The Time King James Took A Submarine Trip Along The Thames

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By M@
The Time King James Took A Submarine Trip Along The Thames
A yellowed painting of a river scene in the 17th century. Behatted people stand around watching a curious river vehicle - an early submarine - with oars sticking out the side. A cityscape is in the background
A 17th century submarine on the Thames. Image is a later recreation, and public domain

King James, the successor to Elizabeth I, the first Stuart king of England, dodger of the Gunpowder Plot... and one of the first people to ride in a submarine?

It sounds crazy, but James I (or James VI in Scotland) may well have been one of the world's first submariners. His putative nautical adventures took place right here in London, in the murky waters of the Thames.

The genius who made it happen was a Dutch inventor called Cornelis Drebbel. Before venturing into the Thames, Drebbel dipped his toes in any number of other projects. His innovations include everything from an egg incubator to air conditioning, from colour dyes to (perhaps) the first compound microscope. He was the Edison (or Archibald Low) of his day.

Drebbel's first submarine was built in 1620, while he was under the employment of the English Royal Navy. It featured a sealed wooden shell, made watertight with greased leathers. It could move about via rudder and oars, and dived using an ingenious system of bladders. When the bladders were filled with water, the craft would sink; the water could then be squeezed out to raise the vessel. Air was provided via snorkel-like tubes, kept above water with floatation devices. It's also been speculated the Drebbel was able to produce breathable oxygen through the chemical reaction of potassium nitrate.

Drebbel's craft is usually credited as the world's first navigable submarine — and it was about to get a most august passenger.

The first underwater monarch?

Drebbel built two further submarines over the coming years, perfecting his model. The final version could carry an astounding (and astounded) 16 people to a depth of four or five metres. It underwent many trials in the Thames including a journey from Westminster to Greenwich and back (presumably assisted by the tide).

Records from the time lack further detail. None of Drebbel's notes or drawings survive and details of the boat trials can only be pieced together from the accounts of witnesses (including Ben Jonson, who described the craft as an "invisible eel").

A black and white ink portrait of Cornelis Drebbel. He looks like a typical man of the 17th century, with an extravagant moustache and hair untroubled by the barber's arts.
Cornelis Drebbel. Invented everything except the hair brush.

The King's voyage is noted in only one secondary account. The contemporary writer Georg Harsdörffer wrote of Drebbel's submarines that "King James himself journeyed in one of them on the Thames. There were on this occasion twelve rowers besides the passengers, and the vessel during several hours was kept at a depth of twelve to fifteen feet below the surface."

Historians have questioned whether accounts such as this are exaggerated. Even so, it is astounding to think that the Thames may have embraced a royal submarine over 400 years ago. Incidentally, Drebbel's craft was recreated by boatbuilder Mark Edwards in 2002 as part of a BBC programme about the invention. Here it is pictured in Richmond (by Colin Smith under creative commons licence).

Last Updated 29 April 2022