Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Digby, Kenelm (1603-1665)

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1217283Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15 — Digby, Kenelm (1603-1665)1888Sidney Lee ‎

DIGBY, Sir KENELM (1603–1665), author, naval commander, and diplomatist, was the elder of the two sons of Sir Everard Digby [q. v.], executed for his share in the Gunpowder plot. His mother, Mary, was daughter and coheiress of William Mulsho of Gayhurst (formerly Gothurst), Buckinghamshire. That 1603 is the year of his birth is undoubted. Ben Jonson, in lines addressed to Sir Kenelm's wife, and Richard Ferrar, in verses written on his death, state that his birthday was 11 June—the day both of ‘his action done at Scanderoon’ and of his death. An astrological scheme of nativity in Digby's handwriting (Ashmol. MS. 174, f. 75) positively asserts that Digby was born, ‘according to the English account, the 11 of July betweene five and six of the clocke in the morning.’ After some litigation he inherited lands to the value of 3,000l. which the crown had not confiscated with the rest of his father's estate. For a time he resided with his mother at Gayhurst. It is certain that he was brought up in the Roman catholic faith which his father adopted. Wood states that he was ‘trained up in the protestant religion.’ But in his ‘Private Memoires’ Digby writes that when in Spain and only twenty years old he was very intimate with the Archbishop of Toledo because ‘their religion was the same.’ At the same time, Digby tells us, his kinsman, Sir John Digby (afterwards earl of Bristol) [q. v.], expressed regret at his adherence to a religion contrary to ‘what now reigneth’ in England. ‘I wish we may not be long in different [religious] opinions,’ Kenelm replied, ‘but I mean by your embracing of mine and not I of yours.’

On 28 Aug. 1617 Digby sailed for Spain with his kinsman, Sir John, who was English ambassador at Madrid. They returned together 27 April 1618. A month or two later Digby entered Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, and was committed to the care of Thomas Allen (1542–1632) [q. v.], the well-known mathematician and student of the occult sciences. Digby left the university in 1620 without a degree. He was already in love with Venetia, daughter of Sir Edward Stanley of Tonge Castle, Shropshire, a lady of rare beauty and great intellectual attainments, who had been his playmate in childhood. She was three years his senior; her mother, Lucy, daughter of Thomas Percy, seventh earl of Northumberland, died in her infancy, and she was brought up by relatives residing in the neighbourhood of Digby's house. Digby's mother opposed the match, and the young man was induced to go abroad in April 1620, but before leaving he bound himself to Venetia by the strongest vows. After spending some months in Paris he removed to Angers to escape the plague. There the queen-mother (Marie de Medicis), whom he met at a masqued ball, made immodest advances; to avoid her importunities he spread a report of his death and went to Italy by sea. For two years he remained at Florence. At the end of 1622 his kinsman, the English ambassador in Spain, invited him to revisit Madrid. Within a few days of Digby's arrival, Prince Charles and Buckingham reached the city (7 March 1622–3). Kenelm made himself agreeable to the royal party and was admitted to the prince's household. His curiosity was greatly excited at the Spanish court by the successful attempt of a Benedictine monk (John Paul Bonet) to teach a deaf mute to speak by observing the movement of the lips, and he interested Prince Charles in the experiment (Digby, Of Bodies, 1669, p. 320). Lord Kensington reproached him with indifference to the charms of Spanish ladies, whereupon Digby began a flirtation with Donna Anna Maria Manrique, the Duke of Maqueda's sister (Epist. Hoel. p. 238). He afterwards wrote in rapturous terms of her beauty to Sir Tobie Matthew, whose acquaintance he first made at Madrid (Matthew, Letters, 1660, p. 216). Sir Tobie and James Howell, the letter-writer, both of whom were in attendance on Prince Charles in Spain, were among Digby's most intimate friends in later life. Digby arrived with his royal master at Portsmouth on 5 Oct. 1623. After a brief illness and a visit to his mother at Gayhurst, he presented himself to James I at Hinchinbrooke and was knighted (23 Oct.) During the ceremony the king, according to Digby (Powder of Sympathy, p. 105), turned away his face from the naked sword owing to constitutional nervousness, and would have thrust the point into Digby's eye had not Buckingham interposed. At the same time Digby became gentleman of the privy chamber to Prince Charles.

