Thomas Blundeville - Author and Mathematician

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Thomas Blundeville (c.1522 – c.1606) was an English humanist writer and mathematician. He is known for work on logic, astronomy, education and horsemanship, as well as for translations from the Italian. His interests were both wide-ranging and directed towards practical ends, and he adapted freely a number of the works he translated.

He was a pioneer writer in English in several areas, and inventor of, what would become, a standard classroom geometrical instrument, the protractor.


Thomas Blundeville was born around 1522 in Newton Flotman, Norfolk. He was one of four sons born to Edward Blundeville by his first wife Elizabeth (daughter of Sir Thomas Godsalve and Lord of Inglos Manor in Loddon). He also had a sister Constance who later married William Burnell. In the "postscript" to his "Arte of Logicke"  Thomas says:

"I wrote this Booke many yeeres past, whilest I sojourned with my most deare Brother in Law, Master William Burnel, a man of most singular humanitie and of great hospitalitie, at his house in Winkborne in Nottinghamshire, not farre from Southwell."

Thomas also had two half brothers, Jerome and John, from his father's later marriage to Barbara Drake. It is from Jerome that most of the Blunderfields listed in this family tree are descended.

The authors of 'Athenie Cantabrigienses' suppose that Thomas Blundeville was educated at Cambridge, though they are unable to specify the period, the college or house to which he belonged. It is known that he was resident at Cambridge about the same time as John Dee (who became an advisor to Elizabeth I) and the astronomer Thomas Digges, possibly as a non-collegiate student, and if so must have been one of the last of them.

It seems probable that he travelled to Italy, an inference from his familiarity with Italian literature. He was a mathematics tutor to Elizabeth Bacon, the daughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon (politician and lawyer) and to Sir Francis Wyndham. The arithmetic exercises that he prepared for Elizabeth Bacon, formed the basis of his best selling work The Exercises which he first published in 1594 and went through seven editions.

He had connections with court circles, and London scientific intellectuals. He was an associate of Henry Briggs, Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, and enjoyed the patronage of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, among other aristocrats.

He married twice; firstly to Rose Putenham in 1554 by whom he had a son and heir Andrew1. Sadly Andrew was killed in the Flemish wars. Rose died during a visit, with Thomas, to his sister Constance at Winkborne in Nottinghamshire - she was buried there on 24th October 1564. Secondly, he married Margaret Johnson in 1582 by whom he had two daughters, Elizabeth and Patience. Daughter Elizabeth married Rowland Meyrick, son of Sir Gelli Meyrick who was steward to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and caught up in his fall. Patience married Robert King, of Culpho in Suffolk.

Thomas Inherited the Manor of Newton Flotman in 1568 when his father Edward died. He lived as a country gentleman .and seems to have managed the estate prudently. 

Thomas erected the Blundeville family tomb, under which he lies buried; in the church of Newton Flotman.  The monument is a fascinating illustration of the sort of man he was. In the centre panel he kneels bare-headed, in armour, his helmet and a book on the prayer desk beside him, while to the left, his two wives Rose and Margaret kneel, dressed in gowns with big ruffs and Tudor bonnets, along with his daughters Patience and Elizabeth.

In the right hand panel is  a London made brass with effigies of his great-grandfather Richard, grandfather Ralph and father Edward, with their ages and the dates of their deaths. The inscription by the figures records that Thomas placed it here in 1571.

The text of this brass reads as follows:

Heare lyes in grave nowe three tymes done
The grandsyr, ffather and the sone:
Theyr names, theyr age and when theyr dyed
Above theyr heads ys specyfyed
Theyr shield of arms dothe eke declare
The stocke with whom they mached ware
They lyved well and dyed as well
And now with God in Heaven they dwell
And theare do prayse his holy name
God grant that we maye do the same.

The London Subsidy Returns of 1576, list Thomas Blundevile as being worth 20 pounds.

Thomas died in 1605, with no male issue, leaving his two daughters as co-heiresses. The Manor of Newton Flotman, which had continued in the Blundeville family for more than 5 centuries, was sold in 1646 by Robert King, the husband of Thomas's youngest daughter Patience who died in 1538.

1. In the Visitations of Norfolk (1563, 1589 and 1613) page 41, Thomas's son is shown as Anthony.


Early Works
One of his earliest works was a partial verse translation of Plutarch's Moralia, which appeared in 1561 as Three Moral Treatises to mark the accession of Elizabeth I, to whom one of the pieces was dedicated.

'Three Morall Treatises, no less pleasant than necessary for all men to read, whereof the one is called the Learned Prince, the other the Fruites of Foes, the thyrde the Porte of Rest,' The first two pieces are in verse, the third in prose; the first is dedicated to the queen. Prefixed to the second piece are three four-line stanzas by Roger Ascham.

His book on horsemanship The Art of Riding (c.1560) was the first work on equitation published in English. It was an adaptation of a work by Federico Grisone and was directed towards the use of horses in war. He followed it with The Fower chiefyst offices belongyng to horsemanshippe (1565–6) and is dedicated to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester........

