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A Brief Biography of Sir Kenelm Digby

Updated on September 15, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

The Ultimate Renaissance Man

Now the life and times of Sir Kenelm Digby is barely known but for a handful, and almost everyone that knows the name Digby are serious mead aficionados or very serious about British history. In his life he was a seriously prolific writer, he was a medical researcher, he was a fighter, he was a sailor with his own fleet of merchant vessels, he was an accomplished inventor, he did it all, and he did it with style. His time was a time when a "real" man had to strive to be the best at everything, there was no specializing, but rather you had to know it all, and men of his age tried hard to maintain the image of the renaissance man, but Digby appeared to do it all without effort. British history is riddled with men trying to be the ultimate Renaissance man, but only Digby seems to have truly managed it.

Sure, as most who managed more than just the appearance of the renaissance man, he was part of the gentry, but his life wasn't easy. He had the bad luck to land himself in a family disgraced by treason and had to prove his worth. So unlike most nobility of his status he had to try twice as hard. He had the opportunity to coast through life in the shadows, living comfortably, but lost to history, but Digby could not do this, it was not in his nature, his thirst for knowledge was matched only by his thirst for good mead and good food.

Remember Remember The Fifth of November - Kenelm Digby's Early Years

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot...

This poem is now very well known the world over thanks to the hit movie V for Vendetta. Those who saw the move will remember that Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the parliament buildings in London on November 5th 1605, what the movie doesn't go into is that Guy Fawkes did not hang alone he named many co-conspirators who all hung for their parts in the treason. Amongst those villains there was one Sir Everard Digby, a passionate but foolish young family man.

Kenelm was only three years old when his father hung for treason, but luckily for him King James I agreed to Everard's last request that his widow and children should not be reduced to beggary. You might see this as a sign of justice from King James I, and you'd be partially right, but as the Digby fortunes were mainly due to Everard's wife and not his own, it really wasn't much more than a gesture. Considering his father's treason Kenelm should have been destined for a life of obscurity, but Kenelm would hear nothing of that and made sure he knew all the right people and made sure King James I knew that Kenelm did not hold to his fathers beliefs but was a loyal subject of the crown.

Kenelm wasn't poor by any means, he was granted a salary of 3,000 pounds per year, an adequate amount to live off comfortably, but Kenelm wasn't interested in living comfortably. Just like every other male of his time he set out to make his fortunes and prove himself to the world. One has to admit Kenelm did have considerably more to prove than the average man.

Kenelm and Venetia Digby
Kenelm and Venetia Digby

The Love of His Life

And Other Tragic Events

Kenelm moved in all the right circles made all the right friends, and his circles continued a tightening passage towards the ear of the King who had hung his father. It began with his fosterage to Sir John Digby, from a different branch of Kenelm's own family tree. This is the same Sir John who revealed the traitors plans against princess Elizabeth to King James, Sir John was given a nice ambassadors post in Madrid for this, and Kenelm went with him. In Spain his formal education began learning from some of the best and the brightest of his age.

While Kenelm performed admirably in academic circles it was clear the life of the academia was not for him, he was restless for the world outside education and had already fallen hopelessly in love with his childhood playmate Venetia Anastasia Stanly. Technically far above his own station and thus unobtainable, the fates however had not been kind to the Stanly's and her father approved of the match, Kenelm's mother however did not. So Kenelm set about his world travels in order to keep his mind off his love. Of course this did not work, the longer he was away the more he yearned to be back with Venetia. In the end they did marry, and in his memoirs and in "The Closet" she is fondly remembered in a manner that made his love for her unmistakeable.

The Street Fighter - The famous street fight in Madrid

Kenelm Digby was, as I mentioned, a true Renaissance man, what I think is often overlooked when this term is bandied about is that this mean that not only was Digby a scholar he was also an accomplished fighter. To be a true manly man during the renaissance one had to be artistic, scholastic, athletic and able to fight. Duels were of extreme importance during this time period, and Digby was more than just capable of defending himself.

