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John Digby, first Earl of Bristol

John Digby, first Earl of Bristol (1580-1654)

JOHN DIGBY, first Earl of Bristol (1580-1654), diplomatist and statesman, was born in February 1580. He was the son of Sir George Digby of Coleshill, Warwickshire, and of Abigail, daughter of Sir Arthur Hevingham. In 1595 he became a fellow commoner of Magdalene College, Cambridge. In 1605, upon the failure of the plan for the seizing of Elizabeth, daughter of James I, by the Gunpowder plotters, Digby was sent by Lord Harrington, who was in charge of the princess, to convey the news to the king. James took a fancy to the young man, made him a gentleman of the privy chamber and one of his carvers, and knighted him on 10 March 1607. Digby married Beatrix, daughter of Charles Walcot of Walcot in Shropshire, and widow of Sir John Dyve of Bromham in Bedfordshire.1

In 1611 Digby was sent as ambassador to Madrid, with instructions to obtain a settlement of the claims of the English merchants in the Spanish law-courts, and to negotiate a marriage between Prince Henry and the Infanta Anne, the daughter of Philip III, which had already been suggested by the Spanish ambassador in England. He arrived in Spain in June, but he soon learned that the infanta was already engaged to Louis XIII of France, and he regarded an offer made to him of Philip's younger sister, the Infanta Maria, as illusory, she being a child under six years of age, and recommended his master to give up all thoughts of a Spanish match.

In procuring redress for the merchants Digby found an opportunity of showing his ability. In 1613 he succeeded in discovering the secret of the pensions which had been paid by the Spanish court to English politicians, and in 1614 he returned to England to lay his discoveries before the king. From this time his fortune was made, and when, before the close of the year, James made up his mind to propose a marriage between Prince Charles, who had become heir to the crown after the death of his brother Henry, and the Infanta Maria, Digby was sent back to Spain to carry on the negotiation. Before going, he left on record his opinion that it would be better that the future queen of England should be a protestant, but having thus freed his conscience he resolved to earn out the negotiation on which he was sent with all honesty and vigour. Digby was in fact one of the best examples of the reaction against puritanism which set in at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He was himself an attached son of the church of England, but he saw no reason why difference of religion should divide Europe into two hostile camps, and he conceived, somewhat too sanguinely, the hope that a good understanding between England and the catholic powers of the continent might be made a basis for the continuance of peace. If there was to be a catholic marriage, he preferred an alliance with Spain to one with France.

On Digby's arrival at Madrid the marriage negotiation was opened, though not yet in an avowed manner. In 1616 he was again summoned home, upon Somerset's disgrace, to state what he knew of the fallen favourite's connection with the Spanish government. He reached England in March. On 3 April he was made vice-chamberlain, and about the same time he took his seat as a privy councillor. He probably owed this fresh advancement to the freedom with which he expressed his opinion to James that it was unwise to proceed further in the Spanish treaty, on the ground that the king of Spain would be unable to dispose of his daughter's hand without the consent of the pope. In the course of the year he received a grant of the estate of Sherborne, which had passed from the hands of Raleigh to those of Somerset, and which had now returned to the crown through Somerset's attainder.

In April 1617 James resolved to despatch Digby once more to Madrid, formally to open negotiations for the marriage. Digby, having done his duty by remonstrating, now threw himself heart and soul into the work of obtaining the best terms possible, especially in the matter of the bride's portion, which James wished to fix at not less than £500,000.2 At the same time he was to give his support to a plan for a joint English and Spanish expedition against the pirates of Algiers.

On Digby's arrival at Madrid some months were spent in settling the arrangements of the infanta's future household. The question of liberty of conscience to be granted to English catholics was reserved for James's own decision, but in May 1618 Digby was able to come back to England with the announcement that all other matters were concluded, and that the infanta's portion would be as much as £600,000.3 James, however, could not content the Spaniards on the point of liberty of conscience, and the whole negotiation was suspended on his refusal. Digby, however, was no loser. On 25 Nov. 1618 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Digby.

