Robert Mayhew

Privateer, Polymath, Poet

A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby

By Joe Moshenska

William Heinemann 554pp £20 order from our bookshop

It’s not perhaps a sentiment one has too often in life, but it can be said without hesitation that the past year or so has been a good one for popular accounts of the lives of 17th-century English polymaths. Ruth Scurr’s much-heralded construction of a quasi-autobiography for the diarist, biographer, antiquarian and scientist John Aubrey was joined by Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s fusion of past and present in his ruminations on the medic, scholar, antiquarian and man of faith Sir Thomas Browne. Joe Moshenska now makes this a triumvirate with A Stain in the Blood, his account of the life and ideas of Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–65), whose interests included, as Moshenska points out, subjects as diverse as ‘the history of literature, of science, of philosophy, of religion, of magic, of cookery’. 

Moshenska’s literary and historical instinct about the importance of telling Digby’s story is surely right. Digby was a highly significant figure in 17th-century England’s ferment of ideas and action. His life is also one of such diverse interests and drama as to be capable of drawing in those who have never heard of him before. Digby’s notoriety in his own time was guaranteed in his infancy by his Catholic father Sir Everard Digby’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Everard’s dignified response to the inevitable death sentence that ensued was one of the most discussed and admired examples of noble acceptance of impending execution witnessed in the era). Everard’s treason was the stain in the Digby blood referred to in the title – a stain that Kenelm worked so hard to expunge in his remarkable life. As Moshenska relates in thorough but lively prose, Digby’s career saw him act as courtier to Charles I and thereby become embroiled in the Civil War, and this long after he had scandalised court circles by marrying Venetia Stanley, who was described as a ‘celebrated Beautie and Courtezane’. An unabashed Catholic, he was briefly imprisoned by Parliament during the Civil War before managing to retire to France.

Digby was by no means a mere courtier and politician. An intellectual of the first rank, he was elected to the Royal Society during its early years in recognition of a life spent enquiring into the properties of matter, the mind–body connection and the messy interface of chemistry and alchemy. He was also one of Ben Jonson’s patrons and a member of the celebrated ‘Sons of Ben’, who led colourful lives coupling literature and rakish excess. In common with many of his age, Digby straddled the arts and sciences in his work and proved a competent poet, too. But his major contribution was to the brew of ideas that is now labelled rather too simplistically as the ‘birth of the New Science’. Digby’s magnum opus, the Two Treatises of 1644, addressed the question of the natural proof of the immortality of the soul. More important was his analysis of natural bodies in that same work, in which he adopted an atomist and mechanical approach. In all, he worked at the now-forgotten intersection between the old Aristotelianism of the universities and the principles of the new science inspired by Bacon. In his later years, Digby developed an obsession with chemistry and alchemy rooted in mechanical principles. It was for this that he was elected to the Royal Society in 1660.

The aspect of Digby’s life on which Moshenska focuses, however, is his travels, noting his ‘lifelong restlessness, both geographical and intellectual’, as the Ariadnean thread that binds together his otherwise disparate interests. Digby’s early scientific and artistic ideas were sparked by a sojourn in Italy and his connection with the future king was cemented by his presence at the British embassy in Madrid in 1623, when Prince Charles arrived to woo the Spanish infanta. The urge to travel reflected his concern to remove the stain on the family name, but also stemmed from the feeling of being an outsider in England and wanting to find a sense of acceptance as a Catholic. For Moshenska, the crucial moment in Digby’s career was the privateering voyage that he commanded under the royal seal of approval in 1628. This expedition saw him visit the great trading and cultural entrepôts of North Africa, roam into the ‘classic lands’ of the Mediterranean and terrorise other traders and pirates. The expedition combined plunder and aggression with reflection and cultural awareness. It was on this voyage that Digby started to fashion his own narrative of his life in a set of autobiographical reflections, Loose Fantasies, which were only published in the 1960s. Loose Fantasies was, as its title implies, anything but a ‘straight’ factual account of his life. Holed up on the island of Milos, Digby poured out his story using fictive names in the form of a romance modelled on the ancient example of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica. As ever when romance meets autobiography, he used his account to present his life’s work in a favourable light.

The relationship between Digby’s autobiography and Moshenska’s biography is an interesting one. Moshenska punctuates his account with fragments from Digby’s Loose Fantasies. He accepts Digby’s account of himself a little too uncritically for the reader to be wholly comfortable. For example, Digby believed in occult powers and his sense of the laws of nature was very different from our own. Thus Digby tells how, when he was in Italy, he was inducted into a secret that allows for the miraculous cure of injuries by applying a powder to the weapon that caused them, claiming that he later used it to successfully treat his friend James Howell. It’s all well and good that Moshenska tells us about this, but he surely ought also to note the purposes of Digby’s fabulous account and adopt some sense of authorial distance from Digby’s mode of narration. Furthermore, Moshenska seems rather too willing to accept Digby’s self-fashioning of his own virtue, where the reader is bound to want some critical edge. We are told, for example, of Digby’s remarkable love for his wife, as he presented it, but Moshenska then rather tamely accepts his account of his adulterous affairs as mere mistakes. One wonders if Venetia really saw matters in the same light and whether the biographer ought to separate himself from his subject a little more. Moshenska commendably wants us to understand Digby’s mental world, but that does not mean accepting everything he wrote at face value.

The other frustration with A Stain in the Blood is that its use of the Mediterranean voyage of 1628 as its fulcrum leaves us less well acquainted with the scientific and scholarly work that made Digby’s name than we would like. Moshenska’s admirably thorough bibliography shows just how much writing poured from Digby’s pen in the three decades prior to his death, but we are given only the broadest contours of their contents because of the focus on Digby the traveller and swashbuckling English Renaissance privateer. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Moshenska is an erudite and engaging biographer of an individual who demonstrated these very qualities in abundance. Digby deserved to be rescued from relative obscurity and Moshenska is to be commended for doing so with such verve.

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