Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Eventful Life of Sir Kenelm Digby

Sir Kenelm Digby had the kind of life that makes for an interesting story - an English courtier and privateer, he travelled throughout Europe, was multi-lingual, interested in alchemy and natural philosophy, and was a naval administrator. I really admire him for his great curiosity about the world around him, much like other great men of his time. 

Born in 1603 to Mary and Everard Digby - the latter one of the Gunpowder Plotters who was executed by hanging, drawing, and quartering - Kenelm Digby was as Catholic as his family; something that would eventually bring him some trouble! 

Through the ages he has become most well-known (when he is remembered at all) for The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby, which every researcher of the 17th-century knows and loves. This book, much like The English Hus-Wife by Gervase Markham is chock-full of cookery recipes that would have been helpful back then. Who am I kidding? I make food for my family even now with some of his recipes!

For example, here is his recipe for making a plain, English potage:


"Make it of Beef, Mutton and Veal; at last adding a Capon, or Pigeons. Put in at first a quartered Onion or two, some Oat-meal, or French barley, some bottome of a Venison-pasty-crust, twenty whole grains of Pepper: four or five Cloves at last, and a little bundle of sweet-herbs, store of Marigold-flowers. You may put in Parsley or other herbs."

But before he was into domestic preparations, he had a life of adventure - the stuff of Hollywood films. In the 1620s, the young, dashing, handsome Digby went to sea as a privateer, but things weren't always great. According to The Early Stuarts by Godfrey Davies:

"The Earl of Warwick received a commission to attack any Spanish dominions in Europe, Africa, or America, but achieved little, and Sir Kenelm Digby's semi-piratical expedition to the Mediterranean was equally futile."

It seems that Digby's advancement in government was blocked by the Duke of Buckingham. This is pretty likely, as Buckingham had a reputation to support such behaviour.

The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
But not everything was about work. In the late 1620s, Kenelm met the woman who would become his wife. Venetia Stanley was - from every description written and every painting of her - a gorgeous creature. She was very much sought-after and Kenelm was no exception.

Unfortunately, Venetia was seen as a sort of good-time girl, and had openly bestowed her favours on the Earl of Dorset and borne him children. This circumstance was a source of great vexation to Kenelm's mother, who was adamantly opposed the match because of Venetia's known wantonness.

Venetia Lady Digby as Prudence: by Anthony Van Dyck

Also, Venetia was a couple of years older than Kenelm, but that was no impediment for the ardent young man. He was quickly besotted by her, and it appears she quite liked him in return, though there were always many suitors fluttering around her.

But amor vincit omnia, as they say, "love conquers all things" and when Kenelm returned from abroad, he married his Venetia, despite his mother's continued protestations. When people gave him a hard time about her bad reputation, he is said to have responded with: 

"a wise man, and lusty, could make an honest woman out of a brothel house."


Venetia was believed to have fully embraced her role as respectable wife and was very different in her behaviour than when she was a younger woman. She and Kenelm had three sons - Kenelm, George and John.

Sadly, their marital felicity was of short duration. Venetia died suddenly aged thirty-two, and the cause has been a source of mystery ever since. According to John Aubrey's Brief Lives:

"She died in her bed suddenly. Some suspected that she was poisoned. When her head was opened there was found to be little brain, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper wine; but spiteful women would say it was a viper-husband who was jealous of her, that she would steal a leap."

As mentioned earlier, Kenelm Digby had knowledge of chemistry and probably poisons, too. That being said however, I think his involvement in her death highly improbable, especially as he had fought hard to win her in the first place, and he displayed overwhelming grief at her death. Some modern historians speculate that drinking viper wine was a bit of a craze, done in order to maintain beauty. Since Venetia was a known beauty, and considered quite old already, I don't think it impossible that she tried this potion in order to maintain her famous looks. Here below is the painting of Venetia on her deathbed, as painted by the popular Flemish Baroque artist, Anthony van Dyck.

Image: The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Haunted by the death of so dear a wife, Sir Kenelm retreated from the public sphere and Aubrey states he lived like a hermit:

"After her death, to avoid envy and scandal, he retired to Gresham College at London, where he diverted himself with his chemistry, and the professors' good conversation. He wore there a long mourning cloak, a high crowned hat, his beard unshorn, looked like a hermit, as signs of sorrow for his beloved wife, to whose memory he erected a sumptuous monument, now quite destroyed by the great conflagration (The Great Fire)."

As Aubrey stated above, Kenelm 'diverted himself with his chemistry' and by the 1650s, others commented upon this. John Evelyn mentions Digby's scientific pursuits in his Diary entry for 7th of November, 1651:

"I visited Sir Kenholm Digby with whom I had much discourse of chymical matters, I shew'd him a particular way of extracting oyle of (symbol) & he gave me a certaine powder with which he affirm'd he had fixed (symbol) before the late King, which he advised me to try and digest a little better, & gave me a Water, which he said was onely raine water of the Autumnal equinox exceedingly rectified, very volatile, it had a tast of a strong vitriolique, and smelt like aqua fortis, he intended it for a disolvant of (symbol). But the truth is, Sir Kenhelme, was an arrant Mountebank."

Evelyn mentions him again on the 20th of November, 1651:

"I went to see Monsieur Feburs course of Chymistrie, where I found Sir K. Digby, and divers Curious Persons of Learning & quality."

Digby never remarried following Venetia's death and had lived through the reigns of James I, Charles I, the English Civil Wars, the Interregnum, and witnessed the Restoration. He had been one of the founding members of the Royal Society and was an important part of the times.

Sir Kenelm Digby died on his birthday 11th June, 1665 at the ripe old age of 62 (a month shy of 63). I know, 62 isn't old at all now - it's almost middle-aged! But I remember the words of Lewis Melville, writing in his book "The Windsor Beauties" when he wrote:

"...was thirty five, which in those days was regarded as quite elderly."

If thirty-five was considered elderly, how much more so was sixty-two?!

At any rate, the epitaph upon his tomb reads:

    Under this tomb the matchless Digby lies,Digby the great, the valiant, and the wise:This age's wonder for his noble parts,Skilled in nix tongues, and learned in all the arts:Born on the day he died, the eleventh of June,On which he bravely fought at Scanderoon;'Tis rare that one and the same day should be His day of birth, of death and victory.



Andrea Zuvich is a 17th-century historian and author of the biographical fiction novella His Last Mistress: The Duke of Monmouth & Lady Henrietta Wentworth and also the historical horror The Stuart VampireShe is the creator of The Seventeenth Century LadyFollow her on Twitter and Facebook for daily 17th-century factoids, Baroque music and art.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If Sir Kenholm was born in 1600, would he not have been near 65 in 1665? Or did some calendar shift occur which I am not taking into account? Thank you!

Andrea Zuvich said...

Ooh! Very well-spotted, thank you - he was born in 1603! I'll go and fix that now. :)