........that is to saye. The office of the breeder, of the rider, of the keper, and of the ferrer. In the firste parte wherof is declared the order of breding of horses. In the seconde howe to breake them, and to make theym horses of seruyce, conteyninge the whole art of ridynge lately set forth, and nowe newly corrected and amended of manye faultes escaped in the fyrste printynge, as well touchyng the bittes as other wyse. Thirdely howe to dyet them, aswell when they reste as when they trauell by the way. Fourthly to what diseases they be subiecte, together with the causes of such diseases, the sygnes howe to knowe them, and finally howe to cure the same. Whyche bookes are not onely paynfully collected out of a nomber of aucthours, but also orderly dysposed and applyed to the vse of thys oure cou[n]trey. By Tho. Blundeuill of Newton Flotman in Norff.

It was praised as "Xenophontean" by th 16th century English writer Gabriel Harvey.

A very briefe and profitable Treatise, declaring howe many Counsels and what manner of Counselers a Prince that will governe well ought to have. The treatise was written originally in Spanish by Federigo Furio Ceriól, translated thence into Italian by Alfonso d'Woa, and from Italian into English bv Blundeville. There is a dedication, dated from Newton Flotman 1st April 1570, to the Earl of Leicester.

His True Order and Methode (1574) was dedicated to the Earl of Leicester and was a loose translation and summary of historiographical works by the Italian philosophers Jacopo Aconcio and Francesco Patrizzi. It endorsed the realist writing of history as process, and was one of the few English contributions of the period to the artes historicae. He translated also a manuscript of Aconcio on fortification, for the Earl of Bedford.

His Arte of Logike (written in 1575, published in 1599)......

........Plainely taught in the English tongue, according to the best approved authors. Very necessary for all students in any profession, how to defend any argument against all subtill sophisters, and cauelling schismatikes, and how to confute their false syllogismes, and captious arguments. By M. Blundevile.

It contains a section on fallacies and examples of Aristotelian and Copernican arguments on the motion of the Earth.

Later Works
Blundevilles later works are directed towards geography, navigation and travel. In his view, geography was a necessary support to history; their content is very mixed.

The Exercises (1594) initially collected six treatises on practical skills, with a serious effort to be up-to-date. One of the parts described the world map of Petrus Plancius, published just two years earlier. Other topical matters covered were Molyneux's globes, the work of John Blagrave (Mathematician) and Gemma Frisius (Cartographer), and the Thomas Hood Cross-Staff (used for measuring the angle of the sun above the horizon)

........containing a brief account of arithmetic, cosmography, the use of the globes, a universal map, the astrolabe, and navigation. The arithmetic is taken from Recorde, but to it are added trigonometrical tables (copied from Clavius) of the natural sines, tangents, and secants of all angles in the first quadrant; the difference between consecutive angles being one minute. These are worked out to seven places of decimals. This is the earliest English work in which plane trigonometry is introduced.

A later edition (1613) showed the circumnavigations of Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. Two more Treatises must have been added, as the 1622 edition was entitled M. Blundevile His Exercises, Contayning eight Treatises.....

........which Treatises are very necessary to be read and learned of all young Gentlemen that have not beene exercised in such Disciplines, and yet are desirous to have knowledge as well in Cosmographie, Astronomie, and Geographie, as also in the Art of Navigation, in which Art it is impossible to profit without the helpe of these, or such like Instructions. To the furtherance of which Art of Navigation, the sayd Master Blundevile specially wrote the said Treatises, and of meere good will doth dedicate the same to all young Gentlemen of this Realme. This sixth Edition corrected and augmented.
Published in London by William Stansby, 1622.

An original copy of this 1622 6th edition was sold by an American bookshop in 2005 for $1,000. The work went through seven editions before 1636.

He collaborated on an astronomy book, The Theoriques of the Seven Planets (1602), assisted by Lancelot Browne, the queen's physician. It contained information about the recent research of Dr William Gilbert on the Earth's magnetic field, together with the making of two instruments for seamen to find out the latitude without seeing sun, moon, or stars.

.......shewing all their diverse motions, and all other accidents, called passions, thereunto belonging. Now more plainly set forth in our mother tongue by M. Blundevile, than ever they have been heretofore in any other tongue whatsoever, and that with such pleasant demonstrative figures, as every man that hath any skill in arithmeticke, may easily understand the same. Whereunto is added by the said Master Blundevile, a breefe extract by him made, of Maginus his Theoriques, for the better understanding of the Prutenicall tables, to calculate thereby the diverse motions of the seuen planets. There is also hereto added, The making, description, and use, of two most ingenious and necessarie instruments for sea-men. First invented by M. Doctor Gilbert ... and now here plainely set downe in our mother tongue by Master Blundeuile.

In his Briefe Description of Universal Mappes and Cardes. Thomas had worked with William Barlow (magenetism and particularly compasses at sea) and others on the required scientific instruments and has been credited with the invention of the protractor - he described a semicircular instrument for measuring angles.