Sir KENELM DIGBY, who once enjoyed the reputation of a philosopher, the eldest son of sir Everard Digby, was born at Gothurst in Buckinghamshire, June 11, 1603. At the time of his father's death, he was with his mother at Gothurst, being then in the third year of his age: but he seems to have been taken early out of her hands, since it s certain that he renounced the errors of popery very young, and was carefully bred up in the protestant religion, under the direction, as it is supposed, of archbishop Laud, then dean of Gloucester. Some have said, that king James restored his estate to him in his infancy; but this is an error; for it was decided by law that the king had no right to it. About 1618 he was admitted a gentleman-commoner of Gloucester-hall, now Worcester college, in Oxford; where he soon discovered such strength of natural abilities, and such a spirit of penetration, that his tutor, who was a man of parts and learning, used to compare him, probably for the universality of his genius, to the celebrated Picus de Mirandula. After having continued at Oxford between two and three years, and having raised the highest expectations of future eminence, he made the tour of France, Spain, and Italy, and returned to England 1n 1623; in which year he was knighted by the king, to whom he was presented at the lord Montague's house at Hinchinbroke, October 23. Soon after, he rendered himself remarkable by the application of a secret he met with in his travels, which afterwards made so much noise in the world under the title of the "Sympathetic Powder," by which wounds were to be cured, although the patient was out of sight, a piece of quackery scarcely credible, yet it was practised by sir Kenelm, and his patient Howell, the letter-writer, and believed by many at that time. The virtues of this powder, as himself assures us, were thoroughly inquired into by king James, his son the prince of Wales, the duke of Buckingham, with other persons of the highest distinction, and all registered among the observations of the great chancellor Bacon, to be added by way of appendix to his lordship's Natural History; but this is not strictly true; for lord Bacon never published that Appendix, although he does give a story nearly as absurd.
After the death of James, he made as great a figure in the new court as he had done in the old; and was appointed a gentleman of the bed-chamber, a commissioner of the navy, and a governor of the Trinity-house. Some disputes having happened in the Mediterranean with the Venetians, he went as admiral thither with a small fleet in the summer of 1628; and gained great honour by his bravery and conduct at Algiers, in rescuing many English slaves, and attacking the Venetian fleet in the bay of Scanderoon. In 1632 he had an excellent library of MSS. as well as printed books left him by his tutor at Oxford; but, considering how much the MSS. were valued in that university, and how serviceable they might be to the students there, he generously bestowed them the very next year upon the Bodleian library. He continued to this time a member of the church of England; but, going some time afterwards into France, he began to have religious scruples, and at length, in 1636, reconciled himself to the church of Rome. He wrote upon this occasion to Laud an apology for his conduct; and the archbishop returned him an answer, full of tenderness and good advice, but, as it seems, with very little hopes of regaining him. In his letter to the archbishop, he took great pains to convince him, that he had done nothing in this affair precipitately, or without due consideration; and he was desirous that the public should entertain the same opinion of him. As nothing also has been more common, than for persons who have changed their system of religion, to vindicate their conduct by setting forth their motives; so with this view he published at Paris, in 1638, a piece, entitled "A Conference with a lady about the choice of Religion." It was reprinted at London in 1654, and is written in a polite, easy, and concise style. Some controversial letters of his were published at London in 1651.
After a long stay in France, where he was highly caressed, he came over to England; and in 1639 was, with sir Walter Montague, employed by the queen to engage the papists to a liberal contribution to the king, which they effected; on which account some styled the forces then raised for his majesty, the popish army. Jan. 1640, the house of commons sent for sir Kenelm in order to know how far, and upon what grounds, he had acted in this matter; which he opened to them very clearly, without having the least recourse to subterfuges or evasions. Upon the breaking out of the civil war, being at London, he was by the parliament committed prisoner to Winchester-house; but at length, in 1643, set at liberty, her majesty the queen dowager of France having condescended to write a letter, with her own hand, in his favour. His liberty was granted upon certain terms; and a very respectful letter written in answer to that of the queen. Hearne has preserved a copy of the letter, directed to the queen regent of France, in the language of that country; of which the following is a translation: "Madam, the two houses of parliament having been informed by the sieur de Gressy, of the desire your majesty has that we should set at liberty sir Kenelm Digby; we are commanded to make known to your majesty, that although the religion, the past behaviour, and the abilities of this gentleman, might give some umbrage of his practising to the prejudice of the constitutions of this realm; nevertheless, having so great a regard to the recommendation of your majesty, they have ordered him to be discharged, and have authorized us farther to assure your majesty, of their being always ready to testify to you their respects upon every occasion, as well as to advance whatever may regard the good correspondence between the two states. We remain your majesty's most humble servants, &c." In regard to the terms upon which this gentleman was set at liberty, they will sufficiently appear from the following paper, entirely written, as well as subscribed by his own hand: "Whereas, upon the mediation of her majesty the queen of France, it hath pleased both houses of parliament to permit me to go into that kingdom; in humble acknowledgement of their favour therein, and to preserve and confirm a good opinion of my zeal and honest intentions to the honour and service of my country, I do here, upon the faith of a Christian, and the word of a gentleman, protest and promise, that 1 will neither directly nor indirectly negociate, promote, consent unto or conceal, any practice or design prejudicial to the honour or safety of the parliament. And, in witness of my reality herein, I have hereunto subscribed my name, this 3d day of August, 1643, Kenelm Digby." However, before he quitted the kingdom, he was summoned by a committee of the house of commons, in order to give an account of any transactions he might be privy to between archbishop Laud and the court of Rome; and particularly as to an offer supposed to be made to that prelate from thence of a cardinal's hat. Sir Kenelm assured the committee that he knew nothing of any such transactions; and that, in his judgment, the archbishop was what he seemed to be, a very sincere and learned protestant. During his confinement at Winchester-house, he was the author of two pieces at the least, which were afterwards made public; namely, 1. "Observations upon Dr. Browne's Religio Medici," 1643. 2. "Observations on the 22d stanza in the 9th canto of the 2d book of Spenser's Fairy Queen," 1644, containing, says his biographer, "a very deep philosophical commentary upon these most mysterious verses."