Early in 1620 Digby was called on to advise his master on the difficult questions which arose out of the election of the king's son-in-law, Frederick, Elector Palatine, to the Bohemian throne. He appears to have advocated an attempt to come to an understanding with Spain while preparations were simultaneously made to procure money and allies for the defence of the Palatinate; so that if Frederick were driven out of Bohemia, it might still be possible to maintain him in his hereditary possessions. It is always difficult in the case of a diplomatist to know how far he is personally associated with schemes which he is directed to carry out, but it must at least be noted that in June 1620 Digby accompanied Buckingham on a visit to the Spanish ambassador Gondomar, when a project for the partition of the Dutch Netherlands between England and Spain was discussed. Whatever Digby may have thought about the matter, it must be remembered that ill-feeling towards the Dutch as the opponents of England in trade was always most powerful with those who were ready to smooth over the religious differences between England and Spain. In supporting the Spanish alliance, however, Digby had no notion of making England simply subservient to Spain, and in March 1621, after the expulsion of Frederick from Bohemia, he was sent to Brussels to urge the Archduke Albert to direct a suspension of arms in the Palatinate as a preliminary to a negotiation for peace which he was subsequently to undertake at Vienna. As far as words went the archduke was ready to give satisfaction, and Digby, after his return to England, received instructions on 23 May for his mission to the Emperor, Ferdinand II.

On 4 July [1621] Digby reached Vienna. He was authorised to procure a suspension of the ban of the empire, which had been pronounced against Frederick, and to make peace on the basis of the abandonment by Frederick of his claims to Bohemia, and the abandonment by Ferdinand of any attempt to inflict punishment on Frederick. Verbally satisfaction was given to the ambassador's demands, but it was evident that neither party had any real wish to terminate the strife. Before the end of September the Duke of Bavaria had made himself master, in the Emperor's name, of the Upper Palatinate, and Mansfeld, who commanded Frederick's unpaid troops in that district, was obliged to retreat to the Lower Palatinate. Digby borrowed money and melted his plate to provide £10,0004 for the temporary defence of Heidelberg, and hastened back to England to support James in asking supplies from parliament to enable him to intervene for the protection of Frederick's dominions. On 31 Oct. he was in England. On 21 Nov. he laid his policy before the houses. Money, he said, must be sent to pay the forces in the Lower Palatinate during the winter, and an army must be sent thither in the spring, which would cost £900,000.5 The question of adopting or rejecting Digby's proposal was never fairly discussed. James quarrelled with his parliament on constitutional grounds, and a speedy dissolution put an end to all hopes of regaining the lost ground, except so much as might be allowed by the mere clemency of Spain.

With the dissolution of 1621 Digby's chance of bringing an independent policy to a successful result was at an end. He returned to Spain in 1622 to carry out James's plan of trusting to the goodwill of Spain, and to put once more into shape that marriage treaty which had been allowed to sleep in 1618. The government of Philip IV (who had succeeded in 1621) was chiefly anxious to gain time, and met Digby in the most friendly way; and James was so pleased with the progress of events that on 15 Sept. 1622 he created his ambassador Earl of Bristol.

It was not long before James took alarm at the capture of Heidelberg by Tilly. Bristol was at once ordered to obtain the assurance that the town and castle should be restored. As might have been expected, the Spaniards would give no such assurance. Bristol, however, pushed on the marriage treaty, and the articles, with the exception of the important one relating to the English catholics, were in such a state of forwardness that in January 1623 they were accepted by James. Bristol seems to have felt that, as matters stood, there was no hope of recovering the Palatinate except by the goodwill of Spain, and to have conceived it to be impossible that Philip should agree to the marriage treaty unless he wanted to help in the restoration of the Palatinate.

The arrival of Charles and Buckingham at Madrid on 7 March 1623 took the negotiation out of Bristol's hands. Before long the ambassador gave deep offence to the prince by believing too easily a rumour that Charles had come with the purpose of declaring himself a catholic, and by assuring him that, though he was not in favour of such a proceeding, he was ready to place himself at his disposal in the matter. During the latter part of Charles's visit Bristol's influence was thrown on the side of keeping up friendly relations with Spain, and he drew upon himself the ill-will of the prince by supporting a scheme for the education of the eldest son of the elector palatine at Vienna. On 29 Aug. he wrote to the king, setting forth plainly the ill-feeling of the Spanish ministers against Buckingham, and thereby made the favourite an enemy for life.

When the prince quitted Madrid he left in Bristol's hands a proxy authorising him to appear for him in the marriage ceremony; but within a few days he despatched a letter to the ambassador, telling him not to use this proxy without further orders, lest the infanta should go into a nunnery after the marriage had taken place. During the remainder of the year Bristol did his best to avert the breach with Spain, on which Charles and Buckingham were bent, and it was only against his will that he informed Olivares that the marriage must be postponed until satisfactory assurances about the Palatinate had been given.

