The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Kt., Opened, by Kenelm Digby


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Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, having the usual idea of him as a great gentleman, romantic Royalist, and somewhat out-of-date philosopher, I was enough astonished at seeing his name attached to what seemed to me, in my ignorance, outside even his wide fields of interest, to hunt for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. 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 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, 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 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 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 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 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 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.

From Florence he passed to Spain; and his arrival was happily timed — probably by his ever anxious kinsman; for a few days later Prince Charles and Buckingham landed, on the Spanish Marriage business; and so agreeable was young Digby that, in spite of Buckingham’s dislike of his name, he became part of the Prince’s household, and returned with the party in October, 1623. Court favours seemed now to open out a career for him. King James knighted him, in what might have proved a fatal ceremony; for so tremblingly nervous of the naked steel was the royal hand, that Buckingham had to turn the sword aside from doing damage instead of honour. He was also made Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Prince Charles. But no other signal favours followed these. For all his agreeableness he was not of the stuff courtiers are made of — though James had a kindness for him, and was entertained by his eagerness and ingenuity. Bacon, too, just before his death, had come across this zealous young student of the experimental methods, and had meant, Digby said, to include an account of the Powder of Sympathy in an appendix to his Natural History.

In Spain, Kenelm had flirted with some Spanish ladies, notably with the beautiful Donna Anna Maria Manrique, urged thereto by gibes at his coldness; but Venetia was still the lady of his heart. Her amorous adventures, in the meanwhile, had been more serious and much more notorious. His letters had miscarried, and had been kept back by his mother. Venetia pleaded her belief in his death. Aubrey’s account of her is a mass of picturesque scandal. “She was a most beautiful desirable creature. . . . The young eagles had espied her, and she was sanguine and tractable, and of much suavity (which to abuse was great pittie).” Making all allowance for gossip, the truth seems to be that in Kenelm’s absence she had been at least the mistress of Sir Edward Sackville, afterwards the fourth Earl of Dorset; that Dorset tired of her; and on Digby’s return she was more than willing to return to her old love. But, alas! Sackville had her picture, which seemed to her compromising. Digby, therefore, having accepted her apologies and extenuations, challenged Sackville to a duel; whereupon the faithless one proved at least magnanimous; refused to fight, gave up the picture, and swore that Venetia was blameless as she was fair. A private marriage followed; and it was only on the birth of his second son John that Sir Kenelm acknowledged it to the world. To read nearly all his Memoirs is to receive the impression that he looked on his wife as a wronged innocent. To read the whole is to feel he knew the truth and took the risk, which was not very great after all; for the lady of the many suitors and several adventures settled down to the mildest domesticity. They say he was jealous; but no one has said she gave him cause. The tale runs that Dorset visited them once a year, and “only kissed her hand, Sir Kenelm being by.”

But Digby was a good lover. All the absurd rhodomontade of his strange Memoirs notwithstanding, there are gleams of rare beauty in the story of his passion, which raise him to the level of the great lovers. His Memoirs were designed to tell “the beginning, progress, and consummation of that excellent love, which only makes me believe that our pilgrimage in this world is not indifferently laid upon all persons for a curse.” And here is a very memorable thing. “Understanding and love are the natural operation of a reasonable creature; and this last, which is a gift that of his own nature must always be bestowed, being the only thing that is really in his power to bestow, it is the worthiest and noblest that can be given.”

But, as he naïvely says, “the relations that follow marriage are . . . a clog to an active mind”; and his kinsman Bristol was ever urging him to show his worth “by some generous action.” The result of this urging was Scanderoon. His object, plainly stated, was to ruin Venetian trade in the Levant, to the advantage of English commerce. The aid and rescue of Algerian slaves were afterthoughts. King James promised him a commission; but Buckingham’s secretary, on behalf of his master absent in the Ile de Ré, thought his privileges were being infringed, and the King drew back. Digby acted throughout as if he had a “publike charge,” but he was really little other than a pirate. He sailed from Deal in December, 1627, his ships the “Eagle” and the “George and Elizabeth.” It was six months before the decisive fight took place; but on the way he had captured some French and Spanish ships near Gibraltar; and what with skirmishes and sickness, his voyage did not want for risk and episode at any time. Digby the landsman maintained discipline, reconciled quarrels, doctored his men, ducked them for disorderliness, and directed the naval and military operations like any old veteran. At Scanderoon [now Alexandretta in the Levant] the French and Venetians, annoyed by his presence, fired on his ships. He answered with such pluck and decision that, after a three hours’ fight, the enemy was completely at his mercy, and the Venetians “quitted to him the signiority of the roade.” In his Journal of the Voyage you may read a sober account, considering who was the teller of the tale, of a brilliant exploit. He does not disguise the fact that he was acting in defiance of his own countrymen in the Levant. The Vice-Consul at Scanderoon kept telling him that “our nation” at Aleppo “fared much the worse for his abode there.” He was setting the merchants in the Levant by the ears, and when he turned his face homewards, the English were the most relieved of all. His exploit “in that drowsy and inactive time . . . was looked upon with general estimation,” says Clarendon. The King gave him a good welcome, but could not follow it up with any special favour; for there were many complaints over the business, and Scanderoon had to be repudiated.

But Digby could not be merely privateer, and in the Scanderoon expedition we are privileged to look on the Pirate as a Man of Taste. His stay in Florence had given him an interest in the fine arts; and at Milo and Delphos he contrived to make some healthy exercise for his men serve the avidity of the collector. Modern excavators will read with horror of his methods. “I went with most of my shippes to Delphos, a desert island, where staying till the rest were readie, because idlenesse should not fixe their mindes upon any untoward fansies (as is usuall among seamen), and together to avayle myselfe of the convenience of carrying away some antiquities there, I busied them in rolling of stones doune to the see side, which they did with such eagernesse as though it had been the earnestest business that they had come out for, and they mastered prodigious massie weightes; but one stone, the greatest and fairest of all, containing four statues, they gave over after they had been, 300 men, a whole day about it. . . . But the next day I contrived a way with mastes of shippes and another shippe to ride over against it, that brought it doune with much ease and speede”! What became of this treasure so heroically acquired?

So much for art. Literature was to have its turn with the versatile pirate ere he reached his native shores. During a time of forced inaction at Milo, he began to write his Memoirs. A great commander was expected during a truce, it appears, to pay lavish attentions to the native ladies. Neglect of this gallantry was construed almost as a national insult. Sir Kenelm, faithful to his Venetia, excused himself on the plea of much business. But he had little or no business; and he used his retirement to pen the amazing account of his early life and his love story, where he appears as Theagenes and his wife as Stelliana, as strange a mixture of rhodomontade and real romance as exists among the autobiographies of the world. Of course it does not represent Digby at his maturity. Among his MSS. the Memoirs were found with the title of Loose Fantasies, and they were not printed till 1827.