Difficulties had meanwhile sprung up between Digby and Venetia Stanley. The false news of his death reached her, but his letters explaining the true state of the case miscarried. The lady was living alone in London, and scandal made free with her reputation. Digby credited the worst rumours and contemplated a breach of the engagement. But an accidental meeting in December renewed his passion. After visiting her frequently and behaving on one occasion with a discreditable freedom, which she resented, he was secretly married to her early in 1625. Digby attributed this dénouement to astrological influence. Their first child (Kenelm) was born in October 1625. Digby's devotion to his wife was thoroughly sincere, and she proved herself worthy of it. An elaborate justification of his conduct in pardoning her prenuptial indiscretions occupies the greater part of his ‘Private Memoirs.’ Aubrey says that she was at one time the mistress of Richard, earl of Dorset, son of the lord treasurer, by whom she had several children; that the earl allowed her 500l. a year, which Digby insisted on his paying her after her marriage, and that the earl dined once a year with her when she was Lady Digby. Sir Harris Nicolas disputed the statement on the ground that Richard, (third) earl of Dorset, died in 1624, and consequently could not have met his alleged mistress after her marriage, which took place in the following year. But Mr. G. F. Warner has proved that Sir Edward Sackville, brother of the third earl and his successor in the earldom, was in all probability Venetia Stanley's lover; he was friendly with Digby both before and after the marriage (Poems from Digby's Papers, Roxb. Club).

At court Digby was occasionally employed by his kinsman, now Earl of Bristol, in negotiations between him and the king. Buckingham was at deadly enmity with Bristol, and Sir Kenelm had little chance of preferment while the favourite lived. But his happy married life reconciled him to exclusion from public employment. He made the acquaintance of many men of letters and rising statesmen, including Ben Jonson and Edward Hyde (afterwards Earl of Clarendon). The latter describes him at the time as exceptionally handsome, with ‘a winning voice,’ ‘a flowing courtesy and civility, and such a volubility of language as surprised and delighted.’ About 1627 Bristol strongly advised Digby ‘to employ himself on some generous action.’ Digby resolved upon a privateering expedition in the Mediterranean with the final object of seizing the French ships usually anchored in the Venetian harbour of Scanderoon. The plans were laid before James I while Buckingham was in the Isle of Ré. James promised a commission under the great seal. But Buckingham's secretary, Edward Nicholas, protested that such a commission infringed the jurisdiction of his master, the lord high admiral. Heath, attorney-general, suggested that the omission of a clause vesting power to execute martial law in Digby would meet the objection. Lord-keeper Coventry argued for other alterations, and finally a royal license was issued merely authorising Digby to undertake the voyage ‘for the increase of his knowledge.’ Before Digby departed Buckingham returned, and on 13 Dec. 1627 Digby took out letters of marque from him. Reduced to the position of a private adventurer, Digby sailed from Deal on 22 Dec. Two ships, the Eagle of 400 tons, under Captain Milborne, and the George and Elizabeth of 250 tons, under Captain Sir Edward Stradling, formed the expedition. At the time of his departure Digby's second son, John, was born, and Digby left instructions with his wife to make their marriage public.

On 18 Jan. 1627–8 Digby arrived off Gibraltar. He captured several Flemish and Spanish ships in the neighbourhood after some sharp fighting. But his men sickened, and from 15 Feb. to 27 March he anchored off Algiers, where he was hospitably received, and afterwards claimed to have made arrangements for future friendly dealings between Algerine and English ships. On 30 March he seized a rich Dutch vessel near Majorca. Off Sicily in April a terrible storm threatened his ships and prizes. After visiting Zante, Digby arrived at Scanderoon on 10 June, and on 11 June gave battle to the French and Venetian ships in the harbour. Three hours' fierce fighting gave Digby the victory. The news of the engagement was received in England with great enthusiasm. ‘I do not remember,’ wrote Howell, ‘to have read or heard that those huge galeazzoes of St. Mark were beaten afore.’ The English vice-consul at Scanderoon complained, however, that Digby's presence in the Levant jeopardised the position of English merchants at Aleppo and elsewhere, and Digby was entreated to depart. On his return he spent some time at Milo, Delos, and Micino, searching for antiquities. He refitted at Zante; was at Gibraltar on 1 Jan. 1628–9; came in sight of England 25 Jan. after a great storm; and landed at Woolwich on 2 Feb. 1628–9.

