DIGGES, Thomas (c.1546-95), of Wootton and Wingham, Kent.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1546, 1st s. of Leonard Digges of Wootton by Bridget, da. of Thomas Wilford of Hartridge.1 educ. ?Univ. Coll. Oxf. m. Agnes, da. of William St. Leger of Ulcombe and Leeds Castle, Kent, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. c.1559.

Offices Held

Consultant engineer Winchelsea harbour c.1577, Dover harbour 1581; supervisor of the works at Dover harbour 1582; muster master gen. of forces in the Netherlands under the Earl of Leicester 1586-94.


Digges has been called ‘the foremost scientific and mathematical writer of Elizabethan England’. He attributed his own scholarly status to his father’s teaching and that of John Dee, and there has been considerable speculation about any formal education he may have had. The namesake who matriculated at Queens’, Cambridge in 1546 was of Leicestershire. However, the seventeenth-century scholar William Fulman states that ‘Leonardus Diggs, mathematicus’ was educated at University College, Oxford, and was followed there by ‘Thomas Diggs praedicti filius’. No date is given.2

It was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, godfather to his son and dedicatee of Stratioticos, who brought Digges into Parliament first for Wallingford, where Leicester was high steward, then for Southampton, where Digges undertook to bear his own expenses. He was an active Member. In 1572 he suggested that a committee be appointed to consider the execution of the Duke of Norfolk; he even prepared a paper to show the dangers of not carrying out the execution. On 20 May 1572, in the debate on rites and ceremonies, he was against ministers being able to conduct services as they liked. He spoke on calivers (4 June) and on the disagreement with the Lords on tale-telling (11 June). His committee activity in 1576 concerned ports (13 Feb.), private bills (27 Feb., 13 Mar.), unlawful weapons (2 Mar.), grants made by the dean and chapter of Norwich (2 Mar.), the draining of salt marshes (6 Mar.), benefit of clergy (7 Mar.), and excess in apparel (10 Mar.). On 13 Mar. he was one of those appointed to hear the counsel for London goldsmiths. On 30 Jan. 1581 he introduced a motion for the maintenance of the navy, and also for ‘the setting of idle persons on work’, suggesting fishing as a possible trade. He served on committees in 1581 concerned with seditious practices (1 Feb.), returns (24 Feb.), the punishment of heretics (27 Feb.), London merchant adventurers (2 Mar.), the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.) and Lord Zouche’s bill (17 Mar.).

The Queen’s safety and measures against Jesuits were two of the chief concerns of the 1584 Parliament, and Digges held strong views on both issues. Though his name has not been found on the lists, it is highly likely that he attended some of the committees concerning the Queen’s safety in view of the detailed account of one committee (18 Dec. 1584) given in the discourse he wrote in January 1585, during the Christmas recess. In it he criticizes the oath of association:

Methought also (seeing all these associates must of necessity for their own safety presently upon any such accident put themselves and all their friends in arms ...) that a marvellous occasion was offered for any, meaning by faction to advance an undue title, to intrude themselves, and by linking themselves with the more violent affections, to calumniate whom they list, and extol whom they would ... Briefly methought I did behold a confused company of all parts of the realm, at such a time as there is no council of estate in life, no lawful generals, no lawful colonels or captains to guide them in any military action, no presidents, no judges, no sheriffs, no justices: briefly, no officers in life, or authority to maintain justice, preserve peace, or with lawful power to command obedience, or to guide, and direct such a distracted chaos of armed men confusedly rising even at that time when most need should be of greatest government, direction and justice, to suppress factions, decide claims and defend the realm from spoil and invasion of strangers ...

In such a climate, the Jesuits, ‘hellhounds cladding themselves with the glorious name of Jesus and such wretched souls as they bewitch with their wicked doctrine’, would find their task of murdering Elizabeth and reestablishing their ‘Roman kingdom’ much assisted. For ‘these anti-christian Jesuits and their devilish disciples’ are ‘fully persuaded her Majesty’s life is the only impediment to their desired unholy Roman kingdom here, and so long as that hope remaineth, her sacred person is in marvellous danger’. The threat of punishment could not be relied upon to deter them, for ‘against persons so persuaded no peril of death, no horror of punishment or torments can prevail. They desire the one, they triumph in the other’. Digges suggested instead the creation of a standing army of 40,000 to ‘make the whole realm strong and terrible to foreign enemies and yet not increase any one idle person to occasion any mutinies, insolence or disorder at home’. Back in Parliament Digges was against the amendments the Lords had made to the bill against Jesuits: ‘They would make it felony where we have made it treason. The punishment is too little already.’ He was appointed to a Commons committee on Jesuits on 9 Mar. 1585. Burghley’s attention was drawn to Digges’ discourse, and it may even have found its way to the Queen, but with little effect.

