Kenelm Digby

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Kenelm Digby

Sir Kenelm Digby (July 11 1603July 11 1665) was born at Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire. He was of gentry stock, but his family's adherence to Roman Catholicism coloured his career. His father, Sir Everard, had been executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

He went to Gloucester Hall, Oxford in 1618, but left without taking a degree. He spent three years in Europe between 1620 and 1623, where Marie de Medici fell madly in love with him (as he later recounted). He married circa 1625 Venetia Stanley, a racy beauty whose wooing he cryptically described in his memoirs. He had also become a member of the Privy Council of Charles I of England. His Roman Catholicism being a hindrance in the way of government office, he switched to Anglicanism.

In 1628, Digby became a privateer, with some success: on January 18 he arrived off Gibraltar and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From February 5 toMarch 27 he remained at anchor off Algiers on account of the sickness of his men, and extracted a promise from the authorities of better treatment of the English ships. He seized a rich Dutch vessel near Majorca, and after other adventures gained a complete victory over the French and Venetian ships in the harbour of Iskanderun on the June 11. His successes, however, brought upon the English merchants the risk of reprisals, and he was urged to depart.

He returned to become a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House. His wife died suddenly in 1633, prompting a famous deathbed portrait by Van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Jonson. (Digby was later Jonson's literary executor. Jonson's poem about Venetia is now mostly lost, because of the loss of the center sheet of a leaf of papers which held the only copy.) Digby, stricken with grief and the object of enough suspicion that the Crown had ordered an autopsy (rare at the time) on Venetia's body, secluded himself in Gresham College and attempted to forget his personal woes through scientific experimentation and a return to Catholicism. At that period, public servants were often rewarded with patents of monopoly; Digby received the regional monopoly of sealing wax in Wales and the Welsh Borders. This was a guaranteed income; more speculative were the monopolies of trade with the Gulf of Guinea and with Canada. These were doubtless more difficult to police.

Digby became a Roman Catholic once more in 1635, publishing A Conference with a Lady about choice of a Religion, in which he argued that the Roman Catholic Church, possessing alone the qualifications of universality, unity of doctrine and uninterrupted apostolic succession, is the only true church, and that the intrusion of error into it is impossible. He therefore exiled himself voluntarily to the France of Cardinal Richelieu. Returning to support Charles I in his struggle to establish episcopacy in Scotland (the Bishops' Wars), he found himself increasingly unpopular with the growing Puritan party. He left England for France again in 1641. Following an incident in which he killed a French nobleman in a duel, he returned to England via Flanders in 1642, and was jailed by the House of Commons. He was eventually released at the intervention of Anne of Austria, and went back again to France. He remained there during the remainder of the period of the English Civil War. Parliament declared his property in England forfeit.

Queen Henrietta Maria had fled England in 1644, and he became her Chancellor. He was then engaged in unsuccessful attempts to solicit support for the English monarchy from Pope Innocent X. Following the establishment of The Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, who believed in freedom of conscience, Digby was received by the government as a sort of unofficial representative of English Roman Catholics, and was sent in 1655 on a mission to the Papacy to try to reach an understanding. This again proved unsuccessful.

At the Restoration, Digby found himself in favor with the new regime due to his ties with Henrietta Maria, the Queen Mother. However, he was often in trouble with Charles II, and was once even banished from Court. Nonetheless, he was generally highly regarded until his death at the age of 62, likely caused by the kidney stones (which were a common ailment of the period - Pepys had a yearly party celebrating his own successful kidney stone surgery - and which had plagued Digby for years).

Digby was regarded as an eccentric even by his contemporaries, partly because of his effusive personality, and partly because of his interests in scientific matters. He lived in a time when scientific enquiry was very much in the air, but had not settled down in any disciplined way, or broken completely with earlier ideologies.

Notable among his pursuits was the concept of the Powder of Sympathy. This was a kind of sympathetic magic; one manufactured a powder (using appropriate astrological techniques), and daubed it, not on the injured part, but on whatever had caused the injury. Synchronising the effects of the powder (which apparently caused a noticeable effect on the patient when applied) was actually suggested in 1688 as a means of solving the longitude problem.

He was in touch with the leading intellectuals of the time, and was highly regarded by them; he was a founder member of the Royal Society and a member of its governing council from 1662 to 1663. He is known for the publication of a recipe book, but it was actually published by a close servant, from his notes, several years after his death. It is currently considered an excellent source of period recipes, particularly for beverages such as mead. It is also likely (from his ownership of a glassworks) that Digby is one of the inventors of the modern wine bottle.

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