Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) “Father of Champagne”

Kenhelm Digby inventor of methode champenoise

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) “Father of Champagne” and the man who popularised the Grand Tour and clotted cream would have made headlines in any age sparking wonder and scandal with his eccentric ideas and daring lifestyle. The son of one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, King James I welcomed the three year old Digby into the Stuart Royal Court where he received a classical education by the greatest minds and artists of the age. He counted Sir Francis Bacon and Anthony Van Dyck as close friends but he is best known for developing the method champenoise 1618-1633. He also developed the bottle and glasses we use to drink ‘vin anglaise’ as the Europeans sneeringly referrred to the sparkling wine beloved by the Irish and British. The French believed the bubbles spoilt the integrity of the wine.

Kenhelm Digby

In the 1620’s whilst working with his alchemy set, Digby discovered that feeding oxygen through a series of metal pipes inserted into the furnace,  created a toughened glass, capable of withstanding the pressure of the 2nd fermentation process required to ensure the bubbles. Champagne is really English – just don’t tell the French! 

Champagne was so beloved by the British in the 1600s it was referred to as vin anglaise by the French and Germans who detested the bubbles as much as we adored them.

Digby was more than a man of science, he was a famous swashbuckling dandy and epicurean, famed as much for his flamboyant fashions as his swordsmanship and scientific Inventions.

The Baroque celebrated the good life and produced the first celebrity epicurean and fashion icons.

As a teenager Digby popularised the notion of the Grand Tour – a trip around the continent – as a vital component in rounding off a young man’s education. 

But it was his method for the creation of champagne in 1618-1633  that guaranteed his fame  –  In 1633 he dashed round to St James Palace in a sedan chair with a bottle of champagne and a couple of saucers for Queen Henry (Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I)- unfortunately the Queen was entertaining and there weren’t enough glasses to go round provoking Queen Henry to slip off one of her famous ruby and diamond encrusted high-heel shoes as a makeshift glass – making history.

The marriage of King Charles I to Queen Henrietta in 1625 brought even greater liberties and progress. The pint sized fifteen-year old French princess brought enormous wealth and prestige to the kingdom but she also brought the elegance and elan of the French court. Her arrival in London created a fashion sensation. The people’s first sparkling glimpse of their new queen was the appearance of her diamond and ruby encrusted four inch high heeled shoe as she alighted from the sedan chair, sparking a frenzied demand for high heels throughout the kingdom. Even the king began wearing high heels. The higher the heel, the closer to god, became the catch phrase of the age.

Not only did she embody glamour, her Medici lineage gave her access to an underground network of artists, musicians, singers and eccentrics. She poured a fortune into the arts and funded the building of a Modern London while successfully persuading Charles to open up all his Royal Parks for the free enjoyment of his people.  By capturing the hearts and igniting the imaginations of the people, Henri triggered an explosion of hate pamphlets focused on her “wicked” extravagant fashions which they linked to her Catholicism.  No wonder Queen Henri became Oscar Wilde’s icon.

In 1633 the celebrity dandy, scientist and glass-maker, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) perfected the toughened glass needed for the double fermentation method required for creating champagne. He also designed the champagne saucers and champagne bottle still in use today.

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