His appearance in France was highly agreeable to many of the learned in that kingdom, who had a great opinion of his abilities, and were charmed with the spirit and freedom of his conversation. It was probably about this time that, having read the writings of Descartes, he resolved to go to Holland on purpose to see him, and found him in his retirement at Egmond. There, after conversing with hint upon philosophical subjects some time, without, making himself known, Descartes, who had read some of his works, told him, that "he did not doubt but he was the famous sir Kenelm Digby!" "And if you, sir," replied the knight, "were not the illustrious M. Descartes, I should not have come here on purpose to see you." Desmaizeaux, who has preserved this anecdote in his Life of St. Evremond, tells us also of a conversation which then followed between these great men, about lengthening out life to the period of the patriarchs, which we have already noticed in our account of Descartes. He is also said to have had many conferences afterwards with Descartes at Paris, where he spent the best part of the ensuing winter, and employed himself in digesting those philosophical treatises which he had been long meditating; and which he published in his own language, but with a licence or privilege from the French king the year following. Their titles are, 1. "A Treatise of the nature of Bodies." 2. "A Treatise declaring the operations and nature of Man's Soul, out of which the immortality of reasonable Souls is evinced." Both printed at Paris in 1644, and often reprinted at London. He published also, 3. "InstitutiotlUm peripateticarum libri quinque, cum appendice theologica de ongine mundi," Paris, 1651: which piece, joined to the two former, translated into Latin by J. L. together with a preface in the same language by Thomas Albius, that is, Thomas White, was printed at London in 4to, 1669.
After the king's affairs were totally ruined, sir Kenelm found himself under a necessity of returning into England in order to compound for his estate. The parliament, however, did not judge it proper that he should remain here; and therefore not only ordered him to withdraw, but voted, that if he should afterwards at any time return, without leave of the house first obtained, be should lose both life and estate. Upon this he went again to France, where he was very kindly received by Henrietta Maria, dowager queen of England, to whom he had been for some time chancellor. He was sent by her not long after into Italy, and at first well received by Innocent X. but Wood says, behaved to the pope so haughtily, that he quickly lost his good opinion; and adds farther, that there was a suspicion of his being no faithful steward of the contributions raised in that part of the world for the assistance of the distressed catholics in England. After Cromwell had assumed the supreme power, sir Kenelm, who had then nothing to fear from the parliament, ventured to return home, and continued here a great part of 1655; when it has generally been supposed that he was embarked in the great design of reconciling the papists to the protector.
After some stay at Paris, he spent the summer of 1656 at Toulouse, where he conversed with several learned and ingenious men, to whom he communicated, not only mathematical, physical, and philosophical discoveries of his own, but also any matters of this nature he received from his friends in different parts of Europe. Among these was a relation he had obtained of a city in Barbary under the king of Tripoli, which was said to be turned into stone in a very few hours by a petrifying vapour out of the earth; that is, men, beasts, trees, houses, utensils, and the like, remaining all in the same posture as when alive. He had this account from Fitton, an Englishman residing in Florence as library-keeper to the grand duke of Tuscany; and Fitton from the grand duke, who a little before had written to the pasha of Tripoli to know the truth. Sir Kenelm sent it to a friend in England; and it was at length inserted in the "Mercurius Politicus." This drew a very severe censure upon our author from the famous Henry Stubbes, who called him, on that account, "The Pliny of his age for lying." It has, however, been offered, in his vindication, that accounts have been given of such a city by modern writers; and that these accounts are in some measure confirmed by a paper delivered to Richard Waller, esq. F.R.S. by Mr. Baker, who was the English consul at Tripoli, Nov. 12, 1713. This paper is to be found in the "Philosophical Observations and. Experiments of Dr. Robert Hooke," published by Derham in 1726, 8vo; and it begins thus: "About forty days journey S.E. from Tripoli, and about seven days from the nearest sea-coast, there is a place called Ougila, in which there are found the bodies of men, women, and children, beasts and plants, all petrified of hard stone, like marble." And we are afterwards told, in the course of the relation, that "the figure of a man petrified was conveyed to Leghorn, and from thence to England; and that it was carried to secretary Thurloe."
