A King’s Foot

A king’s foot is of singular importance, it seems.

Especially one English King’s foot, if you believe the folklore: That of the first Henry, the king who ironed out all those nasty little administrative wrinkles left by his red-head brother William Rufus.

What William had torn asunder, Henry put back together.He gave the Lords a Charter to protect their rights, and employed officials to limit corruption, and smoothed the ruffled feathers of the church.

Somewhere in the middle of all this oil on troubled waters, Henry decided he would like to standardise the way everyone in England measured things.

The foot had been hanging around for a good long while: there was reference to it in laws 70 years before Henry got a bee in his bonnet about standardisation.But anyone could use any foot, say, to measure a field out ready to be ploughed.

Imagine two neighbouring farmers, one buying a field from another, one with huge feet, one with tiny. Each measures the field in feet, but one says the footage is less because he’s got a bigger footprint, and therefore he argues a lower price. It’s a recipe for a mighty mediaeval punchup.

So Henry proffered his own royal foot, it’s said. Thus, a foot became 12 inches.

There has since been great debate because a 12-inch foot is very large even by the standards of the present day: roundabout nine and a half inches is closer to the mark for the majority of men’s feet. Most surmount this significant discrepancy by saying Don’t you see, you fool, Henry was clearly wearing Big Royal Boots?

Whatever the reason, the twelve-inch foot stuck and I still use it to this day.

Across the channel in France, the flamboyance of the Gauls was playing merry hell with standardisation. There, the king would make an edict and the French would make an artform out of ignoring it.

Centuries on, the pied du rois– the King’s foot – was imperiously defined, but no-one on the ground seemed inclined to use it. Measurements varied from town to town, from trade to trade. Why use a defined measurement when you could use your own and con the simple masses out of their hard-earned sous?

It was Louis XVI who set the ball rolling, commissioning a group of experts to find a uniform system. The French favoured the metre. But they couldn’t enthuse America or England and make it international: Thomas Jefferson would insist on calling the new measures by the traditional names of feet and inches. Congress gave him short shrift on the matter.

Instead the French chose to fly solo. A metre in 1795 was a grand conception indeed: it was one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator: through Paris, naturally.

Back in Blighty they were getting their britches in a twist over triangulation.

Triangulation is the fiddly business of establishing a triangle shape on land, which in turn helps one get the right framework to draw an accurate map on a piece of paper.

You need a base line and then you measure angles from either end to find a third point. Geometry on a grand scale.

Back there at the first triangulation, starting in 1783, there was already a toff-in-charge. His name was General William Roy and he decided the bottom line of the triangle should be drawn on Hounslow Heath.

It started at Hampton Poor House and ended up at King’s Arbour.

And once they had worked out where it should go, it was time to find a way of measuring it.

The solution was to lie rods, end-on-end, along the baseline, to count them. They began with iron bars, which showed the distance to be 27,404 feet. Then they had a go with glass tubes which helped them calculate a distance of 27,406 feet.

For the eighteenth century, that’s quite accurate. So we won’t argue about the two feet.

They used their experience to draw a bigger baseline across Salisbury Plain, and then to branch out in great big triangles all over Britain. This was mainly done so they could tax the bejeezers out of the Irish using land tax.

By the 20th century it became clear more accuracy was needed and there was a movement to re-triangulate. This time valiant geographers scaled mountains and braved the elements to put concrete markers in high places. Called Trig Points, more than 6,000 still dot the landscape today: and they are what made our peerless Ordinance Survey maps possible.

But it all started with feet, nose-to-tail, across Hounslow Heath.

What a very long way the King’s foot has come.

Written in response to Side View’s most excellent theme: ‘Feet’. Sh never fails to come up with something interesting – have a look here

Image source here


51 thoughts on “A King’s Foot

  1. how very interesting… the standardisation of a foot. I wonder what made them divide the foot into 12?