It was quite a minor post in the Navy he received in recognition of Scanderoon, and one wonders why he took it. Perhaps to gain experience, of which he was always greedy. Or Scanderoon may have emptied his treasuries. After the Restoration he had a hard struggle to get repaid for his ransom of slaves on the Algerian coast. At any rate, as Naval Commissioner he earned the reputation of a hard-working public servant.

If his constantly-changing life can be said to have had a turning-point, it occurred in 1633, when his wife died suddenly. The death of the lovely Venetia was the signal for a great outburst of vile poetry on her beauty and merits. Ben Jonson, her loyal friend and Kenelm’s, wrote several elegies, one of them the worst. Vandyck painted her several times; and so the memory of her loveliness is secure. As to her virtues, amiability seems to have been of their number. “Unmatcht for beauty, chaster than the ayre,” wrote one poet. When they opened her head it was discovered she had little brain; and gossip attributed the fact to her having drunk viper-wine — by her husband’s advice — for her complexion. This sounds absurd only to those who have not perused the Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery. Little brain or not, her husband praised her wits. Ben Jonson wrote with devotion of her “who was my muse, and life of all I did.”

Digby imitated his father-in-law who, in similar circumstances, gave himself up to solitude and recollection. His place of retirement was Gresham College. Do its present students remember it once housed a hermit who “wore a long mourning cloake, a high crowned hat, his beard unshorne . . . as signes of sorrowe for his beloved wife”? There “he diverted himself with chymistry and the professor’s good conversation.” He had “a fair and large laboratory . . . erected under the lodgings of the Divinity Reader.” Hans Hunneades the Hungarian was his operator.

But another influence was at work. For the first time his mind turned seriously to religion. Romanist friends were persuading him to his father’s faith. His old tutor Laud and other Protestants were doing their best to settle him on their side. Out of the struggle of choice he came, in 1636, a fervent and convinced Catholic. He was to prove his devotion over and over again; but I fear that Catholics of to-day would view with suspicion his views on ecclesiastical authority. In his dedication of his Treatise on the Soul to his son Kenelm, there is a spirited defence of the right, of the intelligent to private judgment in matters of doctrine. Nevertheless, his Catholicism, though rationalist, was sincere, and he spent much energy in propaganda among his friends — witness his rather dull little brochure, the Conference with a Lady about Choice of Religion (1638), and his correspondence with his kinsman, Lord Digby, who did, indeed, later, come over to the older faith. Ere long he earned the reputation of being “not only an open but a busy Papist,” though “an eager enemy to the Jesuits.”

From this time dates his close friendship with the Queen, Henrietta Maria, and her Catholic friends, Sir Tobie Matthew, Endymion Porter, and Walter Montague. He and Montague were specially chosen by the Queen to appeal to the English Catholics for aid towards Charles’s campaign in Scotland. Digby was certainly a hot inciter of the King to foolish activity; but in the light of his after history, it would seem always with a view to the complete freedom of the Catholic religion. A prominent King’s man, nay, a Queen’s man, which was held to be something extremer, he played, however, an individual part in the struggle. He was well fitted for the Cavalier rôle by the magnificence of his person, by his splendid hospitality, his contempt for sects, his aristocratic instincts, and his manner of the Great World. But if he liked good cheer and a great way of living, he is never to be imagined as clinking cans with a “Hey for Cavaliers! Ho for Cavaliers!” He never fought for the King’s cause — though he fought a duel in Paris with a French lord who took Charles’s name in vain, and killed his man too. His rôle was always the intellectual one. He conspired for the cause — chiefly, I think, out of personal friendship, and because he held it to be the cause of his Church. He was not a virulent politician; and on the question of divine right the orthodox Cavaliers must have felt him to be very unsound indeed.

The era of Parliaments had now come, and Digby was to feel it. He was summoned to the bar of the House as a Popish recusant. Charles was ordered to banish him and Montague from his councils and his presence; and their examination continued at intervals till the middle of 1642. The Queen interceded for Digby with much warmth, but she was a dangerous friend; and in the same year Montague and he were sent to prison. I have heard a tradition that Crosby Hall was for a time his comfortable jail, but can find no corroboration of this. The serjeant-at-arms confined him for a brief space at The Three Tuns, near Charing Cross, “where his conversation made the prison a place of delight” to his fellows. Later, at Winchester House, Southwark, where he remained in honourable confinement for two years, he was busy with writing and experimenting — to preserve him from “a languishing and rusting leisure.” Two pamphlets, both of them hasty improvisations, one a philosophic commentary on a certain stanza of the Faërie Queen, the other, his well-known Observations on the ‘Religio Medici’, are but mere bubbles of this seething activity, given over mostly to the preparation of his Two Treatises, “Of the Body,” and “Of the Soul,” published later in Paris, and to experiments on glass-making.

Many efforts were made for his release, the most efficacious by the Queen of France. It should have been the Dowager Marie de Médicis, in memory of her hot flame for him when he was a youth; but though she may have initiated the appeal, she died before his release, which he seems to have owed to Anne of Austria’s good services. Freedom meant banishment, but this sentence he did not take very seriously. In these years he was continually going and coming between France and England, now warned by Parliament, now tolerated, now banished, again daring return, and escaping from the net. “I can compare him to nothing but to a great fish that we catch and let go again; but still he will come to the bait,” said Selden of him in his Table-Talk.

Exile in Paris provided fresh opportunity for scientific study, though his connection with the English Catholic malcontents, and his services to the Queen Henrietta Maria, who now made him her Chancellor, absorbed much of his time. When the Cause needed him, the Cavalier broke away from philosophy; and in 1645 he set out for Rome, at the bidding of the Queen, to beg money for her schemes. With all his address, diplomacy was not among the chief of his talents. With high personages he took a high tone. Innocent X gave 10,000 crowns to the Cause; but they quarrelled; and the Pope went so far as to accuse Digby of misappropriation of the money. Digby, a man of clean hands, seems to have taken up the Queen’s quarrel. She would have nothing to do with Rinuccini’s Irish expedition, which his Holiness was supporting; and her Chancellor naturally insisted on disbursing the funds at her commands rather than at the Pope’s . Moreover, he was now renewing his friendship with Thomas White, a heretic Catholic priest, of several aliases, some of whose work had been placed on the Index. White was a philosophic thinker of considerable power and subtlety, and he and Digby acted and reacted on each other strongly — though Digby’s debt is perhaps the greater. Their respective parts in the Two Treatises and in the Institutionum Peripateticorum libri quinque, published under White’s name, but for which Sir Kenelm is given the main credit, can hardly now be sifted. White, at all events, was not a prudent friend for an envoy to the Holy See. Digby “grew high and hectored with his holinesse, and gave him the lye. The pope said he was mad.” Thus Aubrey. Henrietta Maria sent him once more on the same errand; but the Roman Curia continued to look on him as a “useless and restless man, with scanty wisdom.” Before returning, however, he paid a round of visits to Italian courts, making everywhere a profound impression by his handsome person and his liveliness. He had to hasten back to England on his own business. His fortunes were desperate; and he desired to compound for his estates.

