The Tudor Society

22 March – William Bourne, his life and his submarine

On this day in Tudor history, 22nd March 1582, gunner, mathematician and writer, William Bourne was buried at Gravesend in Kent.

This popular author, who was able to explain technical matters for the common man in his books, was also a gunner, mathematician and inventor, yet he received no university education. He also drew plans for a submarine, although he never built it.

Find out more about the fascinating William Bourne and his works in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 22nd March 1519, Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk and wife of Charles Brandon, Henry VIII’s best friend, was born. You can find out more about her, and hear a story about her little dog, in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:


On this day in Tudor history, 22nd March 1582, gunner, mathematician and writer, William Bourne was buried at Gravesend in Kent. His works included “Almanacke and Prognostication for iii Yeres”, “A Regiment for the Sea”, “Treasure for Traveilers”, “The Arte of Shooting in Great Ordnance” and “Inventions, or, Devises”.

Let me give you some facts about this little-known Tudor man.

• William Bourne was born in around 1535, in the reign of King Henry VIII, and was the son of John Bourne of Gravesend.
• In 1562, Bourne was appointed as a town councillor, a jurat, of Gravesend, and then, in 1571-2 he held the position of port-reeve, i.e. mayor.
• Bourne was married to Dorothy Beare who was a widow with three sons. He and Dorothy had four sons and a daughter together.
• Bourne was not university educated and his biographer G L E Turner explains that his knowledge came from seamen, with whom he’d had daily contact since childhood, his experience as a volunteer gunner at the Gravesend garrison, and through his own reading and study. In his book, “Mathematical Practitioners”, E G R Taylor described Bourne as “the earliest unlearned English instructor and writer on mathematical practice known to us”.
• G L E Turner describes Bourne as a popular author who “explained technical matters in a comprehensible way for the 'unlettered' man”.
• Bourne’s first book “Almanacke and Prognostication for iii Yeres” was published in 1567 and his final book, a ten-year almanac and prognostication, was published in 1580. By this time his patrons and supporters included Edward Clinton, Earl of Lincoln and lord high admiral; master of the queen’s ordnance, Sir William Winter; Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, general of the ordnance and brother of the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
• In his 1578 “Inventions, or, Devises”, Bourne drew plans for an underwater boat powered by oars, a wooden submarine covered with waterproof leather. However, he never built one and the first working submarine prototype wasn’t built until the 1620s by Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel.
• His wife and children were well-provided for after his death, as he owned several houses and tenements in Gravesend. Dorothy only outlived her husband by 9 months though, dying in December 1582.

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