Digges evidently felt strongly about another issue in this Parliament, general demurrers:

There be two mischiefs holpen by this bill; the delay of justice, the insupportable charge of the client. I had myself a cause which after long suit I lost by non-suit, by reason my counsel had pleaded amiss. I told and complained to the judge. He answered, I had right, but he could not help me. Whereby I was fain to go about again, and so I was three years ere I could bring it to that state it was in before.

He also spoke (probably on 18 Feb., the day on which he was placed on the committee) on fraudulent conveyances:

... let us hold our liberties left us by our fathers. And when a number do cry away with the bill, as they may well, for any particular Member to say this is levity and rashness in them, I say this is levity and rashness in him to say so, therefore put it to the question.

He urged the expulsion of William Parry (18 Feb.) and, on unknown dates, spoke on fish, and gipsies. Gipsies should be brought within the provisions of the bill against rogues and sturdy beggars:

No difference between valiant beggars and gipsies, but in face, and a little legerdemain. Otherwise all one. Gipsies were not hanged for stealing by the statute of gipsies, but for rogues. Idle education of youth is the root of rogues.

Committee work during the Parliament concerned the Arthur Hall case (12 Dec. 1584), four minor bills (5 Feb. 1585), and the bill against idle and incontinent life (5 Mar.). During the 1584-85 Parliament, the anonymous diarist observed:

Digges commonly doth speak last, and therefore saith, every matter must have an end, and therefore to draw this to a conclusion.3

He died 21 Sept. 1595. In his will, made 10 June 1591 and proved in November 1595, he committed the education of his elder son Dudley to his wife. He bequeathed a diamond to his uncle, Sir Thomas Wilford, and made small bequests to William and George St. Leger. As overseers, he appointed Sir Wareham and Anthony St. Leger. The will was opposed by his brothers James and William, whom he had excluded by codicil.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Vis. Kent (Harl. Soc. xlii), 65.
  • 2. W. Fulman, Notitia Oxoniensis Acad. (London, 1675), p. 51, ex inf. Mrs. Dorothy Carr, to whom we are indebted for help with this biography, including a reference to a letter on Digges by Francis R. Johnson of the Huntington Library in the TLS, 5 May 1934, and to an article by L. D. Patterson in lsis, xlii.
  • 3. Eliz. and Jac. Studies presented to F. P. Wilson, 37; E. Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters, 283; E. G. R. Taylor, Mathematical Practitioner of Tudor and Stuart England, 175; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 577; 1581-90, pp. 42, 44, 49, 51, 100, 173, 214; 1591-4, pp. 234-5, 474; APC, xiii. 80, 139; Arch. Cant. xlix. 115-24; Leycester Corresp. (Cam. Soc. xxvii), 135; CSP For. Apr-Dec. 1587, p. 256; July-Dec. 1588, pp. 255-6; Jan.-July 1589, p. 39; Lansd. 70, f. 11; 72, f. 176; 73, f. 24; C142/245/48; Lansd. 3, f. 143; 40, f. 148; 98, ff. 14-18; CSP For. 1585-6, p. 278; Neale, Parlts. ii. 44-6; J.S Davies, Hist. Soton, 203, 258-9; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell's jnl. ff. 30, 50, 62; Tudor Econ. Docs. ed. Tawney and Power, iii. 256; CJ, i. 105, 108, 110, 111, 113, 115, 121, 129, 130, 134, 135; D'Ewes, 247, 250, 254, 262, 290, 300, 306, 307, 339, 346, 352, 353, 363, 365; Lansd.. 43, anon. jnl. ff. 165, 167, 169, 170; Add. 48023, f. 159.
  • 4. C142/245/48; PCC 59 Scott.