The Tudor swimming guide: how we first learnt to swim

The first handbook on how to swim was the brainchild of an eccentric ‘crypto-Catholic’ with a liking for controversy. Nicholas Orme surveys an ambitious visual guide designed to tempt Tudor gents into the water...

'The Fountain of Youth', 1546. Artist: Lucas Cranach the Elder

This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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It took an eccentric person to write the earliest book on how to swim. That was because he wrote it in 1587, when there were no swimming pools and nobody went to the seaside for holidays; when you could only swim in a river and then only in the summer, provided you did not mind slimy water weed, dead branches, swans and fish-traps.

The writer was ambitious as well as eccentric. He aimed to turn swimming from a disregarded skill of bargees and boatmen into an accomplishment for gentlemen, to make them more like the Romans. In modern terms, that was the equivalent of turning swimming into an Olympic sport and getting it sponsorship from the richest people of the day.

To do this he wrote in Latin, the civilised language of Europe, the language you used if you wished to be taken seriously. But he also realised that pictures were needed to show how the strokes should be done. And so not only did he produce the earliest book about swimming, but one of the first visual guides to any sport.

'The Fountain of Youth', 1546. Artist: Lucas Cranach the Elder
‘The Fountain of Youth’, 1546. From the collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

An instinctive teacher

Everard Digby came to notoriety only once in his lifetime, and then not for his interest in swimming. Born in 1548 into a poor gentry family from Leicestershire, he got a place at St John’s College, Cambridge, when he was 19. He worked his way up to a college fellowship and finally in 1584, to be the lecturer in charge of teaching the students.

There were three strands in Digby’s character. Two of them helped him write his swimming book. He was an instinctive teacher (his first book was a basic guide to knowledge for students), and he was a rumbustious outdoor sports enthusiast who must have enjoyed the water. He was later accused of fishing when he should, in fact, have been in chapel, and of disturbing the college by shouting and blowing a horn.

The third strand was more problematical. The Digbys had leanings towards Catholicism. One of them was in the Guy Fawkes plot, and Everard soon gained a reputation (deserved or not) as a crypto-Catholic. That was a risky reputation to have when England was facing danger from Catholic conspiracies and a Spanish invasion.

Up to the late 1580s, Digby’s career was successful. He was ordained as a priest and acquired a parish in Rutland in tandem with his college fellowship. In 1585 he was elected a senior fellow with greater privileges and powers, and in 1587 he published his book on swimming. Then things went seriously wrong. Within a year he lost his fellowship, left Cambridge and was living in the countryside, an embittered man.

The cause of this was trivial but it snowballed because of Digby’s religious reputation and his liking for controversy. He refused to pay a college bill because it was incorrectly presented. The master of the college, William Whitaker, a determined Protestant, seized the opportunity to deprive Digby of his fellowship. Digby appealed successfully, but Whitaker lobbied powerful courtiers to intervene, assuring them that Digby was a dangerous influence. In the end he had to leave.

Financially he did not do badly. He went first to his parish in Rutland, acquired two other churches and enjoyed a very respectable income. Eventually he moved to his church of Orton Longueville outside Peterborough, close to the amenities of a town. But he was not happy. His last book was a lament for the state of the Church of England and for his own exile. He died in the autumn of 1605, in his late fifties.

Let us now go back to happier times and the year 1587 when Digby published his De Arte Natandi, ‘The Art of Swimming’. It was not quite the first book on the subject. Nicholas Wynman, a Swiss, had written one in 1538, but that was a short work in praise of swimming not a handbook of how to do it. Digby’s is larger and more methodical. It starts with a survey of swimming, going back to classical times to explain why the skill is valuable and civilised.

Then it tells you how to swim in chapters illustrated with woodcuts of Tudor gentlemen undressing on river banks and demonstrating strokes and feats in the water. Digby was a clear and sensible teacher. Lesson 1 is getting used to the water. Don’t go in if you’re feeling hot. Cool down and then wade slowly in. You can jump in more dramatically, but that is for experienced people.

Lesson 2 is learning to swim. This should preferably be done with someone supporting you under the chin, or by using water wings made of two inflated pigs’ bladders. The basic stroke to learn is like our breast-stroke, although it has no name. After this you are taught how to turn in the water, and then to do other strokes.

