Historical/ Modern Renaissance Faire/ The Renaissance

The British Renaissance and Renaissance Faires: Thomas Digges, Astronomer at the Court of Queen Elizabeth

A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.

Glenn Holliday, aka Thomas Digges, performer and educator at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, contributed the information for this blog*. Connie Teunis edited.

Thomas Digges and Astronomy

Before the Renaissance, most people viewed the stars in terms of Astrology- a pseudoscience that was thought to be able to provide information about people and the many aspects of human affairs, such as whether to marry and whom, when to travel, how to live, when to plant crops, whom to trust. During the Renaissance, knowledge of Astrology was still considered vital for determining human affairs, but its influence was beginning to wane in favor of the true science of Astronomy. The lead proponent for Astronomy in Queen Elizabeth’s court was Thomas Digges. Thomas Digges was the first person known to suggest that the sky, i.e., space, was not static, rather, stars were located at various distances from the Earth. His theory formed the basis for the understanding of an infinitely expanding universe containing numerous galaxies.

Digges’ ground-breaking theory reflects the many influences in his life. Thomas Digges was born in 1546 to Leonard Digges and his wife Bridget Wilford. Leonard Digges was a mathematician, surveyor and strong proponent of science. He was also a favorite of Elizabeth’s Royal Court due to his long support of Elizabeth’s claim for the throne. His early death, when Thomas was only 13, resulted in Thomas becoming a ward of the Royal Court. William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley and one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisors, was in charge of the Queen’s wards. Thus, he became Thomas Digges’ patron and assigned John Dee to be Digges’ guardian.

William Cecil had, as one of his main goals, the protection of the British Isles from invasion. This protection required a strong Navy and a reliable intelligence system. France can be vaguely seen in the far distance from the top of the Dover cliffs. Unfortunately, it is too far for someone in England to be able to see fleet movements. Cecil’s priorities, coupled with Leonard Digges’ and John Dees’ focus on science, had a strong influence on Thomas Digges and laid the foundation for his interest in astronomy and telescopes.

John Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and occult philosopher who did not recognize any difference between astronomy and astrology. He served at Queen Elizabeth 1’s court as her Chief Astrologer. As Thomas Digges’ guardian, he was also responsible for Thomas’ education. John Dee is believed to have sent Thomas to Queen’s College in Cambridge University. At Cambridge, Thomas studied mathematical and military sciences. Upon Thomas Digges’ return to Court, John Dee retired and Thomas became the astrologer at Queen Elizabeth’s court. However, although he was forced to practice astrology, Thomas was more interested in astronomy.

Thomas Digges was also a religious conservative and worked to reform the Church away from astrology. By the end of Queen Elizabeth 1’s reign, the Church was suspicious of astrology and its claims of being able to predict the future.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, the Church claimed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The publication of Copernicus’s theory, On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, in 1543, challenged the church’s teachings. Copernicus theorized that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe and that the universe, including the 5 planets known at that time, contained a fixed number of stars that rotated around the Sun in perfect circles and at fixed distances. Copernicus’ theory was considered highly controversial when Elizabeth ascended to the throne. However, Elizabeth was highly educated and was aware that mathematics at that time enabled scientists to measure the distance to the sun, moon, and planets. The mathematics were more supportive of Copernicus’ theory, not the Church’s beliefs. Thomas Digges was the chief proponent of Copernicus’ theory to the Elizabethan Court.

Thomas Digges published an almanac, The Prognostication Everlasting of Right Good, in which he initially presented his arguments in support of Copernicus. He also used his almanac to outline his predictions about the weather based on the sun, moon, stars, planets, comets and clouds. His almanac was highly popular because, like today’s Farmer’s Almanac, it helped farmers and others who were dependent on future knowledge of the weather, to plan their activities, such as planting crops.

Over time, Thomas Digges came to realize that there were flaws in Copernicus’s theory. Putting the Sun at the center of the universe lessened the problems with the old Greek model of the Earth at the center.  At times, the planets appeared to move backwards in relation to the stars. This should not have been possible, so the Greeks added more odd motions to accommodate what they observed.  Digges showed how Copernicus gave a better explanation for what we see in the sky.  But Copernicus still clung to the stars and planets moving in perfect circles at fixed distances from the Sun. Digges proposed that the stars did not exist as a single sphere of stars, all at a single fixed distance from the Sun. Rather, the stars extended up in an infinite variety of distances from the Sun. Thomas Digges was the first to theorize about an unlimited universe containing numerous stars that existed at tremendous and changing distances from the Earth. Still, the new Copernican model did not give a complete explanation of the observed motions of the planet until Kepler proposed that the orbits of the planets are not perfect circles, but rather ellipses.

