Sunday, 1 July 2012

Duelble Trouble


                   On occasion Sir Kenelm Digby returned home to England, but although he was a favourite of King Charles I, the House of Commons summoned him in early 1640 to explain his connections with the English Catholics. He went before the Parliament three times, but it seems that they were dissatisfied with his evidence, as an address was sent to the King, asking him to remove all Papists from his court, and especially from his own presence, particularly naming Digby. We don’t know if it was at Charles’s request, or to save the King further embarrassment, but Digby returned to France. 


Sir Kenelm Digby by Sir A Van Dyke

In 1641, at a dinner party, one Count or Baron Mont de Ros offered, “…a health to the arrantest coward in the world,” but would not name him until the toast was done, when he addressed Digby saying, “I meant your King of England." Digby was visibly shaken, but bit his tongue and at the end of the party he invited Mont de Ros to dinner the following day. Mont de Ros accepted, and during the dinner Digby offered a toast to the “…the bravest king in the world,” but refused to say who this was until the toast was drunk, upon which being done, he declared this to be, “… the King of England, my royal Master.” Mont de Ros began to laugh aloud and repeated his former insult, whereupon Digby leaned and whispered, “I require a single combat of you, where either you shall pay your life for your sauciness, or I will sacrifice mine in the behalf of my king." The dinner then continued gaily, and when it was done, the two stepped outside, took off their doublets, drew their swords and began to fence. For three bouts they seemed well matched, but in the fourth Digby’s sword got through his opponent’s guard, pierced his chest and came out through the neck. Duelling was illegal in France, and fearing revenge by Mont de Ros’s friends, Digby went to the French King, Louis XIII, explained all and threw himself at the King’s mercy. The King agreed that the slight against his ‘Brother King’ was unjustified and arranged for an armed guard to escort Digby to the Flemish border, and thence back to England. 


Pamphlet - Sr. Kenelme Digbyes Honour Maintained 1641

His arrival home caused more consternation in Parliament, and he imprisoned at Winchester House, near Southwark, where he was visited by many distinguished figures, which ‘caused great jealousy’, and where he worked on improvements to green and brown glass wine bottles. Digby had owned a glassworks in the 1630s, and he invented a stronger precursor to the modern bottle, with coloured glass to prevent sunlight marring the contents. He filed patents for his inventions. Whilst imprisoned at Southwark, he also wrote what must be one of the strangest books ever published. 

Title Page - Kenelm Digby Two Treatises 1645

His Two Treatises contains The Nature of Bodies and On the Immortality of Reasonable Souls; in the first, some thirty years before Newton, he discusses gravity, optics, motion and atomism. In his eighteenth chapter he discusses The Powder of Sympathy, also called ‘weaponsalve’, which was first described by Rudolf Goclenius in 1608. The Powder of Sympathy was used to heal a wound by applying it to the weapon that had inflicted that wound, at any distance. If applied to a bandage that had previously bound the wound, it could heal the wound in that way. It was also proposed that The Powder of Sympathy could solve the ‘latitude problem’; this needed an accurate method of telling the time, to allow mariners to calculate their latitude on sea-voyages, in the days before reliable chronometers. If a dog was wounded with a knife, and put aboard a ship, a trusted timekeeper could apply The Powder of Sympathy to the knife, or to a bandage that had blood from the wound on it, at noon every day. The dog would then howl in pain at the same moment, giving the mariners the accurate time in Greenwich, and by measuring the angle of the sun, the means to calculate their position at sea. Digby was a great proponent of the idea, and lectured on it in France, Germany and the Netherlands. It is significant that Digby does not mention the powder in his memoirs. 

Definition of Weaponsalve from Johnson's Dictionary 1755.


For some reason, John Evelyn described him as an “errant mountebank,” and Henry Stubbes called him, “the very Pliny of our age for lying.


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