Sir Kenelm Digby

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Kenelm Digby, Sir

Birthdate: (62)
Birthplace: Borris, Leinster, Ireland
Death: circa 1665 (54-70)
Borris, Leinster, Ireland
Immediate Family:

Son of Sir Everard Digby and Mary Digby
Husband of Venetia Stanley
Father of John Digby
Brother of John Digby

Managed by: Ivor C-D
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Sir Kenelm Digby

Sir Kenelm Digby (July 11, 1603 – June 11, 1665) was an English courtier and diplomat. He was also a highly reputed natural philosopher, and known as a leading Roman Catholic intellectual and Blackloist. For his versatility, Anthony à Wood called him the "magazine of all arts".

Early life and career

He was born at Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire, England. He was of gentry stock, but his family's adherence to Roman Catholicism coloured his career. His father, Sir Everard, was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Kenelm was sufficiently in favour with James I to be proposed as a member of Edmund Bolton's projected Royal Academy (with George Chapman, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Selden, and Sir Henry Wotton).

He went to Gloucester Hall, Oxford in 1618, where he was taught by Thomas Allen, but left without taking a degree. In time Allen bequeathed to Digby his library, and the latter donated it to the Bodleian.

He spent three years on The Continent between 1620 and 1623, where Marie de Medici fell madly in love with him (as he later recounted). He was granted a Cambridge M.A. on the King's visit to the university in 1624. Around 1625, he married Venetia Stanley, whose wooing he cryptically described in his memoirs. He had also become a member of the Privy Council of Charles I of England. Due to his Roman Catholicism being a hindrance in the way of government office, he switched to Anglicanism.

In 1628, Digby became a privateer. On his flagship the Eagle later re-christened the Arabella: he arrived off Gibraltar January 18 and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From February 5 to March 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 for the Crown to order 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.

Catholicism and Civil War

Digby became a Catholic once more in 1635. He went into voluntary exile in Paris, where he spent most of his time until 1660. There he met both Marin Mersenne and Thomas Hobbes.

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, Mont le Ros, 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 from "the stone", likely caused by kidney stones.

Character and works

Digby published a work of apologetics in 1638, A Conference with a Lady about choice of a Religion. In it he argued that the 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.

Digby was regarded as an eccentric by contemporaries, partly because of his effusive personality, and partly because of his interests in scientific matters. Henry Stubbe called him "the very Pliny of our age for lying". He lived in a time when scientific enquiry had not settled down in any disciplined way. He spent enormous time and effort in the pursuits of astrology, and alchemy which he studied in the 1630s with Van Dyck.

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. His book on this salve went through 29 editions. Synchronising the effects of the powder, which apparently caused a noticeable effect on the patient when applied, was actually suggested in 1687 as a means of solving the longitude problem.

In 1644 he published together two major philosophical treatises, The Nature of Bodies and On the Immortality of Reasonable Souls. The latter was translated into Latin in 1661 by John Leyburn. These Two Treatises were his major natural-philosophical works, and showed a combination of Aristotelianism and atomism.

He was in touch with the leading intellectuals of the time, and was highly regarded by them; he was a founding member of the Royal Society and a member of its governing council from 1662 to 1663. His correspondence with Fermat contains the only extant mathematical proof by Fermat, a demonstration, using his method of descent, that the area of a Pythagorean triangle cannot be a square. His Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants (1661) proved controversial among the Royal Society's members. He is credited with being the first person to note the importance of "vital air," or oxygen, to the sustenance of plants.

Digby is known for the publication of a cookbook, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, but it was actually published by a close servant, from his notes, in 1669, several years after his death. It is currently considered an excellent source of period recipes, particularly for beverages such as mead.

Digby is also considered the father of the modern wine bottle. During the 1630s, Digby owned a glassworks and manufactured wine bottles which were globular in shape with a high, tapered neck, a collar, and a punt. His manufacturing technique involved a coal furnace, made hotter than usual by the inclusion of a wind tunnel, and a higher ratio of sand to potash and lime than was customary. Digby's technique produced wine bottles which were stronger and more stable than most of their day, and which due to their translucent green or brown color protected the contents from light. During his exile and prison term, others claimed his technique as their own, but in 1662 Parliament recognized his claim to the invention as valid.