In 1657 we find him at Montpelier; whither he went, partly for the sake of his health, which began to be impaired by severe fits of the stone, and partly for the sake of enjoying the learned society of several ingenious persons, who had formed themselves into a kind of academy there. To these he read, in French, his "Discourse of the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy," which was translated into English, and printed at London; and afterwards into Latin, and reprinted in 1669, with "The Treatise of Bodies, &c." As to the philosophical arguments in this work, and the manner in which the author accounts for the strange operations of this remedy, however highly admired in those days, they will not now be thought very convincing. He spent the year 1658, and part of 1659, in the Lower Germany; and then returned to Paris, where we find him in 1660. He returned the year following to England, and was very well received at court; although the ministers were far from being ignorant of the irregularity of his conduct, and the attention he paid to Cromwell while the king was in exile. It does not appear, however, that any other favour was shewn him than seemed to be due to a man of letters. In the first settlement of the royal society we find him appointed one of the council, by the title of sir Kenelm Digby, knight, Chancellor to our dear mother queen Mary. As long as his health permitted, he attended the meetings of this society; and assisted in the improvements that were then made in natural knowledge. One of his discourses, "Concerning the Vegetation of Plants," was printed in 1661; and it is the only genuine work of our author of which we have not spoken. For though the reader may find in Wood, and other authors, several pieces attributed to him, yet these were published after his decease by one Hartman, who was his operator, and who put his name in the title-page, with a view of recommending compositions very unworthy of him to the public. It may be proper to observe in this place, that he translated from the Latin of Albertus Magnus, a piece entitled "A treatise of adhering to God," which was printed at London in 1654; and that he had formed a design of collecting and publishing the works of Roger Bacon.
He spent the remainder of his days at his house in Covent Garden, where he was much visited by the lovers of philosophical, and mathematical learning, and according to a custom which then prevailed much in France, he had a kind of academy, or literary assembly, in his own dwelling. In 1665 his old distemper the stone increased upon him much, and brought him very low; which made him desirous, as it is said, of going to France. This, however, he did not live to accomplish, but died on his birth-day, June 11th, that year; and was interred in a vault built at his own charge in Christ-church within Newgate, London. His library, which was justly esteemed a most valuable collection, had been transported into France at the first breaking out of the troubles, and improved there at a very considerable expence; but, as he was no subject of his most Christian majesty, it became, according to that branch of the prerogative which the French style "Droit d'Aubain," the property of the crown upon his decease. He left an only son, John Digby, esq. who succeeded to the family estate. He had an elder son, Kenelm Digby, esq. of great abilities and virtues; but this gentleman appearing in arms for Charles I. after that monarch was utterly incapable of making the least resistance, was killed at the battle of St. Neot's in Huntingdonshire, July 7, 1648.
It has been justly observed by the editors of the last edition of the Biog. Britannica, that sir Kenelm Digby seems to have obtained a reputation beyond his merit; yet his merit was great, and his personal character has been admirably drawn by lord Clarendon: "He was," says that historian, "a person very eminent and notorious throughout the whole course of his life, from his cradle to his grave; of an ancient family and noble extraction; and inherited a fair and plentiful fortune, notwithstanding the attainder of his father. He was a man of a very extraordinary person and presence, which drew the eyes of all men upon him, which were more fixed by a wonderful graceful behaviour, a flowing courtesy and civility, and such a volubility of language, as surprised and delighted; and though in another man it might have appeared to have somewhat of affectation, it was marvellous graceful in him, and seemed natural to his size, and mould of his person, to the gravity of his motion, and the tune of his voice and delivery. He had a fair reputation in arms, of which he gave an early testimony in his youth, in some encounters in Spain and Italy, and afterwards in an action in the Mediterranean sea, where he had the command of a squadron of ships of war set out at his own charge, under the king's commission; with which, upon an injury received or apprehended from the Venetians, he encountered their whole fleet, killed many of their men, and sunk one of their galeasses; which in that drowsy and unactive time was looked upon with a general estimation, though the crown disavowed it. In a word, he had all the advantages that nature and art, and an excellent education could give him, which, with a great confidence and presentness of mind, buoyed him up against all those prejudices and disadvantages (as the attainder and execution of his father for a crime of the highest nature; his own marriage with a lady, though of an extraordinary beauty, of as extraordinary a fame; his changing and rechanging his religion; and some personal vices and licences in his life) which would have suppressed and sunk any other man, but never clouded or eclipsed him from appearing in the best places, and the best company, and with the best estimation and satisfaction." We can entertain no doubt, therefore, of the estimation in which he was held, and of the merit which deserved it; but on the other hand it is impossible to acquit him of excessive credulity, or of deliberate imposture. His sympathetic powder, and his belief, or his assertion of the power of transmuting metals, will not now bear examination, without affecting his character in one or other of these respects.