A week or so after the King’s death he is proved by his correspondence to be in France, having fled after one more pronouncement of him as a dangerous man. He went into exile this time with a sad heart; and it was not only the loyalist in him that cried out. The life of an English country gentleman would never have satisfied him; yet he longed for it now it had become impossible. He writes from Calais to a friend: “Those innocent recreations you mention of tabors and pipes, and dancing ladies, and convenient country houses, shady walks and close arbours, make one sigh to be again a spectator of them, and to be again in little England, where time slides more gently away than in any part of the world. Quando sia mai ch’a rividerti io torno?”

He went this time knowing better than his fellow royalists the meaning of events. He was still a rank, but at least an intelligent, conspirator. English correspondents at Rouen and Caen report him in the company of one Watson, an Independent; and that he is proposing “to join the interests of all the English papists with the bloody party that murdered the king.” Dr. Winsted, an English doctor in Rouen, asked him with indignation how he could meditate going back to England, “considering the abomination of that country.” Digby replied that he was forced to it. “If he went not now he must starve.” He plainly saw who was the real and only force in England; and he was going to make a bargain with the strong man for himself and his co-religionists. As a matter of fact there is no trace of his return at this moment. Not merely was his property in danger, but his head as well. Yet he never repented of his policy, and he carried it out, so far as might be, in his dealings with Cromwell a few years later. And Henrietta Maria bore him no grudge on this score.

Exile in Paris meant friendly intercourse with, and consolation of the Queen, but also scientific research. In 1651 Evelyn was visiting him there, and being stirred by his enthusiasm into attending Fébur’s chemistry lectures along with him. Before that must have taken place his pilgrimage to Descartes, who died in 1650. Apparently Sir Kenelm had gone to Egmont as an unknown stranger; and it throws light on his wide reputation as a man of ideas and a conversationalist, that into his torrent of questions and speculation Descartes broke with, “You can be none other than Digby.” The English scientist’s practical mind — for he had always a practical end in view, however fantastic his methods — showed itself in his counsel to the author of the Discours sur la Méthode. Why all this labour for mere abstract speculation? Why not apply his genius to the one great subject, the prolongation of human life? Descartes, it appears, did not need the advice. He said the subject was engaging his mind; and though he “dared not look forward to man being rendered immortal, he was quite certain his length of life could be made equal to the patriarch’s .” In fact, he was composing at the time an Abrégé de Médecine, and popular report said he believed men could live four or five hundred years. He died prematurely of too much faith in his own medical theories.

In 1653 permission was given to Digby to return, on condition he would not meddle with Royalist plots. He had been in communication with Cromwell, and had done some diplomatic business for him in Paris. On his return in 1654, and for the next few years, he was in the closest relations with the Protector, thereby carrying out the principle he had probably adopted from White, of a “universal passive obedience to any species of government that had obtained an establishment.” His Royalist friends made an outcry, and so did the Puritans; but Digby was confident of obtaining from Cromwell great advantages for the English Catholics, and the Protector, it seems, fully trusted the intentions and the abilities of this strange and fascinating personality who came to him out of the enemy’s camp. Delicate business was given into his hands, that of preventing an alliance between France and Spain. Prynne, in his True and Perfect Narrative, bitterly denounced Cromwell in “that Sir Kenelme Digby was his particular favourite, and lodged at Whitehall; that Maurice Conry, Provincial of the Franciscans in England, and other priests, had his protections under hand and seal.” Of Digby’s feelings towards Cromwell there is clear evidence. It seems his loyalty had been questioned in his absence; and he writes from Paris, in March, 1656, to Secretary Thurloe: “Whatsoever may be disliked by my Lord Protector and the Council of State must be detested by me. My obligations to his Highness are so great, etc.” And again, “How passionate I am for his service and for his honour and interest, even to exposing my life for him.” The intimacy, begun on both sides in mere policy, had evidently grown to friendship and mutual admiration.

The illness of which he died had already attacked him, and it was for his health he went to Montpelier in 1658. His stay in that seat of learning was made memorable by his reading to a company of eminent persons his Discourse on the Powder of Sympathy, which has brought him more fame and more ridicule than anything else. I have already referred to the secret confided to him as a youth in Florence by the Carmelite Friar from the East. When he came back to England he spoke of the great discovery, and had occasion to use it. Howell — of the Familiar Letters — was, according to Sir Kenelm’s account, wounded while trying to part two friends who were fighting a duel. His wounds were hastily tied up with his garter, and Digby was sent for. Digby asked for the garter-bandage, and steeped it in a basin in which he had dissolved his secret powder (of vitriol). Immediately Howell felt a “pleasing kind of freshnesse, as it were a wet cold napkin did spread over my hand.” “Take off all the plasters and wrappings,” said Digby. “Keep the wound clean, and neither too hot nor too cold.” Afterwards he took the bandage from the water, and hung it before a great fire to dry; whereupon Howell’s servant came running to say his master was much worse, and in a burning fever. The bandage plunged once more in the dissolved powder, soothed the patient at a distance; and in a few days the wound was healed. Digby declared that James and Buckingham were interested witnesses of the cure; and the king “drolled with him about it (which he could do with a very good grace).” He said he divulged the secret to the Duke of Mayenne. After the Duke’s death his surgeon sold it so that “now there is scarce any country barber but knows it.” Why did not Digby try it on his wounded men at Scanderoon? His Discourse to the learned assembly is a curious medley of subtle observation and old wives’ tales, set out in sober, orderly, one might almost say scientific, fashion. Roughly, the substance of it may be summed up as “Like to like.” The secret powder is a medium whereby the atoms in the bandage are drawn back to their proper place in the body! After Digby’s death you could buy the powder at Hartman’s shop for sixpence.

At the Restoration he returned to England. He was still Henrietta Maria’s Chancellor. His relations with Cromwell had never broken their friendship; and probably he still made possets for her at Somerset House as he had done in the old days. But by Charles II there was no special favour shown him, beyond repayment for his ransom of English slaves during the Scanderoon voyage; and in 1664 he was forbidden the Court. The reason is not definitely known. Charles may have only gradually, but at last grimly, resented, the more he learnt of it, Digby’s recognition of the usurper.

