With the waning of Sir Kenelm Digby’s philosophic reputation his name has not become obscure. It stands, vaguely perhaps, but permanently, for something versatile and brilliant and romantic. He remains a perpetual type of the hero of romance, the double hero, in the field of action and the realm of the spirit. Had he lived in an earlier age he would now be a mythological personage; and even without the looming exaggeration and glamour of myth he still imposes.
The men of to-day seem all of little stature, and less consequence, beside the gigantic creature who made his way with equal address and audacity in courts and councils, laboratories and ladies’ bowers.
So when, in a seventeenth-century bookseller’s advertisement, I lighted on a reference to the curious compilation of receipts entitled The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, having the usual idea of him as a great gentleman, romantic Royalist, and somewhat out-of-date philosopher, I was enough astonished at seeing his name attached to what seemed to me, in my ignorance, outside even his wide fields of interest, to hunt for the book without delay, examine its contents, and inquire as to its authenticity. Of course I found it was not unknown. Page x Though the Dictionary of National Biography omits any reference to it, and its name does not occur in Mr. Carew Hazlitt’s Old Cookery Books, Dr. Murray quotes it in his great Dictionary, and it is mentioned and discussed in The Life of Digby by One of his Descendants. But Mr. Longueville treats it therein with too scant deference. One of a large and interesting series of contemporary books of the kind, its own individual interest is not small; and I commend it with confidence to students of seventeenth-century domestic manners. To apologise for it, to treat it as if it were some freak, some unowned sin of Digby’s, would be the greatest mistake. On the contrary, its connection with his life and career is of the closest; and I make bold to assert that of all his works, with the doubtful exception of his Memoirs, it is the one best worth reprinting. It is in no spirit of irony that I say of him who in his own day was looked on almost as Bacon’s equal, who was the friend of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Ben Jonson, Cromwell, and all the great spirits of his time, the intimate of kings, and the special friend of queens, that his memory should be revived for his skill in making drinks, and his interest in his own and other folks’ kitchens. If to the magnificent and protean Sir Kenelm must now be added still another side, if he must appear not only as gorgeous Cavalier, inmate of courts, controversialist, man of science, occultist, privateer, conspirator, lover and wit, but asbon viveur too, he is not the ordinary bon viveur, who feasts at banquets prepared Page xi by far away and unconsidered menials. His interest in cookery—say, rather, his passion for it—was in truth an integral part of his philosophy, and quite as serious as his laboratory practice at Gresham College and Paris. But to prove what may seem an outrageous exaggeration, we must first run over the varied story of his career; and then The Closet Opened will be seen to fall into its due and important place.
Kenelm Digby owed a good deal to circumstances, but he owed most of all to his own rich nature. His family was ancient and honourable. Tiltons originally, they took their later name in Henry III’s time, on the acquisition of some property in Lincolnshire, though in Warwickshire and Rutland most of them were settled. Three Lancastrian Digby brothers fell at Towton, seven on Bosworth Field. To his grandfather, Sir Everard the philosopher, he was mentally very much akin, much more so than to his father, another of the many Sir Everards, and the most notorious one. Save for his handsome person and the memory of a fervent devotion to the Catholic faith, which was to work strongly in him after he came to mature years, he owed little or nothing to that most unhappy young man, surely the foolishest youth who ever blundered out of the ways of private virtue into conspiracy and crime. Kenelm, his elder son, born July 11, 1603, was barely three years old when his father, the most guileless and the most obstinate of the Gunpowder Plotters, died on the scaffold. The main part of the family wealth, Page xii as the family mansion Gothurst—now Gayhurst—in Buckinghamshire, came from Sir Everard’s wife, Mary Mulsho; and probably that is one reason why James I acceded to the doomed man’s appeal that his widow and children should not be reduced to beggary. Kenelm, in fact, entered on his active career with an income of £3000 a year; but even its value in those days did not furnish a youth of such varied ambitions and such magnificent exterior over handsomely for his journey through the world. His childhood was spent under a cloud. He was bred by a mother whose life was broken and darkened, and whose faith, barely tolerated, would naturally keep her apart from the more favoured persons of the kingdom. Kenelm might have seemed destined to obscurity; but there was that about the youth that roused interest; and even the timid King James was attracted by him into a magnanimous forgetfulness of his father’s offence. Nevertheless, he could never have had the easy destiny of other young men of his class, unless he had been content to be a simple country gentleman; and from the first his circumstances and his restless mind dictated his career, which had always something in it of the brilliant adventurer.
Another branch of the Digbies rose as the Buckinghamshire family fell. It was a John Digby, afterwards Earl of Bristol, who carried the news of the conspirators’ design on the Princess Elizabeth. King James’s gratitude was a ladder of promotion, which would have been firmer had not this Protestant Digby incurred the dislike of the royal favourite Page xiii Buckingham. But in 1617 Sir John was English ambassador in Madrid; and it may have been to get the boy away from the influence of his mother and her Catholic friends that this kinsman, always well disposed towards him, and anxious for his advancement, took him off to Spain when he was fourteen, and kept him there for a year. Nor was his mother’s influence unmeddled with otherwise. During some of the years of his minority at least, Laud, then Dean of Gloucester, was his tutor. Tossed to and fro between the rival faiths, he seems to have regarded them both impartially, or indifferently, with an occasional adherence to the one that for the moment had the better exponent.
