Extinct Peerage (1883), p. 171; Doyle's Official Baronage of England (1886), pp. 235–6; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. i. 481, 488; Faulkner's Chelsea (1829), i. 120, 131–3, ii. 15; Brit. Mus. Cat.]
DIGBY, JOHN, first Earl of Bristol (1580–1653), diplomatist and statesman, was born in Feb. 1580. He was the son of Sir George Digby of Coleshill, Warwickshire, and of Abigail, daughter of Sir Arthur Henningham. In 1595 he became a fellow commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford. 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 16 March 1607. Digby married Beatrix, daughter of Charles Walcot of Walcot in Shropshire, and widow of Sir John Dyve of Bromham in Bedfordshire (Dugdale, Baronage).
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 carry 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 500,000l. 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 600,000l. 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