1680 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Kenelm Digby

John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696; ed. Clark (1898) 1:224-29.



Sir Kenelm Digby, knight: he was borne at < Gotehurst, Bucks > on the eleventh of June: see Ben: Johnson, 2d volumne:—

Witnesse thy actions done at Scanderoon
Upon thy birthday, the eleaventh of June.

(Memorandum: in the first impression in 8vo it is thus; but in the folio 'tis "my," instead of "thy".)

Mr. Elias Ashmole assures me, from two or three nativities by Dr. < Richard > Nepier, that Ben: Johnson was mistaken and did it for the ryme-sake. — In Dr. Napier's papers of nativities, with Mr. Ashmole, I find: — "Sir Kenelme Digby natus July 11, 5h 40' A.M. 1603, 14 Leo ascending," and another scheme gives it at "4h A.M., 26 Cancer ascending"; and there are two others of Cancer and Leo.

He was the eldest son of Sir Everard Digby, who was accounted the handsomest gentleman in England. Sir Everard sufferd as a traytor in the gunpowder-treason; but king James restored his estate to his son and heire. Mr. Francis Potter told me that Sir Everard wrote a booke De Arte Natandi. I have a Latin booke of his writing in 8vo: — Everardi Dygbei De duplici methodo libri duo, in dialogues "inter Aristotelicum et Ramistam," in 8vo: the title page is torne out. — His second son was Sir John Digby, as valiant a gentleman and as good a swordman as was in England, who dyed (or was killed) in the king's cause at Bridgewater, about 1644. It happened in 1647 that a grave was opened next to Sir John Digby's (who was buried in summer time, it seemes), and the flowers on his coffin were found fresh, as I heard Mr. Harcourt (that was executed) attest that very yeare. Sir John died a batchelour.

Sir Kenelme Digby was held to be the most accomplished cavalier of his time. He went to Glocester hall in Oxon, anno < 1618 > (vide A. Wood's Antiq. Oxon.). The learned Mr. Thomas Allen (then of that house) was wont to say that he was the Mirandula of his age. He did not weare a gowne there, as I have heard my cosen Whitney say.

There was a great friendship between him and Mr. Thomas Allen; whether he was his scholar I know not. Mr. Allen was one of the learnedest men of this nation in his time, and a great collector of good bookes, which collection Sir Kenelme bought (Mr. Allen enjoyeing the use of them for his life) to give to the Bodlean Library, after Mr. Allen's decease, where they now are.

He was a great traveller, and understood 10 or 12 languages. He was not only master of a good and gracefull judicious stile, but he also wrote a delicate hand, both fast-hand and Roman. I have seen lettres of his writing to the father of this earle of Pembroke, who much respected him.

He was such a goodly handsome person, gigantique and great voice, and had so gracefull elocution and noble addresse, etc., that had he been drop't out of the clowdes in any part of the world, he would have made himselfe respected. But the Jesuites spake spitefully, and sayd 'twas true, but then he must not stay there above six weekes. He was envoye from Henrietta Maria (then Queen-mother) to Pope < Innocent X > where at first he was mightily admired; but after some time he grew high, and hectored with his holinesse, and gave him the lye. The pope sayd he was mad.

He was well versed in all kinds of learning. And he had also this vertue, that no man knew better how to abound, and to be abased, and either was indifferent to him. No man became grandeur better; sometimes again he would live only with a lackey, and horse with a foote-cloath.

He was very generous, and liberall to deserving persons. When Abraham Cowley was but 13 yeares old, he dedicated to him a comedy, called Love's Riddle, and concludes in his epistle — "The Birch that whip't him then would prove a Bay." Sir K. was very kind to him.

When he was at Rome one time, (I thinke he was envoye from Mary the Queen-mother to Pope < Innocent X >) he contrasted with his holinesse.

Anno ... (quaere the countesse of Thanet) much against his mother's, etc., consent, he maried that celebrated beautie and courtezane, Mrs. Venetia Stanley, whom Richard earle of Dorset kept as his concubine, had children by her, and setled on her an annuity of £500 per annum; which after Sir K. D. maried was unpayd by the earle; and for which annuity Sir Kenelme sued the earle, after mariage, and recovered it. He would say that a handsome lusty man that was discreet might make a vertuose wife out of a brothell-house. This lady carried herselfe blamelessly, yet (they say) he was jealous of her. She dyed suddenly, and hard-hearted woemen would censure him severely.