He found happiness in science, in books, in conversation, in medicine, stilling and cookery. In 1661 he had lectured at Gresham College on The Vegetation of Plants. When the Royal Society was inaugurated, in 1663, he was one of the Council. His house became a kind of academy, where wits, experimentalists, occultists, philosophers, and men of letters worked and talked. This was the house in Covent Garden. An earlier one is also noted by Aubrey. “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 Covent Garden, where my lord Denzill Hollis lived since. He had a laboratory there.” This latter house, which can be seen in its eighteenth-century guise in Hogarth’s print of “Morning,” in The Four Hours of the Day set, is now the quarters of the National Sporting Club. There he worked and talked and entertained, made his metheglin and aqua vitæ and other messes, till his last illness in 1665. Paris as ever attracted him; and in France were good doctors for his disease, the stone. He had himself borne on a litter to the coast; but feeling death’s hand on him, he turned his face homeward again, and died in Covent Garden, June 11, 1665. In his will he desired to be buried by his beautiful Venetia in Christ Church, Newgate, and that no mention should be made of him on the tomb, where he had engraved four Latin inscriptions to her memory. But Ferrar wrote an epitaph for him:—

"Under this tomb the matchless Digby lies,

Digby the great, the valiant, and the wise,” etc.

The Great Fire destroyed the tomb, and scattered their ashes.

He had died poor; and his surviving son John, with whom he had been on bad terms, declared that all the property that came to him was his father’s sumptuously compiled history of the Digby family. Apparently John regained some part of the estates later, which perhaps had only been left away from him to pay off debts. A great library of Sir Kenelm’s was still in Paris; and after his death it was claimed by the French king, and sold for 10,000 crowns. His kinsman, the second Earl of Bristol, bought it, and joined it to his own; and the catalogue of the combined collection, sold in London in 1683, is an interesting and too little tapped source for Digby’s mental history. Of his five children, three were already dead. Kenelm, his eldest son, had fallen at St. Neot’s, in 1648, fighting for the King. It was his remaining son John who sanctioned the publication of his father’s receipts.


Sir Kenelm Digby has been recognised as the type of the great amateur, but always with a shaking of the head. Why this scorn of accomplished amateurs? Rather may their tribe increase, let us pray. Our world languisheth now for lack of them. He was fitted by nature to play the rôle superbly, to force his circumstances, never over pliant, to serve not his material interests, but his fame, his craving for universal knowledge and attainments. Says Wood: “His person was handsome and gigantick, and nothing was wanting to make him a compleat Cavalier. He had so graceful elocution and noble address that had he been dropped out of the clouds into any part of the world, he would have made himself respected; but the Jesuits who cared not for him, spoke spitefully, and said it was true, but then he must not stay there above six weeks. He had a great faculty, which proceeded from abundance of wit and invention, of proposing and reporting matters to the Virtuosi.”

Women adored him; and he took great pains to please them — though in spite of the importunities of Marie de Médicis, the long friendship with Henrietta Maria, his early flirtation with the lovely Spaniard, his earnest and impolitic championship of the notorious Lady Purbeck — Romish convert and adventuress — Venetia, it seems, remained his only love. He was never the mere gallant. He treated women as his intellectual equals, but as equals who had to be splendidly entertained and amused. His conversation was “ingeniose and innocent.” Lloyd speaks of “the grace wherewith he could relate magnarum rerum minutias, the little circumstances of great matters.” But men were at his feet as well; and on his tour among Italian courts, one of the grandees said that, “having no children, he was very willing his wife should bring him a Prince by Sir Kenelme, whom he imagined the just measure of perfection.”

A first-rate swordsman, yet was he “not apt in the least to give offence.” His strength was that of a giant. Bristol related that one day at Sherborne he took up “a midling man,” chair and all, with one arm. But there was nothing of the swashbuckler about him, and his endless vitality was matched by his courtesy. True, he hustled a Pope; but he addressed the Short Parliament in such reverential terms as no Roundhead could have found. One who had been courtier, exile, naval commander, student, prisoner, and diplomatist, who had associated with all sorts of persons, from kings to alchemists and cooks, had learnt resourcefulness. But he was never too hard put to it perhaps, seeing that “if he had not fourpence, wherever he came he would find respect and credit.” “No man knew better how to abound, and to be abased, and either was indifferent to him.”

He had his detractors. One who plays so many parts incites envy and ridicule; and he laid himself particularly open to both. Fantasy was in the Digby blood; and that agility of mind and nerve that turns now here, now there, to satisfy an unquenchable curiosity, that exuberance of mental spirits that forces to rapid and continuous expression, has ever been suspect of the English mind. He was “highly caressed in France.” To Evelyn Sir Kenelm was a “teller of strange things,” and again the Diarist called him “an errant mountebank”— though Evelyn sought his society, and was grateful for its stimulus. Lady Fanshawe, who met him at Calais, at the Governor’s table, says he “enlarged somewhat more in extraordinary stories than might be averred. . . . That was his infirmity, though otherwise a person of most excellent parts, and a very fine bred gentleman.” “A certain eccentricity and unsteadiness perhaps inseparable from a mind of such vanity,” is Lodge’s criticism. “The Pliny of our age for lying,” quoth Stubbes. But Digby’s extraordinary stories were by no means all false. He may have talked sometimes to épater le bourgeois; but his serious statements were often judged as were the wonders of evolution by country audiences in the seventies.

His offence was he must always be talking. His ideas he must share, expound, illustrate, whether or no they were ripe. It is the sign-manual of the sincere amateur. His books are probably but the lees of his conversation. He was not, in the first place, a literary person. His Memoirs are good reading for those with a touch of the fantastic in themselves; but the average literary critic will dub them rhodomontade. His scientific and controversial treatises, not at all unreadable, and full of strange old lore, survive as curiosities never to be reprinted. Nevertheless, his temper was distinctly scientific, and if his exact discoveries be limited to observing the effect of oxygen on plant-life, and his actual invention to a particular kind of glass bottle, yet he was an eager student and populariser of the work of Bacon, Galileo, and Harvey; and his laboratories were the nursing grounds of the new experimental philosophy.

With a distinctly rationalistic temper, he was yet a faithful, if independent, son of the Roman Church. He speaks sometimes as if he regarded the Church as the great storehouse of necessary authority for the intellectually feeble; but he accepted the main dogmas himself, being satisfied of them by intuition and reason. Protestantism, he held, was not for the ordinary person, considering “the natural imbecility of man’s wits and understandings.” His piety was a thing apart, a matter of heredity perhaps, and of his poetic temperament. I have heard him called by that abused name, “mystic.” He was nothing of the sort, and he said so in memorable words. As an act of devotion he translated the Adhering to God of Albertus Magnus. In the dedication to his mother he compares himself, as the translator of this mystic treatise, to certain travellers who “speak upon hearsay of countries they were never in.” “The various course in the world that I have runne myself out of breath in, hath afforded me little means for solid recollection.” Yet was he now and then upon the threshold. With streaks of the quack and adventurer in him, he gave out deep notes. Says Lloyd: “His soul [was] one of those few souls that understand themselves.”