Digby was well received by the king, but in August 1628 the Venetian ambassador complained of his conduct in the Adriatic, and it was disavowed by the government (Salvetti Corresp. in Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. pt. i. p. 159). On 23 Oct. 1630 Digby's old tutor Allen made a codicil to his will, bequeathing to Digby his valuable books and manuscripts. Digby consulted Sir Robert Cotton and Laud, and when the library became his property at the end of 1632 soon presented it to the Bodleian Library. Laud was formally thanked (December 1634) by the Oxford convocation for his share in the arrangement (Laud, Works, v. 104–7). The Digby MSS. are all on vellum, and are chiefly the work of English mediæval scribes. They number 236. and are bound in volumes stamped with Digby's arms. Writing to Dr. Langbaine (7 Nov. 1654), Digby says that the university is to place his gift at the service of all students, and he has no objection to the loan of the manuscripts outside the library. Two additional volumes of Digby's manuscripts were purchased in 1825. Digby promised to make a further donation to the Bodleian, but never did so, although he gave Laud many Arabic manuscripts to send to the university or St. John's College Library, of which nothing more was heard.

In February 1632 there was some fruitless talk of making Digby a secretary of state in the place of Lord Dorchester, lately dead. Early in 1633 he and Lord Bothwell were present at a spiritualist séance given by the astrologer Evans in Gunpowder Alley (Lilly, Autobiog.) On 1 May 1633 Lady Digby died suddenly. Absurd reports were circulated that Digby killed her by insisting on her drinking viper-wine to preserve her beauty. His grief was profound, and he erected an elaborate monument in Christ Church, Newgate, which was destroyed in the great fire. Ben Jonson wrote in her praise a fine series of poems, which he entitled ‘Eupheme,’ and dedicated to Sir Kenelm (issued in Underwoods), and Thomas May, Joseph Rutter (in ‘Shepheard's Holiday,’ 1635), Owen Felltham (in ‘Lusoria,’ 1696), William Habington, Lord George Digby, and Aurelian Townshend also commemorated in verse Digby's loss (cf. Addit. MS. 30259, and Bright, Poems from Digby's Papers). The widower retired to Gresham College, and spent two years there in complete seclusion, amusing himself with chemical experiments. ‘He wore a long mourning cloak, a high-cornered hat, his beard unshorn, looked like a hermit, as signs of sorrow for his beloved wife’ (Aubrey).

After 1630 Digby professed protestantism, and gave Archbishop Laud the impression that he had permanently abandoned Roman catholicism (Laud, Works, iii. 414). A letter from James Howell to Strafford shows, however, that before October 1635 Digby had returned to Rome (Strafford, Letters, i. 474). On 27 March 1636 Laud acknowledged a letter, no longer extant, in which Digby accounted for his reconversion, which caused the archbishop regret, but did not hinder their friendly relations (Laud, vi. 447–55). Digby was in France at the time (1636), and published in Paris in 1638 ‘A Conference with a Lady about Choice of a Religion,’ in which he argued that a church must prove uninterrupted possession of authority to guarantee salvation to its adherents, but might allow liberty of opinion in subsidiary matters. In letters to George Lord Digby [q. v.], Bristol's son, dated 2 Nov. 1638 and 29 March 1639, he defended the authority of the fathers on the articles of faith. These were published with Lord George's reply in 1651. In 1637 he learned of Ben Jonson's death, and wrote to urge Duppa to issue the collection of mourning verses known as ‘Jonsonus Virbius’ (Harl. MS. 4153, f. 21).

