Across the Great Divide

In an age of renewed faction, a reminder of the power of friendship over politics. 

Friend to all: Sir Kenelm Digby. Studio of Anthony van Dyck, 17th century.
Friend to all: Sir Kenelm Digby. Studio of Anthony van Dyck, 17th century.

Sir Kenelm Digby lived through one of the most turbulent periods of British history. His father was hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Gunpowder plot of 1605, when Kenelm was just two  years old. His devoutly Catholic wife, the society beauty Venetia Stanley, died suddenly in 1633 – and was portrayed on her death bed by Anthony van Dyck. His brother and his eldest son died fighting in the Civil Wars, while Digby was imprisoned by Parliament for his prominence among the ‘popish faction’, though he was allowed to keep a laboratory in captivity – which doubled up as a kitchen – where he continued to pursue his experiments in alchemy and natural science against a backdrop of intellectual ferment that would climax with the establishment of the Royal Society.

He went on to follow Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, into exile in Paris, where they shared a passion for cookery. Elizabeth David, the doyenne of modern British food writers, described his Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby Opened as a particularly ‘beautiful piece of English kitchen literature’, with its alphabetical index of recipes, including such gems as ‘marmulate of Cherries with Raspes and Currants’.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this extraordinary life was his friendship with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. They were an unlikely pairing: Digby, the well-travelled, aristocratic Catholic, and Cromwell, the Puritan of lowly origins who never travelled further than Ireland. They first came into contact with one another when Digby pursued a scheme seeking toleration for English Catholics, who, so the thinking went, were to be considered members of just another non-conformist, dissenting creed. In doing so, Digby formed a close bond with Cromwell, which saw them dine together frequently. ‘My restitution to my country and estate, I owe wholy to my lord Protectors goodnesse and justice’, he wrote. In an age of bitter faction, strife and suffering, humanity could still appeal to its better nature.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today.

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