With an itch to use his pen as well as his tongue, he had none of the patience, the hankering after perfection of form, of the professional man of letters. His account of his Scanderoon exploit, a sea-log, a little written-up later, was perhaps not meant for publication. It did not see the light till 1868. His Memoirs were written, he says, “for my own recreation, and then continued and since preserved only for my own private content — to please myself in looking back upon my past and sweet errors.” He even begs those who may come upon the MS. “to convert these blotted sheets into a clear flame.” His commentary on the Faëry Queen stanza was thrown off in a hurry. “The same Discourse I made upon it the first half quarter of an hour that I saw it, I send you there, without having reduced it to any better form, or added anything at all to it.” And so for the better-known and interesting Observations on ‘Religio Medici.’ Browne reproached him for his review of a pirated edition. Digby replied he had never authorised its publication, written as it was in twenty-four hours, which included his procuring and reading the book — a truly marvellous tour de force; for the thing is still worth perusal. He was always the improvisor — ready, brilliant, vivid, imperfect. He must give vent to the ideas that came upon him in gusts. “The impressions which creatures make upon me,” he says, “are like boisterous winds.” He fully recognised his own limitations. “I pretend not to learning,” he declares, with exaggerated modesty. Amateur and improviser of genius, let us praise him as such. The spacious, generous minds that can find room for all the ideas and culture of an epoch are never numerous enough. There is no one like such amateurs for bridging two ages; and Digby, with one hand in Lilly’s and the other in Bacon’s, joins the mediæval to the modern world. Nor is a universal amateur a genius who has squandered his powers; but a man exercising his many talents in the only way possible to himself, and generally with much entertainment and stimulus to others. It was Ben Jonson, too great a man to be one of his detractors on this score, who wrote of him:

"He is built like some imperial room

For that1 to dwell in, and be still at home.

His breast is a brave palace, a broad street,

Where all heroic ample thoughts do meet;

Where nature such a large survey hath ta’en

As other souls to his, dwelt in a lane.”

1 All virtue.

There was nothing singular in his interest in astrology and alchemy. Lilly and Booker, both of them among his acquaintances, were ordered to attend the parliamentary army at the siege of Colchester, “to encourage the soldiers with predictions of speedy victory.” Still — though he believed in greater absurdities — his attitude towards such matters was that of his chosen motto, Vacate et Videte. “To rely too far upon that vaine art I judge to be rather folly than impiety.” As with regard to spirits and witches, he says, “I only reserve my assent.” That he was not altogether absorbed in the transmutation of metals in his laboratory practice, and yet that he dabbled in it, makes him historically interesting. In him better than in Newton do we realise the temper of the early members of the Royal Society. In this tale of his other activities I have not forgotten The Closet Opened. Of all Digby’s many interests the most constant and permanent was medicine. How to enlarge the span of man’s life was a problem much meditated on in his age. We have seen how Descartes’s mind ran on it; and in Bacon’s Natural History there is reference to a ‘book of the prolongation of life.’ In spite of what is written on his Janssen hermit portrait — Saber morir la mayor hazanza — Digby loved life. His whole exuberant career is a pæan to life, for itself and its great chances, and because “it giveth the leave to vent and boyle away the unquietnesses and turbulences that follow our passions.” To prolong life, fortify it, clarify it, was a noble pursuit, and he set out on it as a youth under the tuition of the ‘good parson of Lindford. His Physick and Chirurgery receipts, published by Hartman, are many of them incredible absurdities, not unfrequently repulsive; but when we compare them with other like books of the time, they fit into a natural and not too fantastic place. Sir Thomas Browne was laughing at Digby, but not at Digby alone, in the passage in Vulgar Errors —“when for our warts we rub our hands before the moon, or commit any maculated part unto the touch of the dead.” Sir Kenelm gathered his receipts on all his roads through Europe, noted them down, made them up with his own hands, and administered them to his friends. In Hartman’s Family Physician is given “An experienced Remedy against the Falling Sicknes, wherewith Sir K. Digby cur’d a Minister’s Son at Franckfort in Germany, in the year 1659.” It begins, “Take the Skull of a Man that died of a Violent Death.” (Hartman says he helped to prepare the ghastly concoction.) I have already noted how he doctored his beautiful wife’s complexion; and how he was called in to cure Howell’s wound. In a poetic tribute he is referred to as:

"Hee, that all med'cines can exactly make,

And freely give them.”

Evelyn records how Digby “advised me to try and digest a little better, and gave me a water which he said was only raine water of the autumnal equinox exceedingly rectified, and smelt like aqua fortis.”

Here, at last, we have come to the end of Sir Kenelm the amateur. If he was an empiric, so were all the doctors of his time; and he may be described as a professional unpaid physician who carried on a frequently interrupted practice. That he did not publish his receipts himself does not reflect on his own idea of their importance. They had a wide circulation among his friends. And, as I have pointed out, he never showed great eagerness to publish. Such works as appeared in his lifetime were evidently printed at the request of learned societies, or by friends to whom they were dedicated, or by White.

The distance between the healer and the cook has grown to be immense in recent times. The College of Physicians and Mary Jane in the kitchen are not on nodding terms — though one sees faint signs of an effort to bridge the wide gap. But in the seventeenth century the gap can hardly be said to have existed at all. At the back of the doctor is plainly seen the figure of the herbalist and simpler, who appear again prominently in the still-room and the kitchen, by the side of great ladies and great gentlemen, bent on making the best and the most of the pleasures of the table no doubt, but quite as much on the maintenance of health as of hospitality. Simpler, herbalist, doctor, distiller, cook — Digby was all of them, and all of them with the utmost seriousness; nor in this was he in the least singular. The great Bacon was deeply concerned with such cares, though in certain of his recommendations, such as: “To provide always an apt break-fast,” to take this every morning, not to forget to take that twice a month, one may read more of the valetudinarian than in Digby. The Closet Opened is but one of an interesting series of books of the kind, which have been too much neglected by students of seventeenth-century manners and lore and language. Did not W.J. issue the Countess of Kent’s Choice Manual of Physic and Chirurgey, with directions for Preserving and Candying? Patrick, Lord Ruthven’s Ladies’ Cabinet Opened appeared in 1639 and 1655. Nor was it only the cuisine of the nobles that roused interest. One of the curiosities of the time is The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwell, the Wife of the Late Usurper Truly Described and Represented and now made Publick for general Satisfaction, 1644. The preface is scurrilous beyond belief. Compiled from the gossip of servants, it is meant to cast ridicule on the housekeeping of the Protector’s establishment. But the second part is a sober collection of by no means very penurious recipes from Joan’s own kitchen books.