In 1639 Digby was again in England. He saw much of Queen Henrietta Maria and her catholic friends, Walter Montague, Endymion Porter, and Sir Tobie Matthew. At her suggestion he and Montague appealed to the English catholics (April 1639) for money to support Charles I's military demonstration in Scotland; and their letter of appeal was widely circulated (cf. A Coppy of the Letter sent by the Queene's Majestie concerning the collection of the Recusants' Money, &c., &c., London, 1641). The scheme failed to meet with papal favour, and it was reported early in 1640 that Digby was going to Rome to negotiate personally with the pope (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 81 a, 4th Rep. 294 a). On 11 Sept. 1640 Secretary Vane wrote that Digby was making unseasonable and impracticable proposals to Charles I. His suspicious conduct led the Long parliament to summon him to the bar on 27 Jan. 1640–1, and on 16 March the commons petitioned the king to remove him and other popish recusants from his councils. On 22 June 1641 he was examined by the committee of recusants as to the circulation of his letter to the catholics. He was soon afterwards again at Paris, where his knight-errant disposition made itself very apparent. He challenged a French lord, named Mount le Ros, for insulting Charles I in his presence, and killed his opponent. But the king of France pardoned him, and gave him a safe-conduct and military escort into Flanders. In September 1641 Evelyn met him there, whence Digby seems to have soon returned to London. On 24 Nov. an inquiry was ordered into the publication of a pamphlet by Digby describing his French duel. Early in 1642, at the suggestion of the lord mayor of London, the House of Commons ordered Digby to be imprisoned. The sergeant-at-arms at first confined him at ‘The Three Tobacco Pipes nigh Charing Cross,’ where Sir Basil Brooke and Sir Roger Twysden were his companions, and his charming conversation, according to Twysden, made the prison ‘a place of delight’ (Archæologia Cantiana, ii. 190). Subsequently Digby was removed to Winchester House, and in February 1642–3 the lord mayor petitioned for his release, but the proposal was negatived by the commons (ayes 32, noes 52). In July 1643 Queen Anne of Austria, the queen regent of France, addressed a letter to parliament, begging for Digby's freedom. After both houses had discussed the appeal, Digby was discharged from custody 30 July 1643, on condition that he left immediately for France, and promised not to return without parliament's leave. Before quitting his confinement he was rigorously examined as to his intimacy with Laud, and an endeavour was made to extract a declaration from him that Laud was anxious to obtain a cardinal's hat. But Digby insisted that his friend had always been, so far as he knew, a sincere protestant. He was allowed to carry with him his pictures and four servants. The French queen-dowager thanked parliament (6 Sept.), and on 18 Oct. the French ambassador requested the House of Lords to spare Digby's estate. Three witnesses deposed on oath that Digby had gone to church regularly while in England, and had great affection for the parliament; but on 1 Nov. 1643 the commons resolved to confiscate his property. When leaving London Digby published two recent literary efforts. One was ‘Observations on the 22nd Stanza in the Ninth Canto of the Second Book of Spenser's “Faery Queene”’—a mysterious passage which Digby had discussed with Sir Edward Stradling on their Mediterranean expedition. The other was ‘Observations,’ from a Roman catholic point of view, on the newly published ‘Religio Medici’ of Sir Thomas Browne, of which the Earl of Dorset had supplied Digby with an early copy. Digby wrote his ‘Observations’ in twenty-four hours. Browne heard of his exploit, and begged him to withdraw his criticism, but Digby explained that it was in type before Browne's remonstrance was received [see Browne, Sir Thomas].

