Leonard Digges (c.1515 – c.1559), mathematician and cartographer, was the son of James Digges of Digges Court, Barham and Philippa Engham of Chart. His father was the High Sheriff of Kent between 1510-11 and owned property in Adisham, Ash next Sandwich, Bishopsbourne, Brome, Canterbury, Elham, Ewell, Frinsted, Hackington, Kingston, Lenham, Patrixbourne, Sandwich, Sturry, Sutton next Northbourne and Wingham.1
At the age of 30, Leonard was charged with responsibility for coastal defence between Dover and Folkestone. In 1554 he took part in the unsuccessful rebellion led by the Protestant Thomas Wyatt. He was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death for his part in the rebellion, but he received a pardon in April 1554. His land and goods were taken and he was fined 400 marks. It was to take him almost to the end of his life to pay this off.
Leonard married Bridget Wilford of Hartridge, near Cranbrook and had several children, including Thomas. He published an almanac entitled A prognostication of Right Good Effect, Fructfully Augmented of which there are surviving fragments of a sheet for Kent dated 1556. The almanac contained meteorological and astrological information, rules for predicting the weather, tide tables, as well as recommendations for when to plant crops.2 Other works covered topics such as military mathematics, artillery and ballistics. His son, Thomas later expanded on much of his father’s works.
Thomas Digges (1546–1595), mathematician and astronomer, probably grew up on his father’s estate at Wootton, near Canterbury, until his father’s land was confiscated in 1554. Although the land was eventually restored to his father, Thomas’s right to inherit the land was withheld until 1563.3
His first publication was Pantometria (1571), an edition of his father’s manuscript on surveying and practical geometry. He also had an interest in astronomy and was the first person to explain the Copernican system in English, including his own additions, proposing an infinite number of stars at varying distances. Alongside his mathematical work, he was also a member of parliament and took on public duties.
In 1582, Thomas was employed by the Commissioners of Dover Harbour as an engineer to advise on the restoration of the harbour. He recommended ‘earth bayes’ rather than ‘planked wourkes’ after Folkestone, which had been supplying stone to Dover, refused to send any more.4 It was his foresight that saved the town around 5,000 marks. A plan of Dover Castle, Town and Harbour; drawn in the year 1581 on vellum, by or for the use of Thomas Digges, Esq., of Wootton in Kent, Muster Master General of Queen Elizabeth’s forces in the Netherlands is held in the British Library.
When fears of a Spanish invasion gripped the county in 1588, Digges wrote: ‘I am farre off from allowing of any confused disorderly running to the seaside to encounter a select trained well disciplined Enemie invading.’5 He recommended delay tactics whilst a larger force could be mustered and the harvest destroyed.6 In 1588, his political and military career came to an end with a dispute over his accounts and he returned to his mathematical work, living at his estate in Chevening and also his house in London.
This article was published: 22 July 2022.
Johnston, Stephen. ‘Leonard Digges’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.
Johnston, Stephen. ‘Thomas Digges’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2009.
Shoreham Deanery Medieval & Tudor Wills - Book 5 ↩
Johnston, Stephen. ‘Leonard Digges’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. ↩
Johnston, Stephen. ‘Thomas Digges’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2009. ↩
Macdonald, A. ‘Plans of Dover Harbour in the Sixteenth century’, Archaeologia Cantiana 49. 1937, p.116. ↩
Digges, Thomas A Brief Discourse What Orders were Best For Repulsing of Forraine Force if at any time they should invade us by Sea in Kent or Elsewhere (London, 1590; reprint London, 1801), p. 6. cited in Nolan. ↩
Nolan, John S. ‘The muster of 1588, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies , Autumn, 1991, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 387-407. ↩