He was the son of Sir George Digby of Coleshill, Warwickshire, and Abigail, daughter of Sir Anthony (not Arthur) Heveningham and educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple. He was knighted in 1606. He was briefly the Member of Parliament for Hedon in 1610.
On his arriving at Court, his charm, good looks and diplomatic ability quickly gained him the favour of King James I, who sent him to Madrid as his ambassador to Spain during the early 1610s. He was rewarded by being created Baron Digby of Sherborne in 1618 and Earl of Bristol in 1622.
Digby was a leading figure in the unsuccessful Spanish Match, the effort to marry Prince Charles to the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. Digby was made the scapegoat for the failure of the marriage plan, recalled and ordered to reside on his estates. Charles after his accession offered Digby a return to royal favour if he would admit his blame for the failure of the match: Digby, who was a stubborn and hot-tempered man, and could be terrifying in his anger, refused. Charles, infuriated, impeached him and sent him to the Tower of London; Digby, undaunted, made counter-charges against George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the prime royal favourite. Ominously for the King's reputation, the House of Lords decided to hear Digby in his own defence first. His trial never proceeded, although he remained in the Tower until 1628, and the affair seriously damaged the King's reputation as a man of honour.
The murder of the Duke of Buckingham in August 1628 caused Digby to reconsider his opposition to the King: like Strafford and others among the Lords he was alarmed at Parliament's increasing radicalism. He offered his services to Charles and was formally reconciled with him. Charles, however, was slow to trust those who had ever opposed him and Digby had little influence at Court in the 1630s.
As the political crisis of the early 1640s mounted, Digby emerged as a trusted and moderate royal adviser, along with his son George, Lord Digby. At the Council of Peers held at York in September 1640, the King showed an unprecedented willingness to listen to Bristol's criticism of his policy, and agreed to his advice that a Parliament must be summoned. 1641 saw a complete reconciliation between the two men: Bristol with Lord Bedford became leader of the moderate Royalists in the House of Lords, working to achieve a compromise with John Pym, and save the Earl of Strafford's life. After the collapse of the attempt at compromise Bristol came increasingly to be seen as a "hardline" royalist: as such Parliament imprisoned him after the outbreak of the Civil War, although he was later allowed to join the King at Oxford. After the Battle of Edgehill he was one of the "moderate party" who persuaded the King not to attempt to take London, which might have brought the war to a swift conclusion. After the King's defeat he moved to Paris and died there in 1653 aged 72.
"Of a grave aspect, of a presence which drew respect, and a very handsome man who by the extraordinary favour of King James to his person was Ambassador to Spain before he was 30. Though he was a man of great parts and a wise man in Council he was passionate and supercilious and was too voluminous in discourse so that he was not considered there with much respect."
A modern historian praises him as the greatest servant of the English Crown of his generation, but humorously calls him "the terrible earl", on account of his hot temper and intimidating personality.
Marriage and progeny
- George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
- Mary Digby (1612–1648), who married as his 2nd wife Arthur Chichester, 1st Earl of Donegall (1606–1674). She bore him six sons and one daughter, all of whom died in infancy. She died on 5 November 1648 whilst giving birth to a second daughter stillborn. She was buried in Eggesford Church, Devon, where is situated her memorial effigy.
- John Digby (1618–1664)
Through her previous marriage Lady Bristol was the mother of the prominent Royalist Sir Lewis Dyve.
- David L. Smith, 'Digby, John, first earl of Bristol (1580–1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.
- "Digby, John (DGBY595J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- "DIGBY, Sir John (1581-1653), of Bromham, Beds. and Great Queen Street, Westminster; later of Sherborne, Dorset". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
- Kenyon, J.P. Stuart England Allen Lane 1978
- Wedgwood, C.V., Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford-a revaluation, Jonathan Cape, 1961
- Wedgwood C.V. The King's Peace Wiliam Collins Son and Co. 1955
- Clarendon, Earl of History of the Great Rebellion
- Kenyon, J.P. The Stuarts B.T. Batsford 1958
- Per monument in Eggesford Church, Devon
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bristol, John Digby, 1st Earl of". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Bristol, John Digby, 1st Earl of.|
- Short biography
- "Archival material relating to John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol". UK National Archives.
| English Ambassador to Spain
The Earl of Arlington
The Lord Cottington
Sir Denzil Holles
| Custos Rotulorum of Dorset
With: The Lord Cottington
Sir Denzil Holles
|Peerage of England|
|New creation|| Earl of Bristol
| Baron Digby|
(descended by acceleration)