A Celibate Life in a Libertine Age

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

In previous columns we examined Boyle’s religious doubts and his serious piety. Now we turn to his family background and the influence it exerted both on his piety and on his decision to remain unmarried and chaste.

Steel line engraving of Lismore Castle above the River Blackwater, County Waterford, Ireland, by Elias Benjamin, after William Henry Bartlett (1842). When Robert Boyle was born here on 25 January 1627, it did not look very much like this. Originally built by King John in the 12th century and rebuilt by his father in the 17th century, the castle was heavily damaged during the Irish Confederate Wars by forces commanded by Lord Castlehaven. During the 19th century it was substantially rebuilt yet again, giving it the more romantic appearance that it has today.


Robert Boyle’s Family and His Attitude toward Marriage

Robert Boyle’s family circumstances did not suggest that he would someday become a scientist. Born in January 1627, he was the seventh son and fourteenth child of the second wife of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. In his diary the Earl projected a pious, God-fearing image of himself. Young “Robyn” (or “Robin”), as his father called him, hardly knew his father in person. Owning property in diverse parts of Ireland and England, and doing business often in other places, the Earl did not often occupy the same physical space as his son, and he died before Robert returned from his long visit to the Continent (which I told you about previously). For the most part, then, Robert’s view of his own father was heavily influenced by the image Richard Boyle had fashioned himself.

Isaac Oliver’s portrait of Richard Boyle at age forty-something (ca. 1610-1615), National Portrait Gallery, London (Source)


In fact, the Earl was an ambitious adventurer and an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer who took full advantage of English colonialism in Ireland to become one of the very wealthiest men in all of England and Ireland. Young “Robin” watched as his thirteen older brothers and sisters became pawns in the hands of a power broker, the boys given titles and lands and the girls married off to the sons of other powerful men–who often had more ardor for their houses and horses than for their wives. Robin’s sister Katherine, Viscountess Ranelagh, his favorite person, was married at fifteen to Arthur Jones, a man described by family friend Sir John Leeke as “the foulest Churle in the world; he hath only one vertu that he seldom cometh sober to bedd,” and thus couldn’t see straight enough to beat her (Memoirs of the Verney Family, vol. 1, p. 206). “Kate” lived apart from her husband for many years before his timely death made her final twenty-two years a much happier time.

Unfortunately, this was how things were usually done in the Earl of Cork’s household. Francis Boyle, all of sixteen years himself, was torn from his seventeen-year-old wife Elizabeth Killigrew, daughter of a deceased servant of Queen Henrietta Maria, just four days after their wedding in the chapel at the Royal Palace of Whitehall. His father forced him to go with Robert to Geneva for two and a half years (as it happened, Robert stayed in Geneva about twice as long, but he had no wife to be abandoned back in England). Under the circumstances, is it really surprising, that “Betty,” whose brother Thomas Killigrew employed Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn at his famous Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, likewise found fame as a mistress who bore Charles a daughter? Venereal disease had prevented Lewis Boyle from consummating his marriage, and Roger Boyle was said by his own fiancée to have had gonorrhea. With such examples close at hand, it is little wonder that Boyle took a very dim view of courtly mores.

Not everything at Lismore Castle was destroyed in 1645. The gatehouse is still substantially the same as in Boyle’s day and the garden—designed by his father, the Great Earl of Cork, within the outer defensive walls—is thought to be the oldest such garden in Ireland. Photographs by Kathryn A. Davis.


