Venetia Anastasia Digby (née Stanley) (December 1600 – 1 May 1633) was a celebrated beauty of the Stuart period and a prominent courtier who died a mysterious death. She was a granddaughter of Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland and the wife of Kenelm Digby.
Venetia Anastasia Stanley was the third daughter of Sir Edward Stanley (died 1632), of Tong Castle, Shropshire, a baronet and (grandson of Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby), and Lucy Percy (daughter and co-heiress of the Earl of Northumberland who had been imprisoned for treason for his part in a Catholic plot against Elizabeth I). According to The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, "Venetia" is most likely a Latinization of "Gwyneth," and the name was popularised by Venetia Stanley.
A celebrated beauty, Venetia moved to London alone in her early teens, and had garnered a licentious reputation well before her twentieth birthday. Rumour noted later by the curious antiquary John Aubrey had it that she was the "concubine" of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset (died 1624), who had children by her and settled upon her an annuity of £500 per annum. Circa 1625, she eventually married the celebrated scientist and adventurer Kenelm Digby, who, when the earl or his heir withheld Venetia's annuity, sued for it, according to John Aubrey, and won. Sir Kenelm wrote a "private memoir" of their courtship which is one of the major sources of information about her. It uses pseudonyms, Theagenes and Stelliana, and appears to have been revised throughout Digby's life. "This lady carried herself blamelessly," Aubrey note, "yet (they say) he was jealous of her".
A reason for the secrecy of the marriage is supposed to have been potential disapproval by both their parents and a fear that Venetia's father might leave her out of his will. In truth, the secrecy of their marriage for its first few years probably contributed to her reputation and the fact that some sources, following John Aubrey, still inaccurately refer to her as a "courtesan." Several books put forth the notion that Digby's mother objected to Venetia because of her supposed poverty, but through her mother's family, Venetia had a much larger personal fortune than her husband. It is more likely that Mary Digby, a devout Catholic, either had another woman in mind for her son, or was horrified by Venetia's reputation. According to John Aubrey's memoranda, Digby is supposed to have replied to concerns over Venetia's virtue with the comment that "A handsome lusty man that was discreet might make a virtuous wife out of a brothel-house."
During her marriage, Venetia was also a devout Catholic. According to her husband, who insisted that she conducted herself "blamelessly" throughout their marriage, she heard Mass daily and prayed for at least several hours a day. She also joined a lay Franciscan group and visited the poor in London. She funded her charity work through a gambling habit, with unusually good luck at the card table and a scheme to save up her profits. She had four sons (Kenelm, John, George and Edward), one of whom died in infancy. She was painted at least three times by Van Dyck in the 1630s: a f
- Grandson of the Earl of Derby via his father Sir Thomas Stanley, Sir Edward was made a baronet and invested as a Knight of the Bath. His family tomb in Tong church inscribed with reference to daughter "Venesie" surviving him.
- Oliver Lawson Dick, ed. Aubrey's Brief Lives. Edited from the Original Manuscripts, 1949, s.v. "Sir Kenelm Digby", p. 98
- Aubrey's Brief Lives, 1949, s.v. "Sir Kenelm Digby", p. 98: "that celebrated Beautie and Courtezane".
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