Hartman, his steward, made an excellent thing out of Digby’s receipts — though the publishing of The Closet Opened was not his doing, I think. His Choice and Experimented Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery had already appeared in 1668, which suggested to some other hanger-on of the Digby household that John Digby’s consent might be obtained for printing Sir Kenelm’s culinary as well as his medical note-books. Hartman followed up this new track with persistence and profit to himself. As a mild example of the “choice and experimented,” I transcribe “An Approved Remedy for Biting of a Mad Dog”: “Take a quart of Ale, and a dram of Treacle, a handful of Rue, a spoonful of shavings or filings of Tin. Boil all these together, till half be consumed. Take of this two spoonfuls in the morning, and at night cold. It is excellent for Man or Beast.” I need not continue. The receipts are there for curious searchers. They were applied to aristocratic patients; and they are no more absurd or loathsome than those of other books of the time and kind. Even Bacon is fantastic enough with his “Grains of Youth” and “Methusalem Water.” In 1682, George Hartman published, “for the Publike Good,” The True Preserver and Restorer of Health. It is dedicated to the Countess of Sunderland, and is described as “the collection for the most part (which I had hitherto reserved) of your incomparable kinsman and my truly Honourable Master, Sir Kenelm Digby, whom I had the Honour to serve for many years beyond the Seas, as well as in England; and so continued with him till his dying Day, and of whose Generosity and Bounty I have sufficiently tasted, and no less of your illustrious Fathers, both before and after my Glorious Masters Decease.” Of this book he says, “The world hath not yet seen such another Piece.” Commend me to the forthright methods of seventeenth century advertisement! In the second part, “Excellent Directions for Cookery,” The Closet Opened was largely drawn on. In 1696 appeared The Family Physician, by George Hartman, Phylo-Chymist . . . who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby in several parts of Europe, the space of Seven Years till he died. This other choice compilation owes much to the “incomparable” one, and is described as “the marrow of collections.”

But Hartman is not the only witness to Digby’s connoisseurship in the joint mysteries. Better to my mind than even Hartman’s are the style and the spirit of Master May. In 1660 appeared The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery . . . approved by the fifty years experience and industry of Robert May, in his attendance on Several Persons of Honour. It is dedicated to Lord Lumley, Lord Lovelace, Sir Wm. Paston, Sir Kenelme Digby, and Sir Frederick Cornwallis, “so well known to the Nation for their admired Hospitalities,” and generally to

    "the race

Of those that for the Gusto stand,

Whose tables a whole Ark command

Of Nature’s plentie.”

“He is an Alien, a meer Stranger in England that hath not been acquainted with your generous housekeeping; for my own part, my more particular Tyes of Service to you, my Honoured Lords, have built me up to the height of this experience.” His preface is a heartrending cry of regret for the good old times before usurping Parliaments banished splendidly extravagant gentlemen across the seas, “those golden days of Peace and Hospitality, when you enjoy’d your own, so as to entertain and relieve others . . . those golden days wherein were practised the Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery, then was Hospitality esteemed and Neighbourhood preserved, the Poor cherished and God honoured; then was Religion less talk’t on and more practis’t, then was Atheism and Schisme less in Fashion, and then did men strive to be good rather than to seem so.” High-souled were the chefs of the seventeenth century!

The 1669 edition of The Closet Opened is evidently the first. The interleaved example mentioned in the Catalogue of the Digby Library is of the same date. Whoever prepared it for the press and wrote the egregious preface “To the Reader”— Hartman, or as I think, another — gave it the title; but it was a borrowed one. Some years earlier, in 1655, had appeared The Queen’s Closet Opened, Incomparable Secrets which were presented unto the Queen by the most Experienced Persons of the Times, many wherof were had in Esteem when she pleased to descend to Private Recreation. The Queen, of course, is Henrietta Maria, and chief among the “Experienced Persons” referred to was certainly her Chancellor, Digby. Possibly he may even have suggested the printing of the collection. Like titles are met with again and again. Nature’s Cabinet Opened, a medical work, was attributed to Browne, though he repudiated it. Ruthven’s book I have already alluded to. The Queen-like Closet, a Rich Cabinet, by Hannah Wolly, came out in 1670.

Of the two books, the Queen’s and her Chancellor’s, Digby’s has afforded me by far the most delight. Though many of the receipts are evidently given as sent in, the stamp of his personality is on the whole; and he is the poet of all these culinary artists. But on the score of usefulness to the housewife I forbear all judgment. The recipes may be thought extravagant in these late hard times — though epicurism has changed rather than vanished. Lord Bacon’s receipt for making “Manus Christi for the Stomach” begins, “Take of the best pearls very finely pulverised one drachm”; and a health resolution runs, “To take once during supper wine in which gold is quenched.” Costly ingredients such as pearls and leaf gold appear only once among Digby’s receipts. The modern housewife may be aghast at the thought of more than a hundred ways of making mead and metheglin. Mead recalls to her perhaps her first history-book, wherein she learnt of it as a drink of the primitive Anglo-Saxons. If she doubt the usefulness of the collection in her own kitchen, let her take the little volume to her boudoir, and read it there as gossiping notes of the beau monde in the days when James I and the Charleses ruled the land. She will find herself in lofty company, and o>n intimate terms with them. They come down to our level, without any show of condescension. Lords and ladies who were personages of a solemn state pageant, are now human neighbourly creatures, owning to likes and dislikes, and letting us into the secrets of their daily habits.

It pleases me to think of Henrietta Maria, in her exile, busying herself in her still-room, and forgetting her dangers and sorrows in simpling and stilling and kitchen messes; and of her devoted Sir Kenelm, in the moments when he is neither abeting her Royalist plots, nor diverting her mind to matters of high science, or the mysteries of the Faith, but bringing to her such lowlier consolations as are hinted in “Hydromel as I made it weak for the Queen Mother.” We are not waiting in a chill ante-chamber when we read, “The Queen’s ordinary Bouillon de Santé in a morning was thus,” or of the Pressis which she “used to take at nights — of great yet temperate nourishment — instead of a Supper.” And who can hint at Court scandals in the face of such evidence of domesticity as “The Queen useth to baste meat with yolks of fresh eggs, &c.” or “The way that the Countess de Penalva makes the Portuguese eggs for the Queen is this”? We cannot help being interested in the habits of Lady Hungerford, who “useth to make her mead at the end of summer, when she takes up her Honey, and begins to drink it in Lent.” My Lady Gower and her husband were of independent tastes. Each had their own receipts. It must be remembered that Dr. Johnson said no woman could write a cookery-book; and he threatened to write one himself. And Sir Kenelm had many serious rivals among his own sex.

