Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Kenelm Henry Digby

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 4
Kenelm Henry Digby

by Charles Thomas Boothman


Miscellaneous writer, b. in Ireland, 1800; d. at Kensington, Middlesex, England, 22 March, 1880. He came of an ancient English stock branching, in Elizabeth's reign, into Ireland, by the marriage of Sir Robert Digby, of Coleshill, Co. Warwick, with Lettice FitzGerald, only daughter and heir of Gerald, Lord Offaly, eldest son of the eleventh Earl of Kildare. The eldest son of this Robert and Lettice became the first Lord Digby. Their second son, Essex Digby, Bishop of Dromore, was father of Simon Digby, Bishop successively of Limerick and Elphin whose son John Digby, of Landenstown, Co. Kildare, was father of William Digby, Dean of Clonfert. Kenelm Henry Digby was this latter's youngest son. Thus his early surroundings and associations were strongly Protestant. His father died in 1812, when his eldest brother, William, was already Archdeacon of Elphin. Unlike these, who had graduated in Dublin University, Kenelm Henry matriculated at the University of Cambridge, entering at Trinity College there. His B.A. degree he took in 1819, but he never proceeded M.A. Amid the many venerable and suggestive monuments of Catholic antiquity which Cambridge shows, he gradually gave his mind more and more to those "Ages of Faith" which he had been taught to despise and afterwards to the scholastic system of theology. The result of his deep study of these lofty subjects was his conversion, in youth, to the Catholic Faith. His first book, "The Broadstone of Honour", he published anonymously in 1822, while still nominally a Protestant, and an enlarged edition, again anonymously, the year following. After his conversion he rewrote the work, dividing it into four volumes, which appeared, each with a separate subtitle, in 1826-7. Two other editions followed, and lastly an edition de luxe, in five volumes, published by Quaritch, in 1876-7. According to its various secondary titles, this masterpiece treats of "the Origin, Spirit, and Institutions of Christian Chivalry", or "the True Sense and Practice of Chivalry". Archdeacon Hare, in his "Guesses at Truth", says that in this work the author "identifies himself as few have ever done with the good and great and heroic and holy in former times, and ever rejoices in passing out of himself into them".

Digby's second literary performance, entitled "Mores Catholici, or Ages of Faith", came out in 1831-40 in eleven volumes, in a later edition reduced to three. In this work he collected, mostly from the original sources, a vast mass of information concerning the religious, social, and artistic life of the medieval peoples of Europe. It is, indeed, a kind of encyclopedia of the medieval life, from the viewpoint of an ardently Catholic soul. It has been well said that in it he collected like a truly pious pilgrim the fragrance of ancient times. Various other publications, some in prose, some in verse, dropped from his prolific pen from time to time down to 1876; but these, in comparison with his "Broadstone of Honour" and "Mores Catholici", are but minor performances. The most important of them is a work entitled "Compitum, or the Meeting of Ways at the Catholic Church". The complete list of his published works may be seen in Gillow's "Dictionary". His long, studious, and retired life closed at Shaftesbury House, Kensington, in his eighty-first year, after a very short illness. His wife was Jane Mary, daughter of Thomas Dillon, of Mount Dillon, Co. Dublin, who bore him a son and four daughters.

COOPER in Dict. Nat. Biog. s. v., Gillow. Bibl. Dict. Eng. Cath., s. v., Tablet (London, 27 March, l880); Weekly Register (London, 27 March, l880); Times, (London, 24 March, l880); Dublin Review (London), XXV, 463, XLVIII, 526; Athenaeum (London, 1880), I, 411, 440.

C. T. Boothman.