In the summer of 1623 while in Madrid Digby found himself in a scenario where the need to defend himself was paramount. While walking home from his uncles when he heard a woman singing he and his two companions, his cousin and uncle, stopped to listen when they were attacked by a band of fifteen armed men. His cousin was attacked first and managed to hold his own until his sword broke, Kenelm jumped in and defended his cousin allowing his cousin to retreat for help. Kenelm recieved a wound to his hand during the battle but no more, although his uncle was slain and his cousin was wounded. Kenelm woke the next day to find he was the talk of the town, that the whole scenario had been an ambush to try to kill his cousin due to jealousy over the singing woman.

Physick and Chirurgery - The Study of Medicine

During this age most of those who would take an interest in medical studies did so in their later ages when the spectre of illness and death lingered so much closer. Digby, however, took an interest in medicine at a relatively early age. It remained a passion of his. Physic and Chirurery is the book he published on his medical research.

He became known for the promotion and belief in a substance called "The Powder of Sympathy" which was a "medical" practice in which wounds and illness were cured using sympathetic magic. While this may seem unusual to call this medicine but many leading medical minds of the time believed in this mystical cure and there were many "documented" cases of it being successful. Digby's Powder of Sympathy was an actual brand name of the catalyst ingredient in practicing this odd medical cure.

The Love of a Queen - And the Return Home

Kenelm continued traveling the world searching for knowledge for a while he stayed in Paris, but the plague drove him away and he ended up in Angers. He was presented to the court at Angers and met the Queen Mother Marie de Medicis who took an instant liking to young Mr. Digby, perhaps too much of a liking. If Kenelm's memoirs are to be believed de Medicis fell in love with Kenelm and made many passes at him. He ended up avoiding the constant attentions of the Queen Mother by fleeing Angers and spreading the rumour of his death. After Angers came Italy and Florance, and many more places in his constant hunt for more Knowledge. His heart still yearned for his love Venetia and his homeland, so eventually he would return.

Sir Kenelm Digby In Armour
Sir Kenelm Digby In Armour

If This is an Honour, I Think I'll Pass

The Near Fatal Knighting of Sir Kenelm Digby

Kenelm's return was perfectly timed with the landing of Prince Charles after a trip to Spain. Charles found him so charming and likable he made him part of his household, something which King James did not at first approve. Eventually however, when Digby showed no sign of anger at the man who hung his father, and no strong Catholic sentiments James knighted Digby in a ceremony that was not James' high point.

James was not a military man really, and wasn't overly fond of weapons of war, never was this more apparent than at the knighting of Kenelm Digby. It is rumoured that King James' hand shook so much that Buckingham had to intervene and guide the kings hand to prevent the king from killing his newest knight before the ceremony was even over. Charles made Kenelm a member of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber, but this is the highest order the Royals could show Kenelm given his fathers past, I doubt Kenelm really minded this, he was more interested in research and fighting and all the things men of his day loved, he was a man's man of his time.

He served in the navy, without renown, but he was effective and became known in general as a great public servant. He met with and/or studied under some of the greatest minds of his day. The doors to men such as Bacon, Galileo, Thomas Allen, and many more were always open to him when he came calling with some research or another.

The Man and the Mead - The Hidden Chef Within

It is a shame that Digby's name has faded over the years, with his accomplishments, of which I have just given you the briefest of examples, he would have been greatly famed had he lived in any other time. Sir Kenelm Digby, however, didn't have much luck really, what he had and what he accomplished he did on his own, with his own ingenuity. It is a surprise, perhaps then, with all his varied accomplishments that it is for the least of them (as they were accounted during his life) that he is remembered. It is due to a book that was published by a servant after his death that the name of Sir Kenelm Digby would live on, and it is meadmakers who honour his name more than most.

Makers of mead have two reasons to honour the man. The first is obvious in the book that bears his name "The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Knight Opened" this tome contains so many recipes from his era for mead, and this alone would make it worthy of any mead man's library, but it also contains his musings on the subject of mead in general and his own research in perfecting it. The second reason is Kenelm Digby was a researcher and inventory first and foremost, and while his Sympathetic Powder was all the rage in his day it was another invention of his that lives on with little recognition, he is the inventor of the modern wine bottle.

© 2012 Jeff Johnston

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      enjoyed reading this, learning history is important to me.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      A very nice historical account.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      So interesting! I'm a history buff and this is right up my alley! Thanks!

    • Senora M profile image

      Senora M 5 years ago

      Great lens! Thanks for sharing!