injury to the kingdom."

Money was then paid over to Tycho to build his house on the island. He himself was to find building materials.

Nearly in the centre of the little island, some one hundred and sixty feet above the level of the sea, Tycho selected a site for his new house and observatory. It was to be called "Uraniborg," or the City of the Heavens, as it was to be devoted to the study of the stars.

On the eighth of August the foundation stone was laid by the French minister. It was very early in the morn¬ing when several friends and men of rank and learning assembled. "When the sun was rising with Jupiter, and the moon in Aquarius was setting," said Tycho, the stone was put in its place at the south-east corner of the house, and success to the undertaking was drunk with various wines.

The building rose quickly, but it took four years to complete, so elaborate was the whole structure. The house itself was surrounded by a square wall, each side being three hundred feet long. The four corners pointed to the four points of the compass. Half-way along each wail was a semicircular bend, each enclosing an arbour around which were beautiful flower gardens.

At the east and west angles were gates, and in small rooms built over these gates English mastiffs were kept, in order that they might announce the arrival of strangers by barking.

At the north and south angles were small buildings, in the same style, used for printing office and as accom¬modation for servants. Under one of these was the castle prison, used for refractory tenants. This is now one of the few parts left of Tycho's buildings.

Inside the great walls were orchards, with some three hundred trees; and inside these, separated by a wooden paling, flower gardens. Four roads ran through the orchards and gardens from the four angles to the open circular space in the middle, where the castle itself stood on a higher level.

Uraniborg was built of red bricks, with sandstone ornaments, in Gothic renaissance style. Its slender spires and tastefully-decorated gables were, indeed, in better harmony with the peaceful life of a student of the heavens than the old severe Gothic style; and the pictures, inscriptions, and ornaments scattered through the' interior spoke at every step of the taste of its astronomer owner.

The central part was crowned by a pavilion, with a dome with clock dials east and west, and a spire with a gilt vane in the shape of a Pegasus. Here was an octagonal room, with a dial in the ceiling showing the time and direction of the wind. Galleries round the towers gave means of observing with small instruments in the open air.

A south-east room on the ground floor was the sitting-room of the family in winter; for Tycho had married a peasant girl, to the annoyance of his aristocratic relations, and by this time had a family of small children. Then there were guest rooms—the "red" room, the "blue" room, the "yellow "room, the "green "room, a long and beautiful one, with the ceiling covered with pictures of flowers and plants. Tycho tells us there was a glorious view from this room of the numerous sails passing through the Sound.

Tycho Brach


At the top of the castle were eight little rooms or garrets for students and observers. For as time went on Tycho gathered round him at Hven a school of young astronomers, to whom he taught the use of his instru¬ments, and who in return helped him with his observa¬tions. Many of these were chosen from among the lowest of the people, but they were treated ever with the same consideration as the greatest ones who visited him.

There was one of Tycho's pupils, Christen Longberg, son of a poor farmer, who lived at Uraniborg for upwards of twenty years; there was Elias Olsen, who was sent by his master on an astronomical expedition of some import¬ance, and who helped Tycho with his great meteorological diary written every day, with short notes about the weather, whether clear or cloudy, hot or cold, rainy or dry.

When Uraniborg was finished, Tycho built an observa¬tory on a neighbouring hill. Here all his instruments were placed in underground rooms, of which the roofs only rose above the ground. The entrance was on the north side, and a door and some stone steps led down to the study. Over the portal were three crowned lions hewn in stone, with the inscription:—

"Wealth and power may decay,

The sceptre of Art alone will last."

Other inscriptions in these crypts charged posterity to preserve this building for the glory of God and the furtherance of this divine art, the honour of the country. Going down some steps to one crypt were some verses composed by Tycho, expressing the surprise of Urania at finding this cave, but promising even here, in the bowels of the earth, to show the way to the stars. On the walls hung the portraits of the eight greatest astronomers, with inscriptions setting forth their merits. Tycho's portrait was included. He was represented as pointing up to his system of the world, which was sketched on the ceil¬ing; while the other hand held a slip of paper with the question, "Quid si, sic?"

Here it was, then, that the great astronomer spent twenty years, the happiest and most active of his life. Working diligently in his temple of science, he discov¬ered a new cornet, and exploded many accepted fallacies by bringing them to the test of accurate observation. Surrounded by his family and pupils, honoured by men of distinction both from Denmark and abroad, he worked away by day and by night, loving his work for its own sake, and longing to see previous research corrected and reformed.

Tycho could not bear any pretence or sham. He took delight in exposing to ridicule the mistakes of royal pretenders to knowledge they did not possess. It is even said that he took the trouble to make a number of foolish toys—mice running round in cages, models of the sky that moved by clockwork, little windmills, and so on. To the most ignorant of his great guests he showed these as his instruments, and they went away quite happy in their ignorance. He could only trust himself to reveal his true instruments to serious, hard-working men, who would look on them as something more than a nine days' wonder.

To the rich and noble, Tycho appeared a red-haired, fiery, rude, contradictory little man, with a false nose and a violent temper. But there was another side to the picture, known only to his own family and the poor of Hven. Day after day this fierce, proud astronomer would watch by the side of some sick peasant, devoting all his medical knowledge, all the patience learned from his long hours of observation, to healing those whose lives were little thought of in those days.

One curious inmate of his household was a maniac called Lep, who was supposed to have the power of predicting future events. At the great banquets at Uraniborg, Lep was always present, and whenever he spoke all had to keep silence and listen.

The king highly approved of all Tycho's work. He looked on him not only as a great man whose work conferred honour on the country, but as a confidential servant whom he delighted to honour and befriend. He presented him with a double gold chain with an elephant suspended from it; he had a great bell cast at Copen¬hagen to be used at Hven; he ordered a "good new ship or pilot boat, with all necessary tackle," to be sent to Tycho for conveying him and his visitors across the Sound to the mainland. But the twenty happy years at Uraniborg were over for Tycho Brahé.

In 1588 his friend Frederick, King of Denmark, died, and Christian, a mere boy only eleven years old, succeeded to the throne.

The young prince was most anxious to visit Tycho on his island, having heard of the wonders of his observatory and the beauty of his great castle. He was greatly delighted with his visit, and reluctantly crossed the Sound to Copenhagen "long before supper." James the First of England also visited Hven, and presented the astronomer with two splendid deerhounds on leaving.

Still Tycho was making enemies all round. The courtiers hated him because all the great folk of Europe passed them by to pay homage at Hven; the doctors hated him for ministering to the sick and poor without a fee; the chancellor hated him because he spoke somewhat freely when that great man had brutally kicked one of the deerhounds presented to Tycho by King James. So as the years passed on the tide set against him.

For some time past Tycho had considered the desir¬ability of a change. He darkly hinted in his letters that he might have to leave Hven after all, but comforted himself with the thought that every land is the home of a great man, and wherever he went the blue sky would still be over his head.

In 1597 his pension was taken away. This brought things to a crisis. He could no longer live at Hven—¬could no longer afford to keep up the large staff of printers, observers, and assistants. He must leave the obscure little island, which had become the wonder of the age—leave the City of the Heavens, which had been the delight of crowned heads and men of learning.

In the meteorological diary for March 21, 1597, this pathetic entry was made by one of his pupils: "We catalogued all the squire's books." Then came the moving of the great instruments, the printing press, the furniture—the desolation of Uraniborg.

With many a sad regret must Tycho, his family, and his sorrowing pupils have sailed for the last time from the island of Hven.

He only lived three years longer, and his last cry was an illustration of his whole life's work: "Oh, that I may not be found to have lived in vain!"