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