Venetia Anastasia Digby (née Stanley) (December 1600 – 1 May 1633) was a celebrated beauty of the Stuart period, renowned for her racy good looks and 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 family portrait, an allegorical portrait as Prudence, and a deathbed portrait.
The last time Venetia was painted was in May 1633. She went to bed as usual on the night of 30 April, but never woke the next morning. Digby had been up late, and had chosen to sleep in another room so as not to wake her. When her maid tried to wake Venetia on the morning of 1 May for her customary morning ride, she found Venetia dead in the same position in which she had left her the night before.
Venetia's death was a major tragedy for Digby, probably the single most defining event of his life. Although he had not been faithful, and would fall in love again, it was a definite dividing line between two phases: the one in which he was a bright young courtier jockeying for position, and the one in which he was a melancholy scientist and Catholic apologist. Within two days, he had plaster casts made of her head, hands, and feet, and had Van Dyck, a good friend, paint Venetia on her deathbed. There was an elaborate evening funeral at Christchurch, Newgate, in London, and a spectacular monument.
There were also suspicions. Autopsies were rare at the time, but an autopsy was performed before Venetia was buried, in an attempt to determine the cause of death. Digby reported that she had always been healthy, but had suffered occasional headaches through the previous eight years, for which she took "viper-wine" (which could have been one of several concoctions involving vipers or their venom in wine, and which in any case is not likely to have been toxic through ingestion). "When her skull was opened, they found but very little brain," is the autopsy quote, and the probable cause of death was believed to have been some form of cerebral haemorrhage. However, what we know of her symptoms does not line up with that diagnosis, so it is likely that her death will always be a mystery.
This did not set gossip to rest. It was widely suspected that Venetia had killed herself or been murdered by Digby, perhaps out of jealousy. Digby eventually fled to Gresham College, where he first spent time writing letters about his wife (which eventually formed a volume titled In Praise of Venetia) and contemplating her deathbed portrait obsessively. He began dressing all in black and letting his hair and beard grow out enough to be cause for comment, and eventually took up in seriousness the scientific experimentation that he was to be known for through the rest of his life. He lost the deathbed portrait in one of his flights from England during the English Civil War. It is now in Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and another version is at Althorp.
Another mystery is a letter which has survived, from Venetia's maid to Digby, saying that she had been given the enclosed paper to forward to Digby on the event of Venetia's death, because Venetia thought that it would be helpful to him. However, we have no idea of what was enclosed.
Digby died in 1665 and was buried next to Venetia in the splendid monument he had had built for her more than 30 years earlier. However, the area burned in the Great Fire of 1666. John Aubrey later saw the gilded bronze bust of Venetia from the top of the monument in a shop window, but "the fire had got off all the gilding." Later he noted that the bust was missing and that it had been melted down.
The Private Memoirs were finally published in London in 1828, in a bowdlerised form. The cut scenes, mostly sexual in nature, were first privately circulated in a pamphlet, and eventually included as an appendix to a later printing within a year or two of the first publication. The book describes the childhood romance of "Stelliana" and "Theagenes," various obstacles throughout their adolescence, and final union in a secret marriage. Their child is also born secretly in Stelliana's father's house, after she has successfully hidden her pregnancy. The book ends with Theagenes on a maritime expedition (modelled after Digby's own exploits), looking forward to his return home to his wife and sons.
The most widely known information about Venetia comes from John Aubrey's Brief Lives, but Aubrey mostly wrote down hearsay. An Italian scholar named Vittorio Gabrieli published English-language editions of both In Praise of Venetia and The Private Memoirs in Rome in the second half of the 20th century. An indirect Digby descendant, Roy Digby Thomas, has written a helpful biography of Sir Kenelm Digby, The Gunpowder Plotter's Legacy, which includes information about Venetia and references all available texts.
Dulwich Picture Gallery's book Death, Passion, and Politics (ed. Ann Sumner), published in relation to their exhibit of Van Dyck's portraits of George Digby and Venetia, contains in its essays some egregious errors (for example, referring to Venetia as impoverished – she wasn't – and referring to her hair as "somewhat coarse", when Digby specifically stated in his letters that her hair was fine: it only held its curl for fifteen minutes). Nonetheless, it is probably the best visual resource. Books will repeatedly refer to her as having very dark brown hair, because Aubrey (who never saw her) did, when Van Dyck clearly shows her in all three portraits as having light brown hair. Different books have different versions of the Prudence and Deathbed portraits, some of which are copies, others miniatures.
Finally, perhaps the largest problem is the fact that we don't know how much of Digby's Private Memoirs is true and how much is fantasy. We do not know, for example, the exact identity of "Mardontius," the rival suitor to whom "Stelliana" was engaged during the period in which "Theagenes" was presumed dead. Aubrey attempts to identify him as Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, but the identification does not hold up to any historical examination.
Sources disagree, and there are errors even in sources which should be authoritative. Due to the way in which women – even famous or infamous ones – were documented in the period, the study of Venetia Digby is an inexact science.
- 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".
- Stelliana – Site planning to publish the Private Memoirs online.
- Digby Resources – John Sutton's Digby resource/reference page.
- Tudor Place Bio