After her death, to avoyd envy and scandall, he retired in to Gresham Colledge at London, where he diverted himselfe with his chymistry, and the professors' good conversation. He wore there a long mourning cloake, a high crowned hatt, his beard unshorne, look't like a hermite, as signes of sorrowe for his beloved wife, to whose memory he erected a sumptuouse monument, now quite destroyed by the great conflagration. He stayed at the colledge two or 3 yeares.

The faire howses in Holbourne, between King's street and Southampton street, (which brake-off the continuance of them) were, about 1633, built by Sir Kenelme; where he lived before the civill warres. Since the restauration of Charles II he lived in the last faire house westward in the north portico of Convent garden, where my lord Denzill Hollis lived since. He had a laboratory there. I thinke he dyed in this house — sed quaere.

He was, 164.., prisoner for the king (Charles I) at Winchester-house, where he practised chymistry, and wrote his booke of Bodies and Soule, which he dedicated to his eldest son, Kenelme, who was slaine (as I take it) in the earle of Holland's riseing.

Anno 163... tempore Caroli Imi he received the sacrament in the chapell at Whitehall, and professed the Protestant religion, which gave great scandal to the Roman Catholiques; but afterwards he looked back.

He was a person of very extraordinary strength. I remember one at Shirburne (relating to the earl of Bristoll) protested to us, that as he, being a midling man, being sett in < a > chaire, Sir Kenelme tooke up him, chaire and all, with one arme.

He was of an undaunted courage, yet not apt in the least to give offence. His conversation was both ingeniose and innocent.

Mr. Thomas White, who wrote de Mundo, 1641, and Mr. ... Hall of Leige, e societate Jesu, were two of his great friends.

As for that great action of his at Scanderoon, see the Turkish Historie. Sir < Edward > Stradling, of Glamorganshire, was then his vice-admirall, at whose house is an excellent picture of his, as he was at that time: by him is drawen an armillary sphaere broken, and undernethe is writt IMPAVIDUM FERIENT (Horace). See excellent verses of Ben: Johnson (to whome he was a great patrone) in his 2d volumne.

There is in print in French, and also in English (translated by Mr. James Howell), a speech that he made at a philosophicall assembly at Montpelier, 165.. Of the sympathetique powder — see it. He made a speech at the beginning of the meeting of the Royall Society Of the vegetation of plants.

He was borne to three thousand pounds per annum. His ancient seat (I thinke) is Gote-herst in Buckinghamshire. He had a fair estate also in Rutlandshire. What by reason of the civil warres, and his generous mind, he contracted great debts, and I know not how (there being a great falling out between him and his then only son, John) he settled his estate upon ... Cornwalleys, a subtile sollicitor, and also a member of the House of Commons, who did putt Mr. John Digby to much charge in lawe: quaere what became of it?

Mr. J. D. had a good estate of his owne, and lived handsomely then at what time I went to him two or 3 times in order to your Oxon. Antiqu.; and he then brought me a great book, as big as the biggest Church Bible that ever I sawe, and the richliest bound, bossed with silver, engraven with scutchions and crest (an ostrich); it was a curious velame. It was the history of the family of the Digbyes, which Sir Kenelme either did, or ordered to be donne. There was inserted all that was to be found any where relating to them, out of records of the Tower, rolles, &c. All ancient church monuments were most exquisitely limmed by some rare artist. He told me that the compileing of it did cost his father a thousand pound. Sir Jo. Fortescue sayd he did beleeve 'twas more. When Mr. John Digby did me the favour to shew me this rare MS., "This booke," sayd he, "is all that I have left me of all the estate that was my father's!" He was almost as tall and as big as his father: he had something of the sweetnesse of his mother's face. He was bred by the Jesuites, and was a good scholar. He dyed at ...

Vide in ... Lives when Sir Kenelme dyed.

Sir John Hoskyns enformes me that Sir Kenelme Digby did translate Petronius Arbiter into English.