There is a back-stroke with legs alone, a back-stroke with arms and legs, a side-stroke, a breast-stroke with legs alone and doggy-paddle: “to swim like a dog”. Digby did not know the front or back-crawl or the butterfly, of course, because these are modern inventions. Diving comes at the back of the book, and this is not diving from the bank – unwise in a muddy river where you could not see hazards – but diving from the surface of the water, learning how to swim underwater and how to come up again.

In 1595 the work was translated into English by Christopher Middleton as A Short Introduction for to Learn to Swim, “for the better understanding of those who know not the Latin tongue”. Middleton cut out Digby’s historical digressions and theorising, and concentrated on the practical chapters, with the same woodcuts.

Neither the Latin nor the English version had a great impact to start with. Only three copies in English survive today, and a few more in Latin. But they are important for two reasons. First, they are the earliest detailed accounts of how swimming in England was done. Before 1587 we have only a few manuscript pictures of people in the water, and these show little more than a kind of breast-stroke.

Digby’s swimming was more happy-go-lucky than ours. He lacked our obsession with speed, and thought that the side-stroke was the fastest. If we had watched him in the River Cam, he would probably have shown off by doing 20 or 30 different kinds of strokes in succession.

Where he comes out strongly is in what one might call exhibitionist swimming: sitting on the water while keeping afloat; carrying things in both hands across the water; swimming holding one foot with one hand – useful, he says, if you happen to get cramp; swimming while dancing with both legs in the air; and, rather dangerously, cutting your toenails in the water by lying on your back, bringing up one knee to your chest and using a knife.

He lived in an age when dancing was very popular, especially spectacular dancing by jugglers and minstrels, which would have coloured his approach to swimming. His idea was not to get somewhere quickly but to impress the onlooker, and so he is perhaps the grandfather of synchronised swimming.

The second importance of Digby’s book lies in its influence. Although neither Latin nor English version was ever reprinted, they were copied by later writers without acknowledgement: William Percey in 1658, Melchisedech Thevenot in France in 1696, and an anonymous English translator of Thevenot in 1699. Digby’s work was reprinted in one version or another until 1789, and parts of it made a final appearance as late as 1838 in an early Victorian book called The Art of Swimming and Skating.

So Digby started something after all. It was pretty good to write a book in 1587 that was still coming out in England and France on the eve of the French Revolution, even if he had been forgotten as the author. The run-up to the London Olympics is a good time to remember the man who brought swimming out of the shadows, recorded it in words and pictures, enabled many people to learn it and helped to bring about the ways that we do it today.

Swimming: A history

Swimming in Britain is mentioned from Roman times. Plutarch describes a centurion doing it during Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55–54 BC, and Caesar himself swam the Nile during a battle when he was in his fifties. All swimming until about the 19th century was done by men, usually naked. Women only bathed while wearing clothes.

The skill continued to have status among the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. The hero of Beowulf, the earliest English epic poem, is portrayed doing superhuman feats in the North Sea, and the Viking sagas feature men swimming, more realistically, in the fjords of Scandinavia and Iceland.

Swimming fell out of fashion with the coming of feudalism because it was not compatible with fighting on horseback wearing armour. It rarely features among the skills of medieval knights, although Sir Thomas Malory, the author of the Morte d’Arthur, is recorded swimming a moat to escape from Coleshill Castle (Warwickshire) in 1451.

Interest in the skill revived with the Renaissance of the early 16th century and its renewed respect for the culture of Greece and Rome, including the art of swimming. Digby’s treatise reflects this approval, and other educational writers in Tudor and Stuart England recommended it for gentlemen.

The overseas discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries made people aware of the skill among indigenous peoples. Man Friday swims in Robinson Crusoe (1719).

By 1725, when Benjamin Franklin came to England from America, there was enough interest in swimming in London for Franklin to demonstrate it in public and teach it to other people.

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Swimming’s modern popularity dates from the 19th century. Leisure brought about seaside holidays and the building of swimming pools for both sexes. Schools incorporated sport into the curriculum and developed competitive swimming. The Industrial Revolution inspired a search to bring the techniques of swimming to mechanical perfection.
Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at Exeter University. His books include Medieval Children (YUP, 2001) and Medieval Schools (YUP, 2006).