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Great Adventures: Kenelm Digby

Pat Kinsella traces the extraordinary exploits of English adventurer, polymath and privateer Kenelm Digby, during an epic crusade to clear his family name of a traitorous stain

THE CURIOUS QUEST OF KENELM DIGBY

IT’S WHO YOU KNOW Son of a Gunpowder Plot conspirator, Digby forged friendships with people in high places
ALAMY X1, GETTY X2 CREDIT INFORMATION HERE

“He met with sundry vessels upon the sea... and shewed those that were enemies of humanity and clemency” Kenelm Digby, writing about himself in the third person, in Loose Fantasies

Sir Kenelm Digby, whose astonishingly diverse achievements included the invention of the modern wine bottle, was one of 17th-century England’s most colourful characters, yet he grew up in deep shadow.

As an adult, Digby would hobnob with kings, queens, popes and pashas, and boast friendships with protagonists on both sides of the great divide of his era, including Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. But his young life was dominated by deeds committed by his impulsive and idealistic father, Everard Digby, a conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Kenelm was two years old when his father was brutally executed. The family was spared retribution, but the Digby name was indelibly stained. As he matured, Kenelm felt the stigma of his father’s actions keenly. Eventually, he resolved to scrub away the traitor’s taint by undertaking a quest in the name of the very monarch his father had plotted to assassinate, and the result was a rip-roaring adventure across the Mediterranean.

THE MAIN PLAYERS

SIR KENELM DIGBY

Privateer, politician, inventor, cook, author, alchemist, astronomer and all-round Renaissance man. Died aged 61 in 1665, probably as a result of kidney stones.

VENETIA DIGBY, NÉE STANLEY

Kenelm’s childhood love and wife. A noted beauty painted by Van Dyck, Venetia’s reputation had become smeared before she married Digby. Died aged 32, possibly poisoned by viper wine.

JOHN DIGBY

Digby’s cousin, the Earl of Bristol became a patron and father figure to him, first introducing Digby to European life and courtly politics.

GEORGE VILLIERS

Having risen from obscurity to become a firm favourite of King James I and his son and successor Charles I, the Duke of Buckingham was a sworn enemy of the Digby family.

EVERARD DIGBY

An adult convert to Catholicism, Kenelm’s father became embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and was hanged, drawn and quartered.

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February 2017