In such an embarras de choix as given by all these drink receipts, we may be in doubt whether to try “My Lord Gorge’s Meath,” or “The Countess of Newport’s” cherry wine, or “The sweet drink of my Lady Stuart,” or of Lady Windebanke, or “Sir Paul Neile’s way of making cider,” or “my Lord Carlisle’s Sack posset”; but one is strongly influenced by such a note as “Sir Edward Bainton’s Receipt which my Lord of Portland (who gave it me) saith, was the best he ever drank.” I had thought of Saint-Evremond as warrior and wit, delightful satirist and letter-writer. But here is a streak of new light upon him: “Monsieur St. Euvremont makes thus his potage de santé of boiled meat for dinner being very valetudinary. . . . When he is in pretty good health, that he may venture upon more savoury hotter things, &c.” The most rigorous Protestants will relax to hear how “To make a Pan Cotto as the Cardinals use in Rome.” And if “My Lord Lumley’s Pease Pottage” sounds homely, be it known, on the word of the eloquent Robert May, that his lordship “wanted no knowledge in the discerning this mystery.” What fastidious simplicity in the taste of the great is suggested by “My Lord d’Aubigny eats Red-herrings thus boiled”!

But if Sir Kenelm consorted only with the great, it was with the great of all social ranks. It was not merely on high questions of science he discoursed with the discoverer of the circulation of the blood — witness “Dr. Harvey’s pleasant water cider.” Then there was that “Chief Burgomaster of Antwerpe,” with whom he must have been on pretty intimate terms, to learn that he “used for many years to drink no other drink but this [mead]; at Meals and all times, even for pledging of healths. And though He was an old man, he was of an extraordinary vigor every way, and had every year a Child, had always a great appetite, and good digestion; and yet was not fat.” Digby was too great a gentleman to be above exchanging receipts with the professors of the “mystery,” such as the Muscovian Ambassador’s steward; and when “Master Webbe who maketh the King’s meath,” on the 1st of September, 1663, came to his house to make some for him, Sir Kenelm stood by, a little suspicious lest the other great artist was bamboozling him. He had an eye for all — though it may have been one of his correspondents who says of the remnants of a dish that it “will make good Water-gruel for the Servants.”

The seriousness of the business is tremendous; and to ignore the fine shades in the 106 receipts for mead and metheglin would have been a frivolity unknown in Digby’s circle. There is care; there is conscience; there is rivalry. The ingredients are mingled with a nice discrimination between the rights of the palate and the maintenance of health. “Use only Morello cherries (I think) for pleasure, and black ones for health.” You may not wait your own convenience in such serious business. “It is best made by taking all the Canicular days into your fermentation.” Now and again other methods of calculating than ours are used; but “whiles you can say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely” is as easily computed as “while your Pulse beateth 200 stroaks.” Quantities are a more difficult affair. How is one to know how much smallage was got for a penny in mid-seventeenth century? The great connoisseur Lord Lumley is very lax, and owns that his are “set down by guess.”

It is a curious old world we get glimpses of, at once barbarous, simple, and extravagant, when great ladies were expected to see to the milking of their cows, as closely as Joan Cromwell supervised her milch-kine in St. James’s Park, and to the cleanliness of their servants’ arms and hands, and when huntsmen rode at the bidding of the cook; for in order that venison be in good condition, “before the deer be killed he ought to be hunted and chased as much as possible.” The perusal of the section, “To Feed Chickens,” will shock our poultry-breeders. “To make them prodigiously fat in about twelve days,” “My Lady Fanshawe gives them strong ale. They will be very drunk and sleep; then eat again. Let a candle stand all night over the coop, and then they will eat much all the night.”

“Lord Denbigh’s Almond Marchpane,” and the ‘current wine’ of which it is said “You may drink safely long draughts of it,” will appeal perhaps only to the schoolboy of our weaker generation. Yet there are receipts, doubtless gathered in Sir Kenelm’s later years, that have the cautious invalid in view. Of these are the “Pleasant Cordial Tablets, which are very comforting and strengthen nature much,” and the liquor which is called “smoothing.” “In health you may dash the Potage with a little juyce of Orange” is in the same low key. The gruels are so many that we must wish Mr. Woodhouse had known of the book. If the admixture of “wood-sorrel and currens” had seemed to him fraught with peril, he could have fallen back on the “Oatmeal Pap of Sir John Colladon.”

Where are all the old dishes vanished to? Who has ever known “A smoothening Quiddany of Quinces?” Who can tell the composition of a Tansy? These are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale. They drank ‘Sack with Clove-gilly-flowers’ at the “Mermaid,” I am sure. What is Bragot? What is Stepony? And what Slipp-coat Cheese? Ask the baker for a Manchet. The old names call for a Ballade. Où sont les mets d’antan? And, cooks, with all your exactness about pounds and ounces and minutes of the clock, can you better directions like these? Watch for “a pale colour with an eye of green.” “Let it stand till you may see your shadow in it”; or “till it begin to blink.” Your liquid may boil “simpringly,” or “in a great ebullition, in great galloping waves.” “Make a liaison a moment, about an Ave Maria while.” And all the significance of the times and seasons we have lost in our neglect to kill male hogs “in the wane of the moon!” For there is a lingering of astrology in all this kitchen lore. The irascible Culpeper, Digby’s contemporary, poured scorn on such doctors as knew not the high science, “Physick without astronomy being like a lamp without Oil.”

As for the poetry I promised — well, I have been quoting it, have I not? But there is more, and better. Surely it was a romantic folk that kept in its store-rooms the “best Blew raisins of the sun,” or “plumpsome raisins of the sun,” and made its mead with dew, and eagerly exchanged with each other recipes for “Conserve of Red Roses.” And now we come to an essential feature of the whole. It is a cuisine that does not reek of shops and co-operative stores, but of the wood, the garden, the field and meadow. Like Culpeper’s pharmacopeia, it is made for the most part of “Such Things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English Bodies.” Is it any wonder that the metheglin should be called the “Liquor of Life,” which has these among its ingredients: Bugloss, borage, hyssop, organ, sweet-marjoram, rosemary, French cowslip, coltsfoot, thyme, burnet, self-heal, sanicle, betony, blew-button, harts-tongue, meadowsweet, liverwort, bistort, St. John’s wort, yellow saunders, balm, bugle, agrimony, tormentilla, comfrey, fennel, clown’s allheal, maidenhair, wall-rue, spleen-wort, sweet oak, Paul’s betony, and mouse-ear?