Bristol had offended too deeply to be allowed to remain in Spain. On 28 Jan. 1624 he took leave of Philip. Before he left Olivares told him that nothing he could ask would be denied him as a mark of the king of Spain's gratitude. Bristol replied that all that he had done had been done for his own master, and that he had rather offer himself to the slaughter in England than be Duke of Infantado in Spain.

On Bristol's return he was ordered into confinement in his own house at Sherborne. It was not that James was in any way angry with him, but that Charles and Buckingham were now the masters of the old king. Bristol at once began a course of that respectful but constitutional resistance, the merits of which neither Charles nor Buckingham was ever able to understand. He was ready to stand a trial in parliament, but he would not acknowledge himself to have been in the wrong. After the end of the session he was subjected to a series of interrogatories, but he could be brought no further than to acknowledge that he might have committed an error of judgment, and he was sent down to confinement in his house at Sherborne. In the beginning of 1625 he answered fully a fresh set of questions.6 After James's death Charles removed his name from the list of privy councillors, and continued his restraint at Sherborne, on the ground that though he had not been dishonest he would not acknowledge his error in trusting the Spanish ministers too much.

Bristol remained quietly at Sherborne for some months longer. In January 1626 he asked to be present at the coronation. Charles replied by an angry charge against the earl of having tried to pervert him from his religion when he was in Spain, a charge which Bristol met by a renewed application for a trial. Bristol received no writ of summons either to the first or the second parliament of the reign. On 22 March 1626, soon after the opening of the second parliament, he applied to the House of Lords to mediate with the king for a trial or the acknowledgment of his right to sit. Charles, to get out of the difficulty, sent him the writ, with an intimation in a letter from Lord-keeper Coventry that he was not to use it. Bristol, replying that the king's writ was to be obeyed rather than a letter from the Lord Keeper, took his seat, and craved justice against Buckingham, against whom he was prepared to bring an accusation. To anticipate the blow, Charles ordered the attorney-general to accuse Bristol, and on 1 May Bristol was brought to the bar. The lords, however, gave the king no assistance in this attempt to close his subject's mouth, and ordered that the charges of the king against Bristol and those of Bristol against Buckingham were to proceed simultaneously. Before either of the investigations had proceeded, for they were brought to an end on 15 June by the dissolution, Bristol was then sent to the Tower, and ordered to prepare for a Star-chamber prosecution. Before long he fell ill, and as he seemed likely to make awkward revelations if the trial were allowed to proceed, his illness was taken as affording an excuse for postponing the proceedings indefinitely. When on 17 March 1628 Charles's third parliament met, one of the first acts of the House of Lords was to insist on his restoration to liberty and to his place in parliament.

In the debates upon the king's powers of imprisoning without showing cause which preceded the introduction of the Petition of Right, Bristol was the first to propose a compromise. On 22 April he suggested that while limits might be fixed to the king's legal power there was behind it a regal power on which he might fall back in an emergency. 'As Christ,' he said, 'upon the Sabbath, healed, so the prerogative is to be preserved for the preservation of the whole.' The principle of this proposal was embodied in the propositions adopted by the Upper House on 20 April; but it was rejected by the Commons. When late in the session the Petition of Right was sent up to the Lords, Bristol again tried to steer a middle course, but he evidently preferred the acceptance of the petition as it stood to its rejection. His final suggestion, made on 20 May, was that the petition should be accompanied by a mere verbal declaration that the houses had no intention of infringing the prerogative. On 7 June, after the king's first and unsatisfactory answer to the petition, he demanded a fuller and better answer.

When the session was at an end, Bristol was restored to a certain amount of favour, but during the troubled years which followed he took no part in politics, till the summons to the peers to take part in the expedition against the Scots in 1639 drew him from his seclusion. He pointed out the danger of advancing to Berwick with an undisciplined army. After the dissolution of the Short Parliament in 1640 he urged the necessity of calling another parliament, and when the great council met at York in September he was practically accepted as its leader.

At the beginning of the Long Parliament Bristol associated himself with those who wished to see a thorough change in the system of government, and on 19 Feb. 1641 he was summoned to a seat at the council board together with Bedford and five other reforming peers. He did his best to save Strafford's life, though he wished him to be incapacitated from office, and was consequently exposed to the insults of the mob. When the final vote was taken on the attainder bill, he was excused from voting on the ground that he had appeared in the trial as a witness. The course which he took gained him favour at court, and when the king set out for Scotland he named him gentleman of the bedchamber.