Not much is really known about this period in his wife, Venetia’s, life. It’s believed that she lived for a time in Buckinghamshire, close to the home of her future husband, the dashing scion of a well known Papist family, Kenelm Digby, who was three years her junior and that the young couple had become instantly smitten, much to the horror of both their families. In the end they were separated when Kenelm’s mother pulled some strings and had her lovelorn son sent abroad for several years on a series of diplomatic missions, leaving his Venetia behind.

Alone, heartbroken and unprotected it’s said that the unfortunate Venetia became mistress to Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset and even had children by him before her former lover Kenelm Digby returned to England, fully resolved to make an honourable woman of her.

By now, Kenelm was one of the most fascinating characters of his time – a renowned and respected scientist, explorer, philosopher and writer who was also a talented diplomat. He was the very epitome of the well educated, insatiably intellectually curious and courageous courtier that most men at this time aspired to be – a Sir Philip Sidney of the seventeenth century, as handy with his sword as he was with his pen.

Kenelm was not perhaps as handsome as other men of the court and had a typical intellectual disregard for his appearance but Venetia returned his love and the couple were secretly married in 1625. It is not known precisely why their marriage was clandestine but it’s likely that Venetia’s reputation had preceded her somewhat and that there were fears that Kenelm’s devoutly Catholic mother may disapprove, although the fact that Venetia was equally well born, the granddaughter of a noted Catholic peer, the Earl of Northumberland and mistress of a large inherited fortune may well have done much to smooth the way when the truth finally came out.

Although it seems that the marriage was kept secret for quite some time as the couple’s first child, a son was born in secrecy, with the proud father, Kenelm later telling him that Venetia’s labour had been perilous in more ways than one: ‘None of the servants of the house that had their continually passage by her dore, did then or ever after suspect what had passed: she had a most sore and dangerous labor and yett in the greatest panges of it she never expressed by groanes or scarce by sighes the paine and torment she was in.’

