Thursday, March 28, 2019

Sir Kenelm Digby and His Closet

By Lauren Gilbert

Earlier this month, author M. J. Logue wrote a fascinating article for this blog titled “Slipcoat Cheese” (HERE ) which referenced THE CLOSET OF SIR KENELM DIGBY KNIGHT OPENED. Having an interest in old cookbooks, I decided to look into this book and Sir Kenelm Digby himself. What an interesting character! The following is a brief sketch of Sir Kenelm’s life, and a glance at his Closet.

Sir Kenelm Digby. Line engraving by R. van Voerst,
1646, after Anton van Dyck
Sir Kenelm Digby was truly a renaissance man, not only because he was born during the Renaissance era, but because of his wide-ranging interests. He was born July 11, 1603 at Gayhurst (or Goathurst) in Buckinghamshire, England. His father was Sir Everard Digby of Drystoke, Rutland, England, and his mother Mary Mulshaw (or Mulsho) of Gayhurst. The family was Roman Catholic, and Sir Everard was executed in 1606 as a party to the Gunpowder Plot. It appears that Gayhurst came to the Digby’s through Mary, as James I allowed Kenelm to inherit the unconfiscated lands which brought him a significant income annually.

Gayhurst House at night - Brian Tomlinson Photography
(modern view)

In 1618, Kenelm entered Gloucester Hall at Oxford (Gloucester Hall is now Worcester College) where he studied the physical sciences under the tutelage of Thomas Allen, mathematician, astrologer and occultist. Allen left his books and manuscripts to Kenelm, who ultimately donated them to the Bodleian Library. Kenelm left Oxford in 1620 without a degree. At some point, it is thought that he met, fell in love with and wanted to marry Venitia Stanley but both families disapproved so he left to travel the Continent from 1620 to 1623. He met Charles, then Prince of Wales and subsequently Charles I, in Spain and joined his household. Kenelm returned to England and was dubbed a knight by James I. He was also granted an M. A. from Cambridge during the king’s visit.

Portrait of Lady Venitia Digby by Henri Toutin,
1637 after her death (Walters Gallery)

In 1625, Sir Kenelm married Venitia Stanley. She was a famous beauty, about whom Ben Johnson wrote poetry, and she was painted by Van Dyck several times. They were apparently much in love and happily married, producing four sons and a daughter. (Venitia did have a somewhat questionable reputation, but it did not seem to disturb their relationship, so we shall not address that here.)

In 1627, Sir Kenelm undertook privateering, venturing into the waters of Gibraltar, Algiers and Majorca among other places. Among his adventures were battles with French and Venetian ships. Subsequently, he returned to England and became a naval administrator, and at one point was a governor of Trinity House (responsible for beacons, markers, lighthouses etc. to warn ships of dangers).

During the period of his youth and young manhood, Sir Kenelm’s Roman Catholic faith lapsed. Venitia died suddenly on May 1, 1633 and was buried in Christ Church, Newgate. This blow led him to isolate himself in scientific studies at Gresham College and, at some point, to Paris and a renewal of his faith by 1636. In 1638, he wrote a treatise on religion, defending the Roman Catholic faith as the one true faith. Ironically, during the 1630’s, Sir Kenelm was also studying astrology, medical matters and alchemy. He returned to England in 1639.

Unfortunately, the climate was bad for Catholics; his activities roused Parliament and in 1643, Sir Kenelm’s property was confiscated and he was compelled to return to Paris. He wrote two philosophical treatises while in Paris, “The Nature of Bodies” and “On the Immortality of Reasonable Souls”, released in 1644. He met Queen Henrietta Maria while in France and became chancellor of her household and engaged in diplomatic missions to Pope Innocent X for the English crown. Sir Kenelm ultimately returned to England in 1654, where (rather surprisingly) he became an associate of Oliver Cromwell and he was engaged in several diplomatic ventures.

As a result of his situation with Henrietta Maria, Sir Kenelm was in favour at court after the Restoration. He continued his studies, corresponded with scientists, mathematicians and other intellectuals, and was one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1662. In addition to the treatises mentioned here, Sir Kenelm wrote a number of works; a list many of them which can be read on line is available HERE . He did have difficulties with Charles II, and was finally banned from court for a while. He died June 11, 1665 at age 62 in Covent Garden, London, and was buried next to his wife.

This brings us to THE CLOSET OF SIR KENELM DIGBY KNIGHT OPENED. Although Sir Kenelm is shown as the author, it was actually published some years after his death (about 1669) and is considered to have been compiled by a gentleman named Georg Hartman, one of his servants. It contains fascinating recipes for a wide range of things ranging from meads (a large number), cosmetics, possets, soups and stews, plague-waters, puddings, roasts, savoury pies, cakes and sweets, and includes multiple recipes for the slip-coat cheese. However, one of the most fascinating recipes is in Appendix II and harks back to Sir Kenelm’s studies of medicine and, possibly, alchemy: the Powder of Sympathy.

The Powder of Sympathy is a magical healing powder derived from English vitriol, dissolved in water, filtered, boiled and set aside for a few days; when the liquid is then poured off, green crystals are found. These crystals are dried, exposed to the sun until white, then beaten to powder, which is the Powder of Sympathy. To cure a wound, one takes some blood on a cloth, puts some of the powder on the bloody cloth, wraps it up and keep it safely. The wound itself should be kept clean and wrapped in clean linen, and should heal without other medicinals or pain. As we can see, the Powder of Sympathy is not directly applied to the wound itself. There are further instructions for an inflamed wound and to stop bleeding. One has to wonder how efficacious this was. I would think any healing that might have been attributed to the Powder of Sympathy had more to do with keeping the wound clean than anything else.


Digby, Kenelm. THE CLOSET OF SIR KENELM DIGBY KNIGHT OPENED. Introduction by Anne MacDonnell (Chelsea, 1910). Reprint 2019: Amazon Services, Inc. Columbia, SC “Sir Kenelm Digby English Philosopher and Diplomat” by the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. HERE

The Catholic Dictionary. “Sir Kenelm Digby” by Charles Boothman, 1908. HERE “Sir Kenelm Digby, Alchemist, Scholar, Courtier and Man of Adventure” by Wyndham Miles. Chymia, vol. 2, 1949, pp. 119–128. JSTOR, .

The Online Books Page. “On-line Books by Kenelm Digby (Digby, Kenelm, 1603-1665). HERE


Sir Kenelm Digby. Line engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1646, after Anton Van Dyck. Creative Commons. HERE

Gayhurst House at night by Brian Tomlinson, Jan. 12, 2017. Creative Commons. HERE

Portrait of Lady Venitia Digby by Henri Toutin, 1637 (painted after her death). File provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Walters Gallery as part of a cooperation project. Creative Commons. HERE


An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long-time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at the South Florida Region, and a breakout session at the the 2011 Annual General Meeting in Ft. Worth, TX. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book HEYERWOOD: A Novel is available. She is finishing a second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT for release in 2019, and doing research for a biography. For more information, visit her website HERE


  1. The epitaph on Sir Kenelm Digby's tomb at Christ Church, Newgate read:

    "Under this tomb the matchless Digby lies,
    Digby the great, the valiant, and the wise:
    This age's wonder for his noble parts,
    Skilled in nix tongues, and learned in all the arts:
    Born on the day he died, the eleventh of June,
    On which he bravely fought at Scanderoon;
    'Tis rare that one and the same day should be His day of birth, of death and victory.”

  2. Thanks for the link to the CLOSET--got it on my Kindle.


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