1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Digby, Sir Kenelm
DIGBY, SIR KENELM (1603-1665), English author, diplomatist and naval commander, son of Sir Everard Digby (q.v.), was born on the 11th of July 1603, and after his father’s execution in 1606 resided with his mother at Gayhurst, being brought up apparently as a Roman Catholic. In 1617 he accompanied his cousin, Sir John Digby, afterwards 1st earl of Bristol, and then ambassador in Spain, to Madrid. On his return in April 1618 he entered Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, and studied under Thomas Allen (1542-1632), the celebrated mathematician, who was much impressed with his abilities and called him the Mirandula, i.e. the infant prodigy, of his age. He left the university without taking a degree in 1620, and travelled in France, where, according to his own account, he inspired an uncontrollable passion in the queen-mother, Marie de’ Medici, now a lady of more than mature age and charms; he visited Florence, and in March 1623 joined Sir John Digby again at Madrid, at the time when Prince Charles and Buckingham arrived on their adventurous expedition. He joined the prince’s household and returned with him to England on the 5th of October 1623, being knighted by James I. on the 23rd of October and receiving the appointment of gentleman of the privy chamber to Prince Charles. In 1625 he married secretly Venetia, daughter of Sir Edward Hanley of Tonge Castle, Shropshire, a lady of extraordinary beauty and intellectual attainments, but of doubtful virtue. Digby was a man of great stature and bodily strength. Edward Hyde, afterwards earl of Clarendon, who with Ben Jonson was included among his most intimate friends, describes him as “a man of very extraordinary person and presence which drew the eyes of all men upon him, a wonderful graceful behaviour, a flowing courtesy and civility, and such a volubility of language as surprised and delighted.” Digby for some time was excluded from public employment by Buckingham’s jealousy of his cousin, Lord Bristol. At length in 1627, on the latter’s advice, Digby determined to attempt “some generous action,” and on the 22nd of December, with the approval of the king, embarked as a privateer with two ships, with the object of attacking the French ships in the Venetian harbour of Scanderoon. On the 18th of January he arrived off Gibraltar and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From the 15th of February to the 27th of March 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 Scanderoon on the 11th of June. His successes, however, brought upon the English merchants the risk of reprisals, and he was urged to depart. He returned home in triumph in February 1629, and was well received by the king, and was made a commissioner of the navy in October 1630, but his proceedings were disavowed on account of the complaints of the Venetian ambassador. In 1633 Lady Digby died, and her memory was celebrated by Ben Jonson in a series of poems entitled Eupheme, and by other poets of the day. Digby retired to Gresham College, and exhibited extravagant grief, maintaining a seclusion for two years. About this time Digby professed himself a Protestant, but by October 1635, while in France, he had already returned to the Roman Catholic faith. In a letter dated the 27th of March 1636 Laud remonstrates with him, but assures him of the continuance of his friendship. In 1638 he published A Conference with a Lady about choice of a Religion, in which he argues that the Roman 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. The same subject is treated in letters to George Digby, afterwards 2nd earl of Bristol, dated the 2nd of November 1638 and the 29th of November 1639, which were published in 1651, as well as in a further Discourse concerning Infallibility in Religion in 1652. Returning to England he associated himself with the queen and her Roman Catholic friends, and joined in the appeal to the English Romanists for money to support the king’s Scottish expedition. In consequence he was summoned to the bar of the House of Commons on the 27th of January 1641, and the king was petitioned to remove him with other recusants from his councils. He left England, and while at Paris killed in a duel a French lord who had insulted Charles I. in his presence. Louis XIII. took his part, and furnished him with a military escort into Flanders. Returning home he was imprisoned, by order of the House of Commons, early in 1642, successively in the “Three Tobacco Pipes nigh Charing Cross,” where his delightful conversation is said to have transformed the prison into “a place of delight,” and at Winchester House. He was finally released and allowed to go to France on the 30th of July 1643, through the intervention of the queen of France, Anne of Austria, on condition that he would neither promote nor conceal any plots abroad against the English government.