When parliament met again after the short autumn adjournment, the feeling between king and parliament had gone too far to be allayed by any statesmanship which Bristol possessed. We find him on 17 Dec. moving an amendment to a declaration against any toleration of the catholics, sent up by the commons, to the effect that no religion of any kind should be tolerated 'but what is or shall be established by the laws of this kingdom.' It is to be supposed that he was unwilling to see any considerable ecclesiastical change. At all events, on 27 Dec. he was named by the House of Commons as an evil counsellor. On the 28th Cromwell moved an address to the king to remove him from his counsels on the ground that in the preceding spring he had recommended that the northern army should be brought up against parliament. No evidence exists for or against this statement, but it is probable that Bristol suffered for the misdeeds of his mercurial son [George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol].

On 28 March 1642 Bristol was sent to the Tower on the ground that he had refrained from informing parliament of the Kentish petition, a copy of which had come into his hands. He was, however, liberated after a short confinement, and spoke twice in the House of Lords in favour of an accommodation. Finding his efforts fruitless, he shortly afterwards joined the king. He was with him at Oxford for some time after the battle of Edgehill, and was constantly spoken of by the parliamentary writers as being a warm advocate of the prolongation of the war. It is probable that his former connection with Spain did him harm, but too little is known of the working of parties at Oxford to pronounce on his conduct with any certainty. In January 1644 he advocated the policy of winning the support of the independents against the imposition of presbyterian uniformity.7

By the parliament Bristol was regarded with an abhorrence out of all proportion to any misdeeds of which evidence has reached us. In the propositions for peace presented at Oxford on 1 Feb. 1643, he and Lord Herbert of Raglan were named as the two persons to be removed from the king's counsels, to be restrained from coming within the verge of the court, and to be debarred from holding any office or employment.8 In the propositions laid before the king in November 1644 as a basis for the negotiation to be held at Uxbridge, Bristol's name appears on a long list of those who were to expect no pardon.9 The increase of indignation perceptible in this demand is perhaps accounted for by the discovery of Bristol's part in the negotiation with the independents. He had, however, some time before these propositions were drawn up, removed from Oxford, in order to separate himself from those who were the advocates for the prolongation of the war.

At first, he took refuge at Sherborne, but in the spring of 1644 he removed to Exeter, where he remained for about two years, till that city capitulated to Fairfax on 13 April 1646.10 After the surrender of Exeter he petitioned to be allowed to compound for his estate by paying a composition, and to remain in England;11 but his petition was rejected, and on 11 July the houses ordered a pass for him to go beyond the seas. The remainder of his life was passed in France. In 1647 he published at Caen a defence of his conduct in taking the king's part in the civil war under the title of 'An Apology of John, Earl of Bristol.' He died at Paris on 16 Jan. 1653-4.12

1. Dugdale, Baronage.
2. £500,000 in 1617 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £72,300,000 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
3. £500,000 in 1618 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £86,300,000 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
4. £10,000 in 1621 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £1,560,000 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
5. £900,000 in 1618 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £140,000,000 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
6. 'The Earl of Bristol's Defence,' in the Camden Miscellany, vol. vi.
7. 'A Secret Negotiation with Charles I,' Camden Miscellany, vol. vi.
8. Rushworth, v. 166.
9. ib. 851.
10. Lords' Journals, viii. 342.
11. ib. 343, 402.
12. Dugdale, Baronage.

Gardiner, S. R. "John Digby, first Earl of Bristol."
Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XV. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888. 56-60.

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Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland
Henry FitzAlan, 12. Earl of Arundel
Thomas, Earl Arundell of Wardour
Edward Somerset, E. of Worcester
William Davison
Sir Walter Mildmay
Sir Ralph Sadler
Sir Amyas Paulet
Gilbert Gifford
Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague
François, Duke of Alençon & Anjou

Mary, Queen of Scots
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot
John Knox

Philip II of Spain
The Spanish Armada, 1588
Sir Francis Drake
Sir John Hawkins

William Camden
Archbishop Whitgift
Martin Marprelate Controversy
John Penry (Martin Marprelate)
Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury
John Dee, Alchemist

Philip Henslowe
Edward Alleyn
The Blackfriars Theatre
The Fortune Theatre
The Rose Theatre
The Swan Theatre
Children's Companies
The Admiral's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Citizen Comedy
The Isle of Dogs, 1597

Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Fleet Prison
First Fruits & Tenths
Livery and Maintenance
Oyer and terminer

The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox

William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria

Long Parliament
Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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