Saturday, 30 June 2012

Drawing Threads Together

                   What do the following have in common, other than being mentioned by me in this blog? Treacle, Holy Wells, the Gunpowder Plot, Hanging Drawing and Quartering, Stonyhurst, Robert François Damiens, Kenelm Digby, Venice Treacle, and Viper Wine?

Let’s see if we can find a link.

I mentioned Treacle Wells the other day. One such holy well is that of St Winefrede, at Holywell, North Wales, and in 1601, the priest Father Edward Oldcorne sought a cure for his cancer there. Four years later he returned, to give thanks, and with him went about thirty Catholic pilgrims. Oldcorne was the chaplain to Sir Everard Digby and his wife, and when, later in the year, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, it was said that its foundations had been laid during the pilgrimage. Oldcorne was arrested for his supposed involvement, and tortured although no real link was discovered, he was sentenced to death and on April 7th 1606, with three others, he was hanged, drawn and quartered; his final words were a prayer to St Winefride. As the executioner struck the blow to behead him, its force was such that Oldcorne’s eye flew out of its socket. This relic is now preserved at Stonyhurst. 

The Relic of Edward Oldcorne

Sir Everard Digby was also arrested and was the only man to plead guilty to the charges of high treason, and on January 30th 1606 he was, with three others, taken from his cell in the Tower of London. All four were strapped to wicker hurdles, dragged behind horses through the mud and dung covered streets of a wintery London, and bruised and battered by the lurching of the hurdles. After just over a mile, they reached the west end of old St Paul’s Cathedral, where Digby was told he was the first to be executed. He made a short speech to the crowd, admitting his act may have been sinful but his intentions were pure, and knelt and prayed for a while. His hands were bound and he was stripped of all bar his shirt, then taken up a ladder, a noose put about his neck and the ladder turned away. In an instant, the hangman cut the rope, and Digby’s body fell to the ground, bruising his forehead. Still living, he was dragged to block, castrated, his entrails drawn out and his body cut into quarters. Legend says that when the executioner, according to the custom, held it up, saying, “Here is the Heart of a Traitor”, Sir Everard answered, “Thou liest.” (This treatment of potential regicides has all too many shades of the fate of Robert François Damiens). 

The Executions of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators

Digby had two infant sons, the eldest grew to be Sir Kenelm Digby, he of the Closet Open’d cookery book. Born in 1603, Kenelm attended Oxford but left without taking a degree. He switched from Catholicism to Anglicanism and took office in the Privy Council. About 1624 or 1625, he secretly married the celebrated beauty Venetia Stanley, whom he had known from childhood. 

Venetia Digby nee Stanley

From 1628, he was a privateer (a state-registered pirate), and captured a number of Spanish, Dutch and Flemish vessels, (these adventures will keep for another post); he was feted for his good-looks and prodigious strength, and returned to England to take up work for the Admiralty. His wife, Venetia, was, shall we say, a ‘friendly’ girl and rumoured to be as stupid as she was beautiful. She was also said to be suffering from consumption, and on the morning of May 1st 1633, she was found dead in bed, with her head on her hand. Sir Digby had not wanted to disturb her when he went to bed late on the previous night, and had slept in another room. Rumours began to be spread that the jealous husband had poisoned her, and he admitted that, to cure her headaches he had given her ‘viper wine’, which, you may recall, was an ingredient of Venice Treacle. He was known to dabble in medical matters, so it may well be he gave her a draught of this supposed panacea. Very unusually for the time, an autopsy was performed, and it was noted particularly that she had a very small brain in her skull (a result of cerebral haemorrhage, maybe). Digby’s reaction to her death was profound, making a deliberate poisoning seem unlikely, but an accidental one possible; he stopped shaving, he grew his hair long, and, in contrast to his former flamboyant clothes, only wore black garments with white collars. He withdrew from society, returned to Catholicism, gave up his adventurer’s life, devoted himself to his studies, and went into voluntary exile in Paris. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

Sir Kenelm Digby in mourning.

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