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Digby, Kenelm

1. Dates
Born: Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire, 11 July 1603
Died: London, 11 July 1665
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 62
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry
Sir Everard Digby was executed in 1606, when Kenelm was three, for involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. Kenelm was able to claim the estate. Kenelm's uncle, John Digby, later the Earl of Bristol, reared him.
Clearly wealthy.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English, French
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford
Oxford University, Fellow Commoner, Gloucester Hall, 1618- 20; no degree.
After the years in Oxford, Digby went on the grand tour, 1620-3, ending in Madrid, where his uncle was the English Ambassador.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic, Anglican
Digby, who was reared a Catholic, was able to attend Oxford without subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles. Gloucester Hall was known as a haven for Catholics, but even with that Digby lived apart and not in the college. And he left without taking a degree.
Briefly an Anglican, 1630-3; returned to the Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Botany, Alchemy
In Gresham College, where he lived for two years following the death of his wife, Digby pursued a wide variety of subjects--magnetism, the circulatory system, refraction and reflection of light, the growth of the embryo. He was in touch with the latest developments in the new science.
Digby's Two Treatises, 1644, embodied this general interest in natural philosophy and the specific topics he studied in Gresham College. In the Two Treatises he was influenced by the new mechanical natural philosophy.
His Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants (more a pamphlet than a book), 1661, was his most important scientific effort.
In the '30s Digby and the painter Van Dyck actively pursued alchemy.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Government, Patronage, Sailing
Digby inherited wealth. It was confiscated during the Civil War, and he emerged from the Interregnum deeply in debt. With the Restoration there was some return to prosperity, but he died still in debt.
In 1628 Digby commanded a privateering expedition in the Mediterranean, which certainly won him fame and apparently some material reward. It led to his appointment as Naval Commissioner in 1629 (to 1635), and Governor of Trinity House, and there were other favors.
As a member of Charles' Privy Council he was much in favor during the early thirties, and apparently profitted considerably. He held some of the notorious monopolies; the one for sealing wax was probably lucrative. It was during this period that he briefly switched to Anglicanism.
The King gave him the profits from the patent for sealing wax in Wales, later extended to Northumberland and Cheshire, and then gave him the trade monopoly for "Ginney, Binney, and Angola", three places in and near the rich gold coast of west central Africa. Also , Digby and five others were awarded a thirty-year monopoly for Canadian trade. Without details I gravely doubt that any of this, except for the sealing wax, brought in income.
In 1635, following his reconversion, Digby went to France where he lived, on his personal means, for most of the following twenty-five years.
Chancellor to Henrietta Maria, 1644- until his death. He was sent as the envoy of the Catholic royalists to the Pope in 1645 and again in 1646-7. During the Interregnum the position as Chancellor to the Queen could not have netted any income, but I think that it did in 1660.
In the mid '50s Digby engaged in negotiations with Cromwell on behalf of English Catholics. He and Cromwell got along well, and apparently Digby, then in need because of the confiscation of his estate, was on pension from Cromwell.
8. Patronage
Type: Court
He was knighted in 1623 presumably for his share in entertaining Prince Charles in Spain and became a member of the Privy Council of the Prince. Six years later, Charles I made him Naval Commissioner. In the 1630s the King gave him quite a few profitable favors.
Through his uncle, John Digby, Ambassador at Madrid and later the first Earl of Bristol, Digby became accquainted with Prince Charles in Spain and became part of the Prince's household in 1622, and later a member of Chrles' Privy Council. Charles occasionally employed him in negotiations.
In 1643 the Queen Dowager of France was the principal agent in obtaining Digby's release from imprisonment by Parliament in London.
He became Queen Henrietta Maria's Chancellor in 1644 and retained this position, whatever it may have entailed, until his death.
He was probably given a pension by Cromwell.
Nevertheless he was in good odor upon the Restoration, and he received some payments from the royal government for some earlier efforts.
Like others in his social position, Digby did not seek the sort of patronage I am usually dealing with. Significantly he dedicated his major work, the Two Treatises, to his son.
Digby himself was a minor patron--of the likes of Van Dyck and Ben Jonson, for example. At least nineteen books in five different languages were dedicated to him.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
There is extensive evidence that Digby occasionally used his knowledge of medicine to treat sick people.
He actively collected cures all of his life, for example, already in 1620 while on the grand tour; the famous sympathetic powder was part of this concern. Shortly after his death a collection of his remedies, Choice and Experimental Receipts of Physick and Chirurgery, 1668, was published.
While Digby was imprisoned in Winchester House in 1643, he devised a method for making uniform glass bottles. I don't know how to categorize this.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal Connections: As a young natural philosopher he was involved in the projected Royal Academy which attempted to bring together all the new work in literature, philosophy, history and science. He was one of the 84 nomminated members of the suggested Academy in 1617. (Obviously that date is a typo; I am not now in a position to correct it.)
When he was Naval commissioner Digby served for several years in and out of Deptford. Through the Trinity House in Deptford, a place which attracted all travellers and naval men who were interested in experimental science, he came into close touch with these topics. Perhaps through Deptford he came to know the scientific group at Gresham College including Gunter, Gellibrand, and Goddard. After 1633, he lived chiefly in Gresham College for more than two years.
He met Hobbes and Mersenne in 1636-7 and seems to have become a memeber of Mersenne's circle. He attentended the "Académie Mersenne" at the salon of Etienne Pascal, Le Fevre's and Moray's conferences in chemistry, and the anatomical demonstrations at Moulin's laboratory. He knew Montmor, Pierre Borel and Huygens very well, and he was a friend to Samuel de Sorbière. He introduced Descartes' Discours to Hobbes in 1637, and later he became a close acquaintance of Descartes. He played the virtuoso role in the scientific correspondence between a group of French and English mathematicians (Frenicle and Fermat, Wallis and Brouncker). Wallis dedicated the published correspondence to him.
He was the first person to see the micrometer invented by William Gascoigne.
Royal Society, 1660-5. Member of council, 1662-3.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 5, 965-71. Biographia Britannica, 2nd ed. (London, 1778-93), 5, 184-99.
  2. R.T. Petersson, Sir Kenelm Digby, the Ornament Of England, (Cambridge, MA, 1956). This is clearly the leading source on Digby.
  3. John F. Fulton, "Sir Kenelm Digby, F.R.S., (1603-1665)," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 15 (1960), 199-210.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. E.W. Bligh, Sir Kenelm Digby and his Venetia, (London, 1932).
  2. Vittorio Gabrieli, Sir Kenelm Digby; un inglese italianato nell'età della controriforma, (Roma, 1957).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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