    This triangulation business is now largely done over long distances using satellites –

    “GPS, (Global Positioning System), works on a triangulation method. Triangulation is the method of determining a location of a map by using three or more points through which lines of known directions are drawn. The intersection of these lines is the desired location. Triangulation can be used for working out distance and/or angles. Ideally, 4 satellites are required to offer an exact position. 3 satellites will work, but 4 are proven to be better as the extra satellite will assist in error checking the other satellites….” http://www.satnavforensics.com/how-sat-nav-works.php

    and this method utilised the Einstein theory of relativity.

    Which leads neatly onto the recent announcement from CERN:

    The latest research from CERN may throw the world of physics as we know it into turmoil, if in reality further research can prove that a particle can move faster than light. However, as one eminent scientist on the radio yesterday said that won’t stop the Sat Navs working.

    Which is a relief.

    1. I seem to remember reading that it was divided into the span of the top joint of the thumb, Pseu, but I’d need to go back and look again.

      The satellite has changed the whole triangulation business beyond all recognition. But good to see the satellites are keeping each other on their toes. Peerless research as usual, thanks, Pseu…

      1. it’s all rather exciting. Both chaps into physics and the possible implications of the possible find at CERN. From my point of view, I’m relieved I can still depend on Tom Tom. In my job I need him, daily πŸ™‚

  2. Very interesting. A lot of historical information which I did not know. Henry’s Big Royal Boots sound like the Cat’s Boots.

  3. Very interesting, and informative. Now why couldn’t they have spiced up our history and math and whatever else lessons in school with this sort of thing – something every child can relate to on accounta they all (or by far the majority do) have feet. I had to go measure mine, of course, to see how it compares… and I ain’t tellin’. πŸ˜‰

    1. Nor me, Ruth. I have very big feet indeed. Here measuring our feet comes in when our kids are about six or seven, but I have no idea if anyone links the exercise with King Henry I…

  4. MTM tells the story of the railroad in one of his presentations, and how the width of the rails is the same as two horses a$$es leading a Roman chariot. These stories of the origin of things we use all the time always fascinate me. Thanks for another great post.

    1. Thanks for a great anecdote, Andra! I’ll never look at rails, or indeed horses a$$es, the same again πŸ˜€
      Looking wistfully at the fact it’s the last in your series of alternative posts. They have been really striking: I’ve loved the writing.

  5. Measurements in feet have always seemed old fashioned to me, and although I was taught in metres, I find myself using feet more often. My feet (erm, my idea of the distance, that is, not my feet…), however, are nothing like the measurement should be. I suppose that explains why I’m not that good at judging distances properly… Another interesting post Kate πŸ™‚

  6. Hi Kate, thanks for stopping by at my blog, I find yours very interesting with lots and lots of different facts. Speaking of foot and meters, having been raised and studied in USSR we used metrical system, moving to USA 20 years ago we had to learn inch and foot system and I stil struggle with it. Thanks for such interesting post.

  7. A foot, is a foot, is a foot, is a foot, whether it’s size 6 or size 14! You’ve reminded me of a funny story, I’ll blog about it later in the week. I think I knew that we owed this measurement to Henry, but I had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. There is a Standard Yard = which is three standard feet, I guess, somewhere on the Embankment in London. – I forget where. Nowadays standards are held at the National Physical Laboratory, and are temperature controlled. A boot could change its length with humidity and temperature – as could a foot, for that matter.

    Love Dad.

      1. Go and look for the standard yard, Kate. Whenever we try to say that something is exact, we finish up with egg on our faces. Accuracy is devilishly expensive!

  9. Standardization (American spelling–ha!), just think of it! Seems to me that women doing the sewing and measuring the growth of the children might have determined the need for a universal standard sooner than later. In our household I often say to my husband, “if there’s a hard way or an easy way, you’ll choose the hard way every time!” Well, they got round to it, anyway. If we go metric in the U.S. I’m sunk! Such an interesting post, Kate! Debra

    1. Thanks Debra πŸ™‚ I always got my kids to stand up against the wall and measured their growth the old-fashioned way: by using a pencil line…I just loved the Jefferson solution. Nutty in the extreme.

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