In Paris Digby continued his studies, and in 1644 there appeared his chief philosophical books, ‘Of Bodies,’ and ‘Of the Immortality of Man's Soul.’ The dedication of the former to his son Kenelm is dated 31 Aug. 1644, and the license from the French king to print the book 26 Sept. following. Queen Henrietta Maria appointed Digby her chancellor, and in 1645 the English catholic committee sitting at Paris sent him to Rome to collect money for the royal cause. In July 1645 Digby was in frequent intercourse with Pope Innocent X, and obtained twenty thousand crowns from the papal curia. The papal legate Rinuccini was meanwhile on his way to Ireland, with a view to raising a new royalist army, and to preparing the way for a free exercise of the catholic religion there and in England. The latter was the main object of all Digby's political efforts. Digby was consulted by the papal authorities on the details of Rinuccini's expedition, but he gained the reputation of ‘a useless and restless man with scanty wisdom.’ His intimacy with Thomas White, an English catholic priest and metaphysician, whose philosophical ‘extravagances’ were at the time the talk of Rome, did not improve his position. At length he openly insulted the pope, who is said to have charged him with misappropriating the money entrusted to him. He left Rome in 1646 (cf. Cal. Clarendon State Papers, ii. 66; Rinuccini's Mission, English translation, 548, 556, 560). He paid a second visit to Rome in 1647, when in an address to the pope he pointed out that the former schemes had failed owing to Rinuccini's ‘punctiliousness and officiousness;’ but Digby's second mission proved as abortive as the first (cf. Digby's address to Pope Innocent X, in Westminster MS. Archives, xxx. 65, kindly communicated by Mr. S. R. Gardiner).

In August 1649 Digby suddenly returned to England. The council of state denounced him as dangerous. He declined to explain his reappearance, and was banished for the second time. In November he wrote to Conway from Calais, expressing a desire to live again beneath 'smiling English skies.' Sir Richard and Lady Fanshawe met him at Calais in December, and were much amused by his conversation (Fanshawe, Memoirs, 83-4). On 1 March 1649–50 Lord Byron saw Digby, accompanied by some other Romanists, and one Watson, an independent, at Caen. They were bound for England, and intended, if possible, to come to terms with the regicides, in order to secure the free exercise of the Roman catholic religion in England. At Rouen Digby told a catholic physician named Winsted that if he declined to recognise the new rulers in England, ‘he must starve.’ Queen Henrietta knew, he said, of his going, and he travelled with a passport from the French king. Nothing is known of this visit to England. In November 1651 Evelyn visited Digby in Paris, witnessed some of his chemical experiments, and attended with him Febur's chemical lectures. Digby was already intimate with Descartes, to whom he had introduced himself at Egmond some years before. On 14 Nov. 1653 the council of state gave him permission to return to England, on his promising to do nothing prejudicial to the government. Early in 1654 he took advantage of this order, and on 6 April 1654 stayed with Evelyn at Wotton.

There can be no doubt that Digby while in England at this time was in close intercourse with Cromwell. Hyde, writing in January 1653–4, mentions the report that Digby had long held correspondence with Cromwell, and had done him good offices at Paris. In November 1655 a correspondent of Thurloe describes Digby as Cromwell's agent, and raises suspicions of his honesty. In letters dated February and March 1655–6 he is spoken of as Cromwell's confidant and pensioner. It seems certain that Digby thought to obtain from Cromwell full toleration for the catholics, and freely discussed the matter with him. In September 1655 a passport was granted him to leave England. In December he wrote to Thurloe in behalf of Calais merchants trading with England, and in March 1656, when complaining of the slanders of Sir Robert Welsh, expresses himself in full sympathy with Cromwell's government. At the time he was certainly engaged in diplomatic business on Cromwell's behalf, and was reported to be seeking to prevent an agreement between France and Spain. Digby's relations with Cromwell were warmly denounced by Clarendon in ‘A Letter from a true and lawful Member of Parliament’ in 1656, and by Prynne in his ‘True and Perfect Narrative,’ 1659, p. 41. In the summer of 1656 Digby was at Toulouse, and in 1658 lectured (according to his own account) at Montpellier on his ‘sympathetic powder.’ He afterwards visited Germany, but was in 1660 in Paris, whence he returned to England after the Restoration.

