Cider Musings

Sir Kenelm Digby Courtier, Diplomat, natural philosopher astrologer, lover. And the inventor of the wine bottle?

Sir Kenelm was born in 1603 he was the son of Sir Everard Digby who was executed  in 1606 for his involvement in the Gun Powder Plot. Kenelm was a Catholic  like his father and a larger than life character. He had to be rescued from France in 1623 after an affair with Marie da Medici the widow of the French king when he was only 18 and she was 43. He was reputed to be very handsome and was called the Ornament of England. He faked his death and was smuggled out to Spain. 

He was taught by Thomas Allen at Oxford , Thomas was a friend of Sir John Scudamore . It was a small interconnected world. 

He was a successful privateer and in 1627 fought sea battles in Algiers and Scanderoon. Below is the Eagle Kenelm's flagship latter to be called Arabella. 

And he was used as a diplomat and go between by royalty and parliament.  

He was imprisoned several times, usually over religious affiliations in this changing period.

He married his childhood sweetheart Venetia Stanley against his mother's wishes in 1625

Her death in 1633 attracted the attention of the authorities and his possible involvement ( He had administered the Powder of sympathy) and a rare ( at the time) autopsy was carried out but Kenelm was not charged . Van Dyk was summoned and painted her on her death bed. 

Digby though grief, remorse or caution then spent 2 years in Gresham College London. Taking rooms there. 6 rooms for living and laboratory. He employed  a chemistry assistant and published works on plants and chemistry. 

Digby owned glass works at Newnham on Severn around 1630 under licence from Mansell. He may well have developed his bottle making there. Certainly the Attorney general in 1662 found in favour of him having invented the strong glass bottle 30 years before. Quite what his invention was is unclear. Coal burning at a higher temperature and with a smaller flame than coal required the fire to be moved to the centre of the kiln. The inclusion of a flue was needed to remove the ash from there and the flue was found to increase the heat of the burning coal by allowing more indrawn air. This allowed more space and time for the cooling of the glass annealing that makes the glass stronger. Initially with wood fired furnaces the melting pots were left openbut with the change to coal the  pots were at first covered to prevent the fumes from the central fire affecting the glass and making it darker. Perhaps Kenelm was the one to discover that removing the lid improves the strength? And finally his experiments before and at Gresham may have improved the mix of silica or sand, soda or potash the flux and calcium carbonate (or limestone) the stabiliser.


This characteristic shape was produced and because bottles were still relatively expensive owners had their crests embossed on them. These bottles however were considerably cheaper than previous a bottle of similar size from a traditional wood fired furnance as used in the Church would cost 6 to 8d apiece whilst one of these new bottles would cost thrupence ha'penny. Samuel Pepys bought 5-6 dozen in October 1663.

Digby was there associated with Gresham college when the Royal Society was formed around Boyle who presented there frequently in 1660 . Sir Paul Neile was also one of the original 12 and a keen cider maker.   in 1663 when the charter was granted Digby and Sir Chrisopher Wren, professor of astronomy at Gresham were added with  several others. Such was Digby's reputation that he was asked to write the first presentation to the Society which was called Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants in 1661 This touched upon oxygen and photosynthesis. However his interests were veering more towards alchemy that observation science that the Society was perusing and today his most famous "invention ' was the powder of sympathy he had used on his wife and also Thomas Howell's gangrenous  hand injury in Madrid. In 1658, Digby held a discourse on the sympathetic powder before the  University of Montpellier. The powder is said to have consisted of green vitriol  or ferrous sulphate , first dissolved in water and afterward recrystallised or calcined in the sun. Digby and Howell became good friends and the 2 together may have worked on glass making improvements. Certainly Howell whilst also being the foreman for Mansell, was on a fact finding mission regarding glass when it got into a fight in Madrid and had visited Venice. Glass making was a highly secretive business. During one of Digby's later  imprisonments he continued his interests in glass. He was imprisoned in Winchester Palace, London in 1642 for 2 years. It which was in decay with a glass works having been installed in one corner! 

Digby, whilst not well remembered now, was on good correspondence terms with the leading European scientists Newton Galileo and the philosopher Descartes. 

He was a copious note taker and after his death in 1665 his steward George Hartman published his drink and food recipes as the Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, and Chymical secrets and rare experiments in physick & philosophy : with figures collected and experimented  by the Honourable and learned Sir Kenelm Digby. 

The Closet includes Sir Paul Neile's method of cider making. 

An extra ordinary man, a larger than life man and one involved in the development of a strong bottle to make sparkling cider.