The youthful Robin narrowly avoided an arranged marriage himself, and later dodged the well-intended effort of his good friend, Oxford mathematician John Wallis, to match him up with an eligible woman from a wealthy family. Boyle remained not only unmarried, but celibate his entire life. To the best of our knowledge, the closest he ever came to having sexual relations was during a visit to Florence with his brother Francis and their tutor in his sixteenth year. By his own recollection a few years later, “Nor did he sometimes scruple, in his Governor’s Company, to visit the famousest Bordellos; whither resorting out of bare Curiosity, he retain’d there an unblemish’t Chastity, & still return’d thence as honest as he went thither.” On another occasion, two friars made sexual advances that were most unwelcome. In Boyle’s own words, “he prov’d the Object of unnaturall [desires]. For being at that Time in the Flower of Youth, & the Cares of the World having not yet stain’d a Complexion naturally fresh enuf; as he was once unaccompany’d diverting himselfe abroad, he was somewhat rudely storm’d by the Preposterous Courtship of 2 of those Fryers, whose Lust makes no Distinction of Sexes, but that which it’s Preference of their owne creates; & not without Difficulty, & Danger, forc’t a scape from these gown’d Sodomites” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 20).

Many years later, he told Gilbert Burnet (for more information about him, see my previous column) that he had “Abstained from purposes of marriage at first out of Policy [and] afterwards more Philosophically” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 27). To understand what he meant, we should read a few sentences from his first published book, Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659), which extolled “the Joyes of Seraphick Love” over merely human romance. “I am no such enemy to Matrimony, as some (for want of understanding the Raillery, I have sometimes us’d in ordinary discourse) are pleased to think me,” he claimed. Scarcely skipping a breath, he added, “yet I have observed so few Happy Matches, and so many Unfortunate ones; and have so rarely seen men love their wives at the rate they did, whilst they were their Mistresses, that I wonder not, that Legislators thought it necessary to make marriages Indissoluble, to make them Lasting.” Comparing marriage to a lottery, he noted that both offered a chance for success, “But in both Lotteries, there lye a pretty store of Blancks for every Prize” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 81-2).  Having seen many women try to make the best of bad marriages, Boyle advised the woman who wanted to be a good wife, “to deliberate much upon a Choice she can probably make but once; and not needlesly venture to embarque herself on a Sea so infamous for frequent Shipwracks, only because she is offer’d a fine Ship to make the long Voyage with” (The Matyrdom of Theodora, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, p. 32).

Robert and Katherine

Although she was twelve years older, the unhappily married Katherine became Robert’s closest friend. When he moved from Oxford to London in 1668, he lived in her home on Pall Mall for the rest of his life, setting up his laboratory and receiving distinguished guests on the premises. Owing to the work of Michelle DiMaio, Lynette Hunter, and Sarah Hutton, we now know far more about her than we used to. Nevertheless, Kate has long been recognized as a brilliant woman who, according to John Leeke, “hath a memory that will hear a sermon and goe home and penn itt after dinner verbatim” (Memoirs of the Verney Family, vol. 1, pp. 203-204). Among other activities, she convened a salon for important intellectuals, including the great poet John Milton, who tutored her son, Samuel Hartlib, and several members of Parliament. As Hutton says, she was “the leading woman intellectual of her generation.”

The moral influence she had on her brother was powerful. She first got to know him well immediately upon his return from Geneva, when he took up residence temporarily with Katherine, who was then living in London with a sister-in-law, whose husband Sir John Clotworthy was an important member of the Puritan Parliament. Gilbert Burnet’s description of her character strongly suggests that the teenaged Robert learned much from her:

“She imployed [her whole life] for doing good to others, in which she laid out her Time, her Interest, and her Estate, with the greatest Zeal and the most Success that I have ever known. She was indefatigable as well as dextrous in it: and as her great Understanding, and the vast Esteem she was in, made all Persons in their several turns of Greatness, desire and value her Friendship; so she gave her self a clear Title to imploy her Interest with them for the Service of others, by this that she never made any use of it to any End or Design of her own. ... When any Party was down, she had Credit and Zeal enough to serve them, and she imployed that so effectually, that in the next Turn she had a new stock of Credit, which she laid out wholly in the Labour of Love, in which she spent her Life: and though some particular Opinions might shut her up in a divided Communion, yet her Soul was never of a Party: She divided her Charities and Friendships both, her Esteem as well as her Bounty, with the truest Regard to Merit, and her own Obligations, without any Difference, made upon the Account of Opinion” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 52-3). In short, she was a true friend to those in need, and she didn’t hold someone’s political views against them.