In spite of his compromising relations with Cromwell, Digby was well received by the royalists, and continued to hold the office of Queen Henrietta's chancellor. On 14 Jan. 1660–1 he received a payment of 1,325l. 6s. 8d. in consideration of his efforts to redeem captives in Algiers, apparently on his Scanderoon voyage. On 23 Jan. 1660–1 he lectured at Gresham College on the vegetation of plants. He was on the council of the Royal Society when first incorporated in 1663. In the following year he was forbidden the court. He gathered scientific men about him at his house in Covent Garden, and often ‘wrangled’ with Hobbes there. He died on 11 June 1665. The eulogistic elegy by Richard Ferrar is in error in stating that he died on his birthday. By his will dated 9 Jan. 1664–5 he directed that he should be buried at the side of his wife in Christ Church, Newgate, and that no mention of him should be made on the tomb. He gave all his lands in Herefordshire (lately purchased of the Duke of Buckingham), in Huntingdonshire, and on the continent to Charles Cornwallis, for the payment of his debts. His kinsman, George, earl of Bristol, received a burning-glass; his uncle, George Digby, a horse, and his sister a mourning-gown. His library was still in Paris, and was sold by the authorities for ten thousand crowns. The Earl of Bristol repurchased it.

Digby had five children, a daughter (Margery, married to Edward Dudley of Clopton, Northamptonshire) and four sons. Kenelm, the eldest, born 6 Oct. 1625, was killed at the battle of St. Neots while fighting under the Earl of Holland against Adrian Scrope, on 10 July 1648. John, born 19 Dec. 1627, married, first, Katherine, daughter of Henry, earl of Arundel; and secondly, Margaret, daughter of Sir Edward Longueville of Wolverton in Buckinghamshire, by whom he had two daughters. The elder daughter, Margaret Maria, married Sir John Conway of Bôdrhyddan, Flintshire, and her granddaughter, Honora, married Sir John Glynne. The children of Sir Stephen Glynne, Sir John's great-grandson, are the only living descendants of Sir Kenelm Digby. Sir Kenelm's two other sons (Everard, born 12 Jan. 1629–30, and George, 17 Jan. 1632–3) died young.

Digby's works in order of publication are as follows:—1. ‘A Conference with a Lady about Choice of Religion,’ Paris, 1638; London, 1654. 2. ‘Sir Kenelm Digby's Honour maintained’ (an account of the duel in France), London, 1641. 3. ‘Observations upon Religio Medici, occasionally written by Sir Kenelme Digby, Knt.,’ London, 1643, frequently reprinted in editions of Browne's ‘Religio Medici.’ 4. ‘Observations on the 22nd Stanza in the Ninth Canto of the Second Book of Spenser's “Faery Queene,”’ London, 1644. 5. ‘A Treatise of the Nature of Bodies,’ Paris, 1644; London, 1658, 1665, and 1669. 6. ‘A Treatise declaring the Operations and Nature of Man's Soul, out of which the Immortality of reasonable Souls is evinced,’ Paris, 1644; London, 1645, 1657, 1669. 7. ‘Institutionum Peripateticorum libri quinque cum Appendice Theologica de Origine Mundi,’ Paris, 1651, probably for the most part the work of Thomas White [q. v.] 8. ‘Letters between the Lord George Digby and Sir Kenelme Digby, Knight, concerning Religion,’ London, 1651. 9. ‘A Discourse concerning Infallibility in Religion, written by Sir Kenelme Digby to the Lord George Digby, eldest sonne of the Earle of Bristol,’ Paris, 1652. 10. ‘A Treatise of Adhering to God, written by Albert the Great, Bishop of Ratisbon, put into English by Sir Kenelme Digby, Kt.,’ Dec. 1653. Ded. to Digby's mother. 11. ‘A late Discourse made in a Solemne Assembly of Nobles and Learned Men at Montpellier in France, by Sir Kenelme Digby, Knight, &c. Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy. With Instructions how to make the said Powder. … Rendered faithfully out of French into English by R. White, Gent. The second edition …’ London, 1658. Dedicated by R. White to Digby's son, John. ‘The second edition’ is the earliest one known, and is probably the original. A French version appeared in 1658. De Morgan believed ‘R. White’ to be identical with Digby's friend and disciple, Thomas White. 12. ‘A Discourse concerning the Vegetation of Plants, spoken by Sir Kenelme Digby at Gresham College, 23 Jan. 1660–1, at a Meeting for Promoting Philosophical Knowledge by Experiment,’ London, 1661; republished with ‘Of Bodies’ in 1669. 13. ‘Private Memoirs,’ printed by Sir H. N. Nicolas from Harl. MS. 6758 in 1827, with a privately printed appendix of castrations. 14. ‘Journal of the Scanderoon Voyage in 1628,’ printed from a manuscript belonging to Mr. W. W. E. Wynne by John Bruce for the Camd. Soc. 1868. 15. ‘Poems from Sir Kenelm Digby's Papers in the possession of Henry A. Bright,’ with notes by Mr. G. F. Warner (Roxb. Club, 1877). This volume includes a translation by Digby of ‘Pastor Fido,’ act ii. sc. 5, one or two brief poems on his wife, and reprints of many transcripts in his own beautiful handwriting of the poems by his friends Ben Jonson and others on his wife's death. Aubrey ascribes to Digby an unprinted translation of Petronius, and he is also credited with designing a new edition of Roger Bacon's works. An autograph copy of his treatises ‘Of Bodies’ and ‘The Soul’ is in the Bibliothèque Ste.-Geneviève, Paris.

