When I was a very young girl I was fascinated by the life of Venetia Stanley, wife of Sir Kenelm Digby and one of the most celebrated beauties of her era. At the time I lived in Wiltshire and my grandparents knew the Earl and Countess of Cottenham, who were descended not only from the family of Samuel Pepys (their family name is still Pepys, pronounced ‘Pepp-is’) but also from the beautiful Venetia and her husband. I remember thinking that they were very fortunate to have such romantic and literary links to seventeenth century England.
My interest in Venetia was further fanned by visits of her home, Sherborne Castle in Dorset, which was also home to Sir Walter Raleigh and home to the most amazing paintings, including an amazing one of Venetia, Kenelm and their two young sons.
But who was Venetia Stanley? She was born Venetia Anastasia Stanley in December 1600, the daughter of Sir Edward Stanley and his wife Lady Lucy Percy, the daughter and co-heiress of the Earl of Northumberland. Unlike Florence Nightingale and Brooklyn Beckham, Venetia was not named for the city of her conception or birth – in fact, more prosaically, Venetia was probably a fanciful derivation from Gwyneth.
Venetia grew up to become a noted beauty with wide grey blue eyes and fine light brown hair and was the cynosure of all eyes when she moved to London as a teenager, presumably to become a maid of honour at court. It seems that the young Venetia was allowed an unusual amount of licence for the time and was known to have had several lovers before she had even reached her twenties. I am not sure how true this is though as it would have been an unusual situation for a young girl to have left in, even in the licentious atmosphere of the Jacobean court.
John Aubrey described her thus: ‘She had a most lovely and sweet-turned face, delicate dark brown hair… Her face, a short oval; dark brown eyebrow, about which much sweetness, as also in the opening of her eyelids. The colour of her cheeks was just that of the damask rose, which is neither too hot nor too pale.’
Not much is really known about this period in Venetia’s life. It’s believed that she lived for a time in Buckinghamshire, close to the home of her future husband, the dashing scion of a well known Papist family, Kenelm Digby, who was three years her junior and that the young couple had become instantly smitten, much to the horror of both their families. In the end they were separated when Kenelm’s mother pulled some strings and had her lovelorn son sent abroad for several years on a series of diplomatic missions, leaving his Venetia behind.
Alone, heartbroken and unprotected it’s said that the unfortunate Venetia became mistress to Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset and even had children by him before her former lover Kenelm Digby returned to England, fully resolved to make an honourable woman of her.
By now, Kenelm was one of the most fascinating characters of his time – a renowned and respected scientist, explorer, philosopher and writer who was also a talented diplomat. He was the very epitome of the well educated, insatiably intellectually curious and courageous courtier that most men at this time aspired to be – a Sir Philip Sidney of the seventeenth century, as handy with his sword as he was with his pen.
Kenelm was not perhaps as handsome as other men of the court and had a typical intellectual disregard for his appearance but Venetia returned his love and the couple were secretly married in 1625. It is not known precisely why their marriage was clandestine but it’s likely that Venetia’s reputation had preceded her somewhat and that there were fears that Kenelm’s devoutly Catholic mother may disapprove, although the fact that Venetia was equally well born, the granddaughter of a noted Catholic peer, the Earl of Northumberland and mistress of a large inherited fortune may well have done much to smooth the way when the truth finally came out.
Although it seems that the marriage was kept secret for quite some time as the couple’s first child, a son was born in secrecy, with the proud father, Kenelm later telling him that Venetia’s labour had been perilous in more ways than one: ‘None of the servants of the house that had their continually passage by her dore, did then or ever after suspect what had passed: she had a most sore and dangerous labor and yett in the greatest panges of it she never expressed by groanes or scarce by sighes the paine and torment she was in.’
It’s likely that the fact that Kenelm’s father had been executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot and Venetia’s grandfather, the Earl had been imprisoned for his plotting against Elizabeth I drew the couple together. Certainly, Venetia was to be noted for her devout adherence to Catholicism after their marriage and would never again be the subject of gossip and scandal. Or at least not during her life.
The last time that Venetia was seen alive was on the evening of the 30th April 1633, when she went to bed alone, her husband of nine years having gone out that night and then opted to sleep in a different room so as not to disturb her. Her maid found her dead the next morning, lying in the same position as she had left her in.
The cause of Venetia’s death is not known but rumours immediately began to spread that Kenelm had murdered her in an insane fit of jealous rage or that she had had enough of him and killed herself. It was also suggested, perhaps with more veracity, that Kenelm’s well known scientific experiments had at some point involved the manufacture of cosmetics to preserve his beloved wife’s beauty and that the toxic ingredients had finally killed her.
Whatever the truth was, Kenelm was devastated and two days later commissioned a deathbed portrait from his friend Anthony Van Dyke, which took just seven weeks to complete and which he kept with him at all times and got into the habit of contemplating for hours on end.
Kenelm wrote about the painting of his dead wife: ‘This is the onely constant companion I now have… It standeth all day over against my chaire and table.. and all night when I goe into my chamber I sett it close to my beds side, and by the faint light of candle, me thinks I see her dead indeed.’
He also wore mourning for the rest of his life and became increasingly unkempt, reclusive and eccentric.
Venetia’s fame lived on though, not just in her portraits but also thanks to Kenelm’s obsessive habit of writing letters to her post mortem, which were later published as a volume called ‘In Praise of Venetia’. She was also to become well known thanks to John Aubrey’s gossipy discussion of her in his ‘Brief Lives’ as well as Kenelm’s own memoir of their courtship, entitled ‘Private Memoirs’ – both of which served to establish Venetia Stanley, latterly a devout Catholic wife and mother not just as one of the most notorious courtesans of the era but also as one of its greatest beauties. I like to think that she would have been quite pleased about this.