Katherine was also deeply pious and well versed in theology, traits she shared with their sister Mary Rich, who unexpectedly became Countess of Warwick when her husband’s elder brother died without a male heir in 1659. The previously worldly Mary experienced a religious conversion in her early twenties, mainly in response to the serious illness of her four-year-old son. Some of the proverbs and meditations she compiled can only be described as profound; others were more practical but no less wise, such as her advice that, “The best shield against slanderers is, to live so that none may believe them.” In her diary, Mary noted how Robert, Katherine, and she would sometimes have “holy discourse” together, or “good and profitable discourse of things wherewith we might edify one another” (Memoir of Lady Warwick, pp. 38, 91, and 102).

Mary Rich, engraving by Robert White, after unknown artist. This was the frontispiece to Anthony Walker, The Virtuous Woman Found (1678). There are no publicly available images of Katherine, but three oil paintings exist in private hands, including one at Hampton Court Palace.


Robert had Katherine’s splendid example to inspire and the ostentatiously pious diary of a father whom he had hardly known to emulate. All the same, as Steven Shapin has noted, “the serious and systematic embrace of a reflectively religious life was relatively rare for someone of Boyle’s condition and degree” (A Social History of Truth, p. 157).  His earliest writings, dating from around his twentieth birthday though not published (if at all) until many years afterward, reflect the intensity of his own intimate relationship with God. Several have already been quoted in this series, and two of them inspired compositions by great composers. A work I quoted briefly above, The Martyrdom of Theodora, became the basis for Thomas Morell’s libretto for Handel’s opera Theodora in the 18th century. A devotional work dedicated to Katherine, Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, is usually remembered today because it was satirized by Jonathan Swift, yet it was appreciated by Puritans and remained in print for almost two hundred years. Richard Baxter told Boyle that “your pious Meditations & Reflexions, do call to me for greater Reverence in the reading of them, & make me put off my hatt, as if I were in the Church,” and “your speciall way of Occasionall Meditation, I take to be exceeding usefull!” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, pp. 473 and 476) The following passage is typical for its tone and content: “we must never venture to wander far from God, upon the Presumption that Death is far enough from us, but rather in the very height of our Jollities, we should endeavour to remember, that they who feast themselves to-day, may themselves prove Feasts for the Worms to-morrow” (Occasional Reflections, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 5, p. 153). Here Boyle expresses not a morbid interest in death, but an appropriate Christian recognition that a sense of our mortality is the foundation of morality. Thus, it’s not too surprising that Isaac Watts was attracted to another passage, in which Boyle compared the human body to an instrument with 1,000 strings, so complex yet so delicately balanced—when one is blessed with good health. Watts transformed Boyle’s mundane prose into a four-line hymn, which was later set to music by the colonial American composer William Billings as part of his anthem, Creation. If you listen to it, pay attention to the fuguing tune in the latter part of the piece: those are the words inspired by Boyle.

I’ll end this column on that note.

Looking Ahead

The next column examines how he made science his Christian vocation.


References & Credits

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Davis, “Robert Boyle as the source of an Isaac Watts text set for a William Billings anthem,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, 53 (2002): 46-7, and Terence O. Ranger, “Richard Boyle and the making of an Irish fortune, 1588-1614,”Irish Historical Studies 10 (1957): 257-97.

The words of John Leeke are taken from Frances Parthenope Verney and Margaret M. Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family, 4 vols. (Longmans, 1892). Boyle’s autobiography, “An account of Philaretus during his minority,” is published in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (1994), the same collection that includes Gilbert Burnet’s recollections. Mary Rich’s words are from Anthony Walker, Memoir of Lady Warwick: also her diary, from A.D. 1666 to 1672, now first published: to which are added, extracts from her other writings(Religious Tract Society, 1847). Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis, and The Correspondence of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 2001), 6 vols., ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M. Principe.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


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