  • 'Sir Kenelm Digby1
  • 'M, #247665, b. 1603, d. 11 June 1665
  • Last Edited=11 Jan 2010
  • 'Sir Kenelm Digby was born in 1603.2 He was the son of Sir Everard Digby.3 He married Venetia Stanley, daughter of Sir Edward Stanley and Lady Lucy Percy, in 1625.1 He died on 11 June 1665.3
  • ' He lived at Goathurst, Buckinghamshire, England.1
  • 'Child of Sir Kenelm Digby and Venetia Stanley
    • 1.John Digby+3
  • Citations
  • 1.[S37] Charles Mosley, editor, Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage, 107th edition, 3 volumes (Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.A.: Burke's Peerage (Genealogical Books) Ltd, 2003), volume 1, page 1102. Hereinafter cited as Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 107th edition.
  • 2.[S3409] Caroline Maubois, "re: Penancoet Family," e-mail message to Darryl Roger Lundy, 2 December 2008. Hereinafter cited as "re: Penancoet Family."
  • 3.[S37] Charles Mosley, Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 107th edition, volume 1, page 1141.
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  • 'The history and antiquities of the county of Buckingham (1847) Vol. 4
  • The Pomatium, or large edible snail, which abounds, in spring months, in many watery places, and amongst woods, is found in abundance near Gayhurst : a coppice on the banks of the Ouse abounds with them ; and are said to have been brought from France by 'Sir Kenelm Digby,1 to be used by Lady Venetia,' as a restorative in consumption. These snails, which are of a whitish hue tinged with red, and the flesh particularly white and firm, bury themselves deep in the ground on the approach of winter, and remain in a torpid state till the spring. They are also found in mud-walls, near some of the villages in the neighbourhood.
    • PEDIGREE OF DIGBY. From Harl. MSS. 1364.
    • CHART
  • 1. EVERARD DIGBY, of Drystoke; d. circ. 1592. mar. MARY, dau. and hr. of Francis Nele, of Keythorpe; b. 1513; living in 1632 she mar. SAMPSON ERDESWICKE, Esq., of Sandon, Co. Stafford. ch: 1. EVERARD DIGBY, 2. GEORGE DIGBY, 3. JOHN, 4. MARY, mar. to Sir Robt. Wright, Knt., alias Reeve, of Thwaite, Co. Stafford, 5. ELIZABETH.
    • 1. EVERARD DIGBY, "de alta proditione attinctus, an. 1605; quia nefandissimis illis incendiariis ad principem at patriam uno tartarei fulminis ictu toltendum horrenda consilia scelerate sociavit." mar. MARY, sole dau. and heir of William Mulsho, of Golthurst. ch: '1. SIR KENELM DIGBY', 2. SIR JOHN DIGBY, Knt, major-General in the King's Army in the West; killed at the Battle of Longport, in Somersetshire, 9 July 1645.
      • ' 1. SIR KENELM DIGBY, Knt., of Gothurst, Co. Bucks; died in 1665, aet. 62. mar. VENETIA ANASTATIA, dau. and co-heir of Sir Edward Stanley, K.B., of Tongue Castle, Co. Salop; died May 1663, aet. 33; bur. in Ch. Ch. London. ch: 1. KENELM DIGBY, born in 1611; killed at St. Neot's, fighting for the King, 9 July 1648; died s. p., 2. JOHN DIGBY, 3. GEORGE, 4. EDWARD, ob. jur., 5. MARGERY, mar. to Edward Dudley, Esq., of Clopton, Co. Northampton.
        • 2. JOHN DIGBY, Esq. of Gothurst. mar. (1) CATHARINE, eldest surviving dau. of Henry Earl of Arundel. (2) MARGARET, fourth dau. of Edward Longueville, Esq., of Wolverton, Co. Bucks. ch: 1. MARGARET MARIA, 2. CHARLOTTA THEOPHILA
  • ______
  • .... The younger Everard's wardship was bought by Roger Manners, lessee of the manor and of Holy Oaks, (fn. 41) who transferred it to Mary, Everard's widow. Everard, who was knighted in 1603, married Mary, daughter of William Mulsho of Gayhurst or Gothurst (co. Bucks), (fn. 42) and was a prominent person at the court of James I, where he came under the influence of the Jesuit Gerrard. He settled the manor on his son 'Kenelm in 1604.' (fn. 43) Being attainted and hanged for high treason for his share in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606, his lands were taken into the king's hand. (fn. 44) Sir Everard's wife survived him for a widowhood of nearly fifty years, and Holy Oaks in Stoke Dry, demised by her in 1645, was still under sequestration for her recusancy in 1653, by which date she was dead. (fn. 45)