Before leaving England an attempt was made to draw from him an admission that Laud, with whom he had been intimate, had desired to be made a cardinal, but Digby denied that the archbishop had any leanings towards Rome. On the 1st of November 1643 it was resolved by the Commons to confiscate his property. He published in London the same year Observations on the 22nd stanza in the 9th canto of the 2nd book of Spenser’s “Faërie Queene,” the MS. of which is in the Egerton collection (British Museum, No. 2725 f. 117 b), and Observations on a surreptitious and unauthorized edition of the Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne, from the Roman Catholic point of view, which drew a severe rebuke from the author. After his arrival in Paris he published his chief philosophical works, Of Bodies and Of the Immortality of Man’s Soul (1644), autograph MSS. of which are in the Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève at Paris, and made the acquaintance of Descartes. He was appointed by Queen Henrietta Maria her chancellor, and in the summer of 1645 he was despatched by her to Rome to obtain assistance. Digby promised the conversion of Charles and of his chief supporters. At first his eloquence made a great impression. Pope Innocent X. declared that he spoke not merely as a Catholic but as an ecclesiastic. But the absence of any warrant from Charles himself roused suspicions as to the solidity of his assurances, and he obtained nothing but a grant of 20,000 crowns. A violent quarrel with the pope followed, and he returned in 1646, having consented in the queen’s name to complete religious freedom for the Roman Catholics, both in England and Ireland, to an independent parliament in Ireland, and to the surrender of Dublin and all the Irish fortresses into the hands of the Roman Catholics, the king’s troops to be employed in enforcing the articles and the pope granting about £36,000 with a promise of further payments in obtaining direct assistance. In February 1649 Digby was invited to come to England to arrange a proposed toleration of the Roman Catholics, but on his arrival in May the scheme had already been abandoned. He was again banished on the 31st of August, and it was not till 1654 that he was allowed by the council of state to return. He now entered into close relations with Cromwell, from whom he hoped to obtain toleration for the Roman Catholics, and whose alliance he desired to secure for France rather than for Spain, and was engaged by Cromwell, much to the scandal of both Royalists and Roundheads, in negotiations abroad, of which the aim was probably to prevent a union between those two foreign powers. He visited Germany, in 1660 was in Paris, and at the Restoration returned to England. He was well received in spite of his former relations with Cromwell, and was confirmed in his post as Queen Henrietta Maria’s chancellor. In January 1661 he delivered a lecture, which was published the same month, at Gresham College, on the vegetation of plants, and became an original member of the Royal Society in 1663. In January 1664 he was forbidden to appear at court, the cause assigned being that he had interposed too far in favour of the 2nd earl of Bristol, disgraced by the king on account of the charge of high treason brought by him against Clarendon into the House of Lords. The rest of his life was spent in the enjoyment of literary and scientific society at his house in Covent Garden. He died on the 11th of June 1665. He had five children, of whom two, a son and one daughter, survived him.
Digby, though he possessed for the time a considerable knowledge of natural science, and is said to have been the first to explain the necessity of oxygen to the existence of plants, bears no high place in the history of science. He was a firm believer in astrology and alchemy, and the extraordinary fables which he circulated on the subject of his discoveries are evidence of anything rather than of the scientific spirit. In 1656 he made public a marvellous account of a city in Tripoli, petrified in a few hours, which he printed in the Mercurius Politicus. Malicious reports had been current that his wife had been poisoned by one of his prescriptions, viper wine, taken to preserve her beauty. Evelyn, who visited him in Paris in 1651, describes him as an “errant mountebank.” Henry Stubbes characterizes him as “the very Pliny of our age for lying,” and Lady Fanshawe refers to the same “infirmity.” His famous “powder of sympathy,” which seems to have been only powder of “vitriol,” healed without any contact, by being merely applied to a rag or bandage taken from the wound, and Digby records a miraculous cure by this means in a lecture given by him at Montpellier on this subject in 1658, published in French and English the same year, in German in 1660 and in Dutch in 1663; but Digby’s claim to its original discovery is doubtful, Nathaniel Highmore in his History of Generation (1651, p. 113) calling the powder “Talbot’s powder,” and ascribing its invention to Sir Gilbert Talbot. Some of Digby’s pills and preparations, however, described in The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby Knt. Opened (publ. 1677), are said to make less demand upon the faith of patients, and his injunction on the subject of the making of tea, to let the water “remain upon it no longer than you can say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely,” is one by no means to be ridiculed. As a philosopher and an Aristotelian Digby shows little originality and followed the methods of the schoolmen. His Roman Catholic orthodoxy mixed with rationalism, and his political opinions, according to which any existing authority should receive support, were evidently derived from Thomas White (1582-1676), the Roman Catholic philosopher, who lived with him in France. White published in 1651 Institutionum Peripateticorum libri quinque, purporting to expound Digby’s “peripatetic philosophy,” but going far beyond Digby’s published treatises. Digby’s Memoirs are composed in the high-flown fantastic manner then usual when recounting incidents of love and adventure, but the style of his more sober works is excellent. In 1632 he presented to the Bodleian library a collection of 236 MSS., bequeathed to him by his former tutor Thomas Allen, and described in Catalogi codicum manuscriptorum bibliothecae Bodleianae, by W. D. Macray, part ix. Besides the works already mentioned Digby translated A Treatise of adhering to God written by Albert the Great, Bishop of Ratisbon (1653); and he was the author of Private Memoirs, published by Sir N. H. Nicholas from Harleian MS. 6758 with introduction (1827); Journal of the Scanderoon Voyage in 1628, printed by J. Bruce with preface (Camden Society, 1868); Poems from Sir Kenelm Digby’s Papers... with preface and notes (Roxburghe Club, 1877); in the Add. MSS. 34,362 f. 66 is a poem Of the Miserys of Man, probably by Digby; Choice of Experimental Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery ... collected by Sir K. Digby (1668), and Chymical Secrets and Rare Experiments (1683), were published by G. Hartman, who describes himself as Digby’s steward and laboratory assistant.
- Letters by Eminent Persons (Aubrey’s Lives), ii. 324.
- Life and Continuation.
- Strafford’s Letters, i. 474.
- Laud’s Works, vi. 447.
- Thomason Tracts, Brit. Mus. E 164 (15).
- Archaeologia Cantiana, ii. 190.
- Dict. of Nat. Biog. sub “Digby.” See also Robert Boyle’s Works (1744), v. 302.