Although a shrewd observer of natural phenomena, Digby was a scientific amateur rather than a man of science. Astrology and alchemy formed serious parts of his study, and his credulity led him to many ludicrous conclusions. But he appreciated the work of Bacon, Galileo, Gilbert, Harvey, and Descartes, and Wallis, Wilkins, and Ward speak respectfully of him. He is said to have been the first to notice the importance of vital air or oxygen to the life of plants (see his Vegetation of Plants). His extraordinary accounts of his chemical experiments exposed him to much ridicule. Evelyn concludes a description of his Paris laboratory with the remark that he was ‘an errant mountebank.’ Lady Fanshawe refers to his ‘infirmity’ of lying about his scientific experiments, ‘though otherwise,’ she avers, ‘he was a person of excellent parts and a very fine-bred gentleman’ (Memoirs, p. 84). In 1656 he circulated a description of a petrified city in Tripoli, which Fitton, the Duke of Tuscany's English librarian, was said to have sent him. He contrived to have it published in the ‘Mercurius Politicus,’ and was liberally abused for his credulity. Henry Stubbes, referring to these circumstances, characterised him as ‘the very Pliny of our age for lying’ (Animadversions upon Glanvil); but Robert Hooke, in his posthumously published ‘Philosophical Experiments’ (1726), shows that Digby knew what he was talking about. On 20 March 1661 Oldenburgh sent to Robert Boyle a report on Digby's alchemical experiments in the transmutation of metals (Boyle, Works, v. 302). Digby first described his well-known weapon-salve, or powder of sympathy, in the discourse alleged to have been delivered at Montpellier in 1658. Its method of employment stamps it as the merest quackery. The wound was never to be brought into contact with the powder, which was merely powdered vitriol. A bandage was to be taken from the wound, immersed in the powder, and kept there till the wound healed. Digby gives a fantastic account of the ‘sympathetic’ principles involved. He says that he learned how to make and apply the drug from a Carmelite who had travelled in the East, and whom he met at Florence in 1622. He first employed it about 1624 to cure James Howell of a wound in his hand, and he adds that James I and Dr. Mayerne were greatly impressed by its efficacy, and that Bacon registered it in his scientific collections. All this story is doubtful. There is no evidence that Bacon knew of it, or that it was applied to Howell's wound, or that Digby had learned it at so early a date as the reign of James I. In his treatise ‘Of Bodies’ (1644) he makes the vaguest reference to it, and in 1651 Nathaniel Highmore, M.D., appended to his ‘History of Generation’ (dedicated to Robert Boyle) ‘a discourse of the cure of wounds by sympathy,’ in which he attributes the dissemination of the remedy to Sir Gilbert Talbot, speaks of the powder as ‘Talbot's powder,’ and ignores Digby's claim to it, although in the earlier pages of his work he repeatedly refers to Digby's investigations, and criticises his theory of generation. Digby's originality is thus very questionable. After 1658 his name is very frequently associated with ‘the powder of sympathy.’ In an advertisement appended by the bookseller, Nathaniel Brookes, to ‘Wit and Drollery’ (1661) it is stated that Sir Kenelm Digby's powder is capable of curing ‘green wounds’ and the toothache, and is to be purchased at Brookes's shop in Cornhill. George Hartman, who described himself as Digby's steward and laboratory assistant, published after Digby's death two quack-medical volumes purporting to be accounts of Digby's experiments, ‘Choice and Experimental Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery’ (1668) and ‘Chymical Secrets and Rare Experiments in Physick and Philosophy’ (1683); the latter concludes with an elaborate recipe for the manufacture of Digby's powder (see Pettigrew, Medical Superstitions, pp. 156–7).