  • 'The manor passed under the above entail to Sir Everard's son and heir Kenelm, aged two at his father's death. He was dealing with it in 1624, (fn. 46) but his mother's Gayhurst property, where he was born, became his principal seat. He was knighted in 1623, married a wife of extraordinary beauty, Venetia, daughter of Sir Edward Stanley of Shropshire, and was made Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Commissioner of the Navy, and Governor of Trinity Houseby Charles I. In 1628 he defeated the Venetians with a squadron equipped at his own expense. (fn. 47) His philosophical and scientific work brought him fame on the Continent and at home, and even, later, the friendship of Oliver Cromwell, though he was imprisoned and banished and his estates sequestered for his Royalist activities. In 1639 he mortgaged the manors of Stoke Dry and Tilton to Daniel Harvey, Elias (or Eliab), Michael, and Matthew Harvey. (fn. 48) The transaction was allowed by the sequestrators in 1645, but after his banishment in 1649 it was the subject of petitions from 1650–1653 by claimants on his estate. (fn. 49) These petitioners included his mother, his father's brother George Digby of Standon (co. Staffs), Eliab Harvey, who was guardian of the late mortgagee's son Daniel, and his own son John Digby, who became his heir after the death of his eldest son Kenelm in 1649. (fn. 50) In 1655, with Daniel Harvey and his wife Elizabeth and Elias Harvey and his wife Mary, he conveyed the manor to John Morris for purposes of settlement. (fn. 51) Kenelm Digby died in 1665. His son John', who was buried at Gayhurst in 1673, left two daughters as co-heirs, Mary (or Margaret Maria), who married Sir John Conway, second and last bart. of Bodryddan (co. Flint), and Charlotte, who married the Conways' kinsman, Richard Mostyn. Mary died in 1690, Charlotte in 1693–4. In 1704 Sir John Conway and Richard Mostyn obtained an Act of Parliament for the sale of the Digby estates. (fn. 52) Henry, the only son of Sir John Conway and Mary Digby, married Honora, daughter and co-heir of Thomas Ravenscroft of Broadlane Housein Hawarden (co. Flint), whose other daughter and co-heir, Catherine Ravenscroft, married Thomas Powys of Lilford (co. Northants). (fn. 53) Honora, the only child of Henry Conway and Honora his wife, was born after her father's death in 1717. (fn. 54) Sir John Conway, father of Henry, died in 1721, (fn. 55) and Honora married Sir John Glynne, bart. of Bicester (co. Oxon), in 1731. (fn. 56) In 1722 Charlotte Mostyn, spinster, daughter of Richard Mostyn and Charlotte [Digby], was dealing with a moiety of the manor and advowson; (fn. 57) the other moiety was conveyed by Sir John Glynne, bart., and Honora his wife to Joseph Ashton (fn. 58) apparently as trustee for sale. The manor and advowson then seem to have passed to John Conduit, who presented to the church and died in 1736. His only daughter, Catherine, married John Wallop, Viscount Lymington, who with his wife was holding the manor and advowson in 1742. (fn. 59) The manor was again settled for purposes of sale on Joseph Ashton, (fn. 60) and in 1748–9 an Act of Parliament was procured for selling the settled estates of Catherine. The manor and advowson were sold to Thomas Powys, son of Thomas Powys and Catherine Ravenscroft. He presented to the church in 1755. His son Thomas Powys, created Lord Lilford, was dealing with the manor in 1771. (fn. 61) Between 1773 and 1776 the manor and advowson had passed to Henry Cecil (fn. 62) (d. 1793), brother of Brownlow, second Marquess of Exeter, and it still remains the property of the Marquess of Exeter.
  • From: 'Parishes: Stoke Dry', A History of the County of Rutland: Volume 2 (1935), pp. 221-227. URL: Date accessed: 28 November 2011.
  • ___________
  • 'The Visitation of the county of Rutland in the year 1618-19. Taken by William Camden, Clarenceaux king of arms (1870)
    • CHART - (Digby.)
  • 1. Everard Digby sonne & heire. mar. Mary da & coh. of Francis Neale of Kethorpe in com' Leic. ch: 1. S'r Everard Digby, 2. George., 3. John., 4. Mary ux. S'r Rob't Wright al's Reeve of Thwayte in com' Suff., 5. Elizabeth; She mar. Sampson Erdeswick of Sandon in com' Stafford (1st husb.) ch: Richard Erdeswick.
    • 1. S'r Everard Digby K't attainted Ao (3) King James. mar. Mary da. & h. of Will'm Mulsho of Goathurst in co. Bucks. ch: '1. S'r Keneln Digby.', 2. John Digby.
      • ' 1. S'r Keneln Digby K't of Gotherst in Com' Bucks. mar. Venetia da. & coh. of S'r Edward Stanley of Winwick in com' Oxon K't of the Bath. ch: Kenelme Digby.
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Sir Kenelm Digby's Timeline

Borris, Leinster, Ireland
December 29, 1627
Age 24
Borris, Leinster, Ireland
Age 62
Borris, Leinster, Ireland