1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bristol, John Digby, 1st Earl of
BRISTOL, JOHN DIGBY, 1st Earl of (1580–1653) English diplomatist, son of Sir George Digby of Coleshill, Warwickshire, and of Abigail, daughter of Sir Arthur Henningham, was born in 1580, and entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1595 (M.A. 1605), becoming a member of the Inner Temple in 1598. In 1605 he was sent to James to inform him of the safety of the princess Elizabeth at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. He gained his favour, was made a gentleman of the privy chamber and one of the king's carvers, and was knighted in 1607. From 1610 to 1611 he was member of parliament for Heydon. In 1611 he was sent as ambassador to Spain to negotiate a marriage between Prince Henry and the infanta Anne, and to champion the cause of the English merchants, for whom he obtained substantial concessions, and arranged the appointment of consuls at Lisbon and Seville. He also discovered a list of the English pensioners of the Spanish court, which included some of the ministers, and came home in 1613 to communicate this important intelligence to the king. In 1614 he again went to Spain to effect a union between the infanta Maria and Charles, though he himself was in favour of a Protestant marriage, and desired a political and not a matrimonial treaty. In 1616, on the disgrace of Somerset, he was recalled home to give evidence concerning the latter's connexions with Spain, was made vice-chamberlain and a privy councillor, and obtained from James the manor of Sherborne forfeited by the late favourite. In 1618 he went once more to Spain to reopen the negotiations, returning in May, and being created Baron Digby on the 25th of November. He endeavoured to avoid a breach with Spain on the election of the elector palatine, the king's son-in-law, to the Bohemian throne; and in March 1621, after the latter's expulsion from Bohemia, Digby was sent to Brussels to obtain a suspension of hostilities in the Palatinate. On the 4th of July he went to Vienna and drew up a scheme of pacification with the emperor, by which Frederick was to abandon Bohemia and be secured in his hereditary territories, but the agreement could never be enforced. After raising money for the defence of Heidelberg he returned home in October, and on the 21st of November explained his policy to the parliament, and asked for money and forces for its execution. The sudden dissolution of parliament, however, prevented the adoption of any measure of support, and entirely ruined Digby's plans. In 1622 he returned to Spain with nothing on which to rely but the goodwill of Philip IV., and nothing to offer but entreaties.
On the 15th of September he was created earl of Bristol. He urged on the marriage treaty, believing it would include favourable conditions for Frederick, but the negotiations were taken out of his control, and finally wrecked by the arrival of Charles himself and Buckingham in March 1623. He incurred their resentment, of which the real inspiration was Buckingham's implacable jealousy, by a letter written to James informing him of Buckingham's unpopularity among the Spanish ministers, and by his endeavouring to maintain the peace with Spain after their departure. In January 1624 he left Spain, and on arriving at Dover in March, Buckingham and Charles having now complete ascendancy over the king, he was forbidden to appear at court and ordered to confine himself at Sherborne. He was required by Buckingham to answer a series of interrogatories, but he refused to inculpate himself and demanded a trial by parliament. On the death of James he was removed by Charles I. from the privy council, and ordered to absent himself from his first parliament. On his demand in January 1626 to be present at the coronation Charles angrily refused, and accused him of having tried to pervert his religion in Spain. In March 1626, after the assembling of the second parliament, Digby applied to the Lords, who supported his rights, and Charles sent him his writ accompanied by a letter from Lord Keeper Coventry desiring him not to use it. Bristol, however, took his seat and demanded justice against Buckingham (Thomason Tracts, E. 126 (20)). The king endeavoured to obstruct his attack by causing Bristol on the 1st of May to be himself brought to the bar, on an accusation of high treason by the attorney-general. The Lords, however, ordered that both charges should be investigated simultaneously. Further proceedings were stopped by the dissolution of parliament on the 15th of June; a prosecution was ordered by Charles in the Star Chamber, and Bristol was sent to the Tower, where he remained till the 17th of March 1628, when the peers, on the assembling of Charles's third parliament, insisted on his liberation and restoration to his seat in the Lords.
In the discussions upon the Petition of Right, Bristol supported the use of the king's prerogative in emergencies, and asserted that the king besides his legal had a regal power, but joined in the demand for a full acceptance of the petition by the king after the first unsatisfactory answer. He was now restored to favour, but took no part in politics till the outbreak of the Scottish rebellion, when he warned Charles of the danger of attacking with inadequate forces. He was the leader in the Great Council held at York, was a commissioner to treat with the Scots in September 1640 at Ripon, and advised strongly the summoning of the parliament. In February 1641 he was one of the peers who advocated reforms in the administration and were given seats in the council. Though no friend to Strafford, he endeavoured to save his life, desiring only to see him excluded from office, and as a witness was excused from voting on the attainder. He was appointed gentleman of the bedchamber on the king's departure for Scotland, and on the 27th of December he was declared an evil counsellor by the House of Commons, Cromwell on the 28th moving an address to the king to dismiss him from his councils, on the plea that he had advocated the bringing up of the northern army to overawe parliament in the preceding spring. There is no evidence to support the charge, but Digby was regarded by the parliamentary party with special hatred and distrust, of which the chief causes were probably his Spanish proclivities and his indifference on the great matter of religion, to which was added the unpopularity reflected from his misguided son. On the 28th of March 1642 he was sent to the Tower for having failed to disclose to parliament the Kentish petition. Liberated in April, he spoke in the Lords on the 20th of May in favour of an accommodation, and again in June in vindication of the king; but finding his efforts ineffectual, and believing all armed rebellion against the king a wicked violation of the most solemn oaths, he joined Charles at York, was present at Edgehill and accompanied him to Oxford. On the 1st of February 1643 he was named with Lord Herbert of Raglan for removal from the court and public office for ever, and in the propositions of November 1644 was one of those excepted from pardon. In January he had endeavoured to instigate a breach of the Independents with the Scots. Bristol, however, was not in favour of continuing the war, and withdrew to Sherborne, removing in the spring of 1644 to Exeter, and after the surrender of the city retiring abroad on the 11th of July by order of the Houses, which rejected his petition to compound for his estate. He took up his residence at Caen, passing the rest of his life in exile and poverty, and occasionally attending the young king. In 1647 he printed at Caen An Apology, defending his support of the royal cause. This was reprinted in 1656 (Thomason Tracts, E. 897, 6). He died at Paris on the 16th of January 1653.
He is described by Clarendon as "a man of grave aspect, of a presence that drew respect, and of great parts and ability, but passionate and supercilious and too voluminous a discourser in council." His aim was to effect a political union between England and Spain apart from the religious or marriage questions—a policy which would probably have benefited both English and European interests; but it was one understood neither in Spain nor in England, and proved impracticable. He was a man of high character, who refused to compound with falsehood and injustice, whose misfortune it was to serve two Stuart sovereigns, and whose firm resistance to the king's tyranny led the way to the great movement which finally destroyed it. Besides his Apology, he was the author of several printed speeches and poems, and translated A Defence of the Catholic Faith by Peter du Moulin (1610). He married Beatrix, daughter of Charles Walcot, and widow of Sir John Dyve, and besides two daughters left two sons, George, who succeeded him as 2nd earl of Bristol, and John, who died unmarried.
(P. C. Y.)
- I.e. in the Digby line; for the Herveys see above.