As a philosopher Digby was an Aristotelian, and had not extricated himself from the confused methods of the schoolmen. He undoubtedly owed much to Thomas White (1582–1676) [q. v.], the catholic philosopher, who lived with him while in France. White issued three Latin volumes expounding what he called ‘Digby's peripatetic philosophy,’ and covered far more ground than Digby occupied in the treatises going under his name. While arriving at orthodox catholic conclusions respecting the immortality of the soul, free will, and the like, Digby's and White's methods are for the most part rationalistic, and no distinct mention is made of christianity. White's books were consequently placed on the Index. Digby doubtless owed his political notions, which enabled him to regard Charles I, Cromwell, and Charles II as equally rightful rulers, to White as well as his philosophy. Alexander Ross in ‘Medicus Medicatus,’ Highmore in his ‘History of Generation’ (1651), and Henry Stubbes in his ‘Animadversions upon Glanvil’ attack Digby's philosophic views, and Butler has many sarcastic remarks upon him in ‘Hudibras’ and the ‘Elephant and the Moon.’

Vandyck painted several portraits of both Sir Kenelm and Lady Digby. Vandyck's finest portrait of Lady Digby is at Althorpe. Another picture of Lady Digby, by Cornelius Janssen, is at Althorpe. Vandyck's best-known portraits of Sir Kenelm are those in the National Portrait Gallery and the Oxford University Picture Gallery. A portrait of Sir Kenelm, belonging to the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1887. A painting of St. Francis, at Mount St. Bernard Monastery, Charnwood Forest, bears the inscription ‘Kenelmus Digbæus pinxit, 1643.’ The painter was, perhaps, Sir Kenelm's son.

[The chief authorities for Digby's life are his own Memoirs, first published in 1827, which only take his career down to 1629, and mainly deal with his courtship of Venetia Stanley. The characters and places appear under fictitious names: thus, Sir Kenelm calls himself Theagenes, his wife Stelliana, Sir Edward Sackville Mardontius, London Corinth, and so forth. For these identifications see Sir H. N. Nicolas's introduction, several papers by J. G. Nichols in Gent. Mag. for 1829, and Mr. Warner's notes in Poems from Digby's Papers, 1877. Digby's Journal of the Scanderoon Voyage, published by the Camden Society (1868), has a useful introduction by John Bruce. The Biog. Brit. (Kippis) has an exhaustive life. A life by [T. Longueville] one of Digby's descendants appeared in 1896. See also Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 688; Aubrey's Lives, ii. 323; Macray's Annals of the Bodleian Library; Cal. State Papers, 1635–65; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vi. 174, 2nd ser. vii. 299, viii. 395, 3rd ser. ii. 45; Clarendon's Life, i. 18; Bright's Poems from Digby's Papers (Roxburghe Club, 1877); Evelyn's Diary; Lords' Journals, vol. vi.; Commons' Journals, vi. vii. viii.; Laud's Works; Thurloe's State Papers; Hallam's Lit. of Europe; Epist. Hoelianæ, Rémusat's Philosophie Anglaise depuis Bacon jusqu'à Locke, 1875, has valuable comments on Digby's philosophy; other authorities are cited above.]

S. L. L.