His education was that of a dilettante. A year in Spain, in Court and diplomatic circles, was followed by a year at Oxford, where Thomas Allen, the mathematician and occultist, looked after his studies. Allen “quickly discerned the natural strength of his faculties, and that spirit of penetration which is so seldom met with in persons of his age.” He felt he had under his care a young Pico di Mirandola. It may have been now he made his boyish translation of the Pastor Fido, and his unpublished version of Virgil’s Eclogues. As to the latter, the quite unimportant fact that he made one at all I offer to future compilers of Digby biographies. Allen till his death remained his friend and admirer, and bequeathed to him his valuable library. The MSS. part of it Digby presented to the Bodleian. A portion of the rest he seems to have kept; and though it is said his English library was Page xiv burnt by the Parliamentarians, it seems not unlikely that some of Allen’s books were among his collection at Paris sold after his death by the King of France.
But Kenelm was restlessly longing to taste life outside academic circles, and already he was hotly in love with his old playmate, now grown into great beauty, Venetia Anastasia Stanley, daughter of Edward Stanley of Tonge, in Shropshire, and granddaughter of the Earl of Northumberland. If I could connect the beautiful Venetia with this cookery book, I should willingly linger over the tale of her striking and brief career. But though the elder Lady Digby contributed something to The Closet Opened, there is no suggestion that it owes a single receipt to the younger. Above Kenelm in station as she was, he could hardly have aspired to her save for her curiously forlorn situation. Mother-less, and her father a recluse, she was left to bring herself up, and to bestow her affections where she might. To Kenelm’s ardour she responded readily; and he philandered about her for a year or two. But his mother would hear nothing of the match; and at seventeen he was sent out on the grand tour, the object of which, we learn from his Memoirs, was “to banish admiration, which for the most part accompanieth home-bred minds, and is daughter of ignorance.” Kenelm proved better than the ideal set before him; and the more he travelled the more he admired.
Into this tale of love and adventure I must break with the disturbing intelligence that the handsome Page xv and romantic and spirited youth was in all probability already procuring material for the compilation on Physick and Chirurgery, which Hartman, his steward, published after his death. It was not as a middle-aged bon viveur, nor as an elderly hypochondriac, that he began his medical studies, but in the heyday of youth, and quite seriously, too. The explanation brings with it light on some other of his interests as well. When he set out on the grand tour, his head full of love and the prospects of adventure, he found the spare energy to write from London to a good friend of his, the Rev. Mr. Sandy, Parson of Great Lindford. In this letter—the original is in the Ashmolean—Kenelm asks for the good parson’s prayers, and sends him “a manuscript of elections of divers good authors.” Mr. Longueville, who gives the letter, has strangely failed to identify Sandy with the famous Richard Napier, parson, physician, and astrologer, of the well-known family of Napier of Merchistoun. His father, Alexander Napier, was often known as “Sandy”; and the son held the alternative names also. Great Lindford is two and a half miles from Gothurst; and it is possible that Protestant friends, perhaps Laud himself, urged on the good parson the duty of looking after the young Catholic gentleman. Sandy (Napier) was also probably his mother’s medical adviser: he certainly acted as such to some members of her family. A man of fervent piety—his “knees were horny with frequent praying,” says Aubrey—he was, besides, a zealous student of alchemy and astrology, a friend of Dee, of Lilly, and Page xvi of Booker. Very likely Kenelm had been entrusted to Allen’s care at Oxford on the recommendation of Sandy; for Allen, one of his intimates, was a serious occultist, who, according to his servant’s account, “used to meet the spirits on the stairs like swarms of bees.” With these occupations Napier combined a large medical practice in the Midlands, the proceeds of which he gave to the poor, living ascetically himself. His favourite nephew, Richard Napier the younger, his pupil in all these arts and sciences, was about the same age as Kenelm, and spent his holidays at Great Lindford. The correspondence went on. Digby continued his medical observations abroad; and after his return we find him writing to Sandy, communicating “some receipts,” and asking for pills that had been ordered. Thus we have arrived at the early influences which drew the young Catholic squire towards the art of healing and the occult sciences. The latter he dabbled in all his life. In the former his interest was serious and steadfast.
He remained out of England three years. From Paris the plague drove him to Angers, where the appearance of the handsome English youth caused such commotion in the heart of the Queen Mother, Marie de Médicis, that she evidently lost her head. His narrative of her behaviour had to be expurgated when his Memoirs were published in 1827. He fled these royal attentions; spread a report of his death, and made his way to Italy. His two years in Florence were not all spent about the Grand-ducal Court. His mind, keen and of infinite curiosity, was hungering Page xvii after the universal knowledge he aspired to; and Galileo, then writing his Dialogues in his retirement at Bellosguardo, could not have been left unvisited by the eager young student. In after years, Digby used to say that it was in Florence he met the Carmelite friar who brought from the East the secret of the Powder of Sympathy, which cured wounds without contact. The friar who had refused to divulge the secret to the Grand Duke confided it to him—of which more hereafter.