Digges followed his argument that stars might be infinitely far away with a proof that there cannot be infinitely many stars.  It will be 250 years before Digges’s arguments will be presented by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers as the Dark Night Sky Paradox and lay the foundation for the modern understanding of an expanding universe filled with numerous galaxies.

Since the time of the Greeks, mathematicians knew how to measure the distance of the sun, moon, planets and stars from Earth. The Greeks made fairly accurate measurements of the distance to the Moon and Sun. The technique (using parallax) required measuring very small angles between objects in the sky.  Renaissance astronomers knew that their measuring tools were not inadequate to make the precise measurements they needed.    Digges knew the ratios of the distances to the planets, but could not make very accurate measurements of their actual distances.  When a star exploded into a supernova in 1572, other astronomers proposed it was a weather phenomenon within Earth’s atmosphere.  Digges tried to measure the distance to the bright light and recognized that because he could not measure it, it must be further away than anything he could measure.  He had physical proof of a new star beyond the most distant planet – something the old Greek theory did not permit, and another argument in favor of Copernicus.

Given Digges’ interest in astronomy and his education in military sciences, Digges also worked on a way to see both the stars and fleet movements across the English Channel. Digges turned to the Camera Obscura as a means for developing what he termed “perspective glasses.”

The first person known to use the Camera Obscura was Ibn al-Haytham in the 11th century. The Camera Obscura, also called the Pinhole Camera, works by allowing light to pass through a small hole in a screen. An image on one side of the hole is then projected onto a screen (in an upside down and reversed manner) on the other side of the hole. One can greatly enlarge the image by increasing the distance of the receiving screen from the pinhole. By the mid-1500s, an unknown innovator had attached a small convex lens to the pinhole, thus creating sharper images. Digges experimented with the placement of lenses and discussed the “miraculous effect of perspective lenses” that enabled him to see in great detail images two miles away. Although spectacles were invented in the 1200s, well before the Renaissance, during the Renaissance, scientists did not have the technology to make large lenses and curved mirrors that could focus clearly on distant images. Thomas Digges is not believed to have developed a telescope, but his “perspective glasses” functioned in a similar manner for short distances.

Although Thomas Digges was a member of Queen Elizabeth 1’s Court, he was not a Noble. Rather, he was a Gentleman. This meant that Digges had enough money that he did not have to do manual labor. Rather, he did “gentle” labor, such as overseeing workers. As such, Digges was often sent to various sites in England to oversee work. As an example, he was sent to Dover to take charge of restoring the Dover Harbor for the use of the English Navy. At the top of Dover Cliffs, one can see the coast of France, thus increasing his determination to develop what is now called the telescope.

Digges was also sent to the Low Countries, now known as Belgium and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, while in the Low Countries, he contracted an illness. Consequently, he returned to England and died on August 24, 1595.

Modern Renaissance Faires

The casts of modern Renaissance Faires typically include many historical figures. At the Virginia Renaissance Faire (VaRF), Thomas Digges, as portrayed by Glenn Holiday, is an integral member of the cast.

Glenn Holiday became a member of VaRF when Cornelia Rutherford, the founder of VaRF, asked the Rappahanok Astronomy Club if they could send someone to be a part of VaRF and represent astronomy at this time. And VaRF is happy to claim Glenn Holiday as cast member Thomas Digges for five years to date.

At VaRF, Thomas Digges interacts with numerous visitors, making predictions on a number of topics. At the Queen’s Court, he makes predictions at the Queens behest, and bases his predictions on the science of the stars.

This past year (2019), he performed two shows on the Discovery Stage. During one show, he presented proof that the Earth circled the Sun and was not flat. In the second show, he explained how astronomy was the source of much of our knowledge.

As a roaming cast member, Digges carries a piece of meteorite to demonstrate that stars are not “perfect,” i.e., infinite, and that pieces of stars can “fall off.” He also uses lenses and mirrors and explains how he is trying to build a telescope.

When you come to the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please be sure to seek out Thomas Digges. Perhaps he will let you see his piece of “star” and even make a prediction for you!

To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!

The Virginia Renaissance Faire is produced by Out of the Woodwork Productions, a 501C(3) non-profit. To make a tax deductible contribution, please go to  www.paypal.me/VaRenFaire

*The following Internet articles provided additional information for this blog:


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