The housewife of to-day buys unrecognisable dried herbs in packets or bottles. In those days she gathered them in their season out of doors. The companions to The Closet Opened should be the hasty and entertaining Culpeper, the genial Gerard, and Coles of the delightful Adam in Eden, all the old herbals that were on Digby’s bookshelves, so full of absurdities, so full of pretty wisdom. They will tell you how to mix in your liquor eglantine for coolness, borage, rosemary, and sweet-marjoram for vigour, and by which planet each herb or flower is governed. Has our sentiment for the flowers of the field increased now we no longer drink their essence, or use them in our dishes? I doubt it. It is surely a pardonable grossness that we should desire the sweet fresh things to become part of us — like children, who do indeed love flowers, and eat them. In the Appendix I have transcribed a list of the plants referred to. Most cooks would be unable to tell one from another; and even modern herbalists have let many fall out of use, while only a few are on the lists of the English pharmacopeia. To go simpling once more by field and wood and hedgerow would be a pleasant duty for country housewives to impose upon themselves; and as to the herbalists’ observations on their virtues, we may say with old Coles, “Most of them I am confident are true, and if there be any that are not so, yet they are pleasant.”

There is an air of flippancy about that reflexion of Coles you will never find in Sir Kenelm. Of the virtues of each plant and flower he used he was fully convinced; and when he tells of their powers, as in his “Aqua Mirabilis,” the tale is like a solemn litany, and we are reminded of Clarendon’s testimony to “the gravity of his motion.” And so, his Closet once more open, he stands at the door, his majesty not greatly lessened; for the book contains a reminiscence of his rolling eloquence, something of his romance, and not a little of his poetry.


Chelsea, 1910.

p. x 1. 3 Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine. By W. Carew Hazlitt. Booklovers’ Library. 1886.

p. x 1. 5 The Life of Sir Kenelm Digby. By One of his Descendants [T. Longueville]. 1896.

p. xi 1. 29 For the controversy about the date of his birth, see the usual biographical authorities:— Longueville, op. cit., Digby’s Memoirs, ed. Nicolas, 1827; Dict. of Nat. Biog.; Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Wood’s Athenae Oxon., iii. 688; Aubrey’s Lives, ii. 323, etc. etc.

p. xiv 1. 13 “the elder Lady Digby.” See text, p. 141.

p. xv 1. 15 “manuscript of elections.” See W.H. Black’s Catalogue of the Ashmolean MSS., 240, 131 and 1730, 166.

p. xx 1. 20 Journal of a Voyage to Scanderoon, ed. J. Bruce for Camden Soc., 1868.

p. xxi 1. 3 “Scanderoon had to be repudiated.” Here is a curious echo of the affair, quoted by Mr. Longueville from Blundell of Crosby. “When the same Sir Kenelm was provoked in the King’s presence (upon occasion of the old business of Scanderoon) by the Venetian Ambassador, who told the King it was very strange that his Majesty should slight so much his ancient amity with the most noble state of Europe, for the affections which he bore to a man (meaning Sir Kenelm) whose father was a traitor, his wife a —— and himself a pirate, altho’ he made not the least reply (as long as the ambassador remained in England) to those great reproaches, yet after, when the quality of his enemy was changed (by his return) to that of a private person, Sir Kenelm posted after him to Italy. There sending him a challenge (from some neighbouring state) he found the discreet Magnifico as silent in Italy as himself had been in England, and so he returned home.”

p. xxii 1. 13 The Memoirs were edited by Sir N.H. Nicolas from the Harleian MS. 6758 in 1827.

p. xxii 1. 28 “outburst of vile poetry.” See Poems from Sir K.D.’s papers, ed. Warner. Roxburghe Club, 1877.

p. xxiii 1. 16 “hermit.” The portrait of Digby in this guise, painted by Janssen, in the possession of T. Longueville, Esq., is reproduced in Mr. Longueville’s life of his ancestor. Says Pennant in his Journey from Chester to London, ed. 1782, “I know of no persons who are painted in greater variety than this illustrious pair [Digby and his wife]: probably because they were the finest subjects of the time.”

p. xxv 1. 3 “duel . . . with a French lord.” See the curious little pamphlet, Sir Kenelme Digby’s Honour Maintained, 1641.

p. xxvi 1. I The Observations on Religio Medici, together with the correspondence between Browne and Digby, are often reprinted with the text of R.M.

p. xxvi 1. 5 “glass-making.” See Longueville, pp. 255-6

p. xxix 1. 11 Descartes. Des Maizeaux. Viede Saint-Evremond, pp. 80-6.

p. xxxi 1. 8 A Late Discourse made in a Solemne Assembly of Nobles and Learned Men at Montpellier. By Sir K.D., Kt. Rendered faithfully into English by R. White. 2nd ed., 1658. The original was in French. Longueville gives a loathsome receipt for the Sympathetic Powder from an original in the Ashmolean. “To make a salve yt healeth though a man be 30 miles off.” But vitriol is the only ingredient Digby mentions; and the receipt given by his steward Hartman [see Appendix], and sold by him, is more likely to be Digby’s . Of course, there were many claimants to the credit of the invention of sympathetic powders.

p. xxxiii 1. 4 “house in Covent Garden.” For a brief account of this house, see an article on Hogarth’s London in the English Review, February, 1910.

p. xxxiv 1. 6 “history of the Digby family.” This has disappeared.

p. xxxiv 1. 13 “Catalogue of the combined collection.” Bibliotheca Digbeiana, 1680. See also Edwards’s Memoirs of Libraries, II, 118, and Sir K.D. et les Anciens Rapports des Bibliothèques Françaises avec la Grande Bretagne. L. Delisle. 1892.

p. xxxviii 1. 20 Lloyd’s Lives of Excellent Personages that suffered for . . . Allegiance to the Soveraigne in the late Intestine Wars, ed. 1668.

p. xliv 1. 10 “remedy for Biting of a Mad Dog.” There is a similar receipt in Arcana Fairfaxiana, ed. G. Waddell, 1890, a collection of old medical receipts, etc. of the Fairfax and Cholmely families. “A Cure for the Bite of a Mad Dog Published for ye Benefit of Mankind in the Newspapers of 1741 by a Person of Note. . . . N.B. This Medicine has stood a tryal of 50 years Experience, and was never known to fail.”

p. liii 1. 30 Culpeper’s English Physitian, 1653.

p. liii 1. 30 N. Culpeper. Herball.

p. liii 1. 30 John Gerard. The Historie of Plants, 1547.

p. liii 1. 31 Wm. Coles. Adam in Eden and The Art of Simpling. 1657 and 1656.

Facsimile of the original title-page.
Facsimile of the original title-page.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53