DIGBY, John (1668-1728), of Mansfield Woodhouse, Notts.
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Family and Education
bap. 22 Sept. 1668, ?2nd but 1st surv. s. of John Digby of Mansfield Woodhouse by Frances, da. of Leonard Pinkney of Westminster and Mansfield Woodhouse.1 educ. Jesus, Camb. 1684. m. (1) prob. s.p.; (2) 23 July 1699, Jane, da. of Sir Thomas Wharton, KB, of Edlington, Yorks. (uncle of Hon. Thomas*, Hon. Goodwin* and Hon. Henry Wharton†), 2s. 12da. suc. fa. bef. 1697.2
Ranger of the deer, Clipstone park 1707–?, verderer, Sherwood forest by 1709–aft. 1722.3
The Digbys of Mansfield Woodhouse were a cadet branch of the family of Coleshill in Warwickshire. The Member’s grandfather had been in arms for Charles I and in 1661 was receiving orders from the King relating to Sherwood forest, thus placing Digby’s later role as a forest official firmly within a family tradition. His father served as sheriff in 1684, and in 1686–7 was being used by the Treasury to conduct a survey into decaying trees in Sherwood. It was probably John Digby who was appointed a deputy-lieutenant in May 1692. This man was removed from both the lieutenancy and the commission of the peace in August 1696 for refusing the Association. However, a letter from the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†) shows that the man dismissed in 1696 was restored in 1700. By that year he had also been restored to the bench. In 1701 he was suggested as a possible sheriff but managed to avoid that onerous office. It is uncertain when Digby first acquired an office connected to the forest, but his keenness in that regard can be demonstrated in 1700 when Gervase Eyre* solicited the Marquess of Halifax (William Savile*) on his behalf in case the illness of Thomas Hewett, surveyor of the King’s woods north of the Trent, should prove fatal. Digby’s political views were probably close to Eyre’s at this time. He voted for Eyre and Sir Thomas Willoughby, 2nd Bt.*, in the county election of 1698; in November 1701 he wrote to another Member with Country Tory inclinations, Thomas Coke*, to assure him of his interest in the Derbyshire election of 1701; and he subsequently continued his connexion with Willoughby, being described as a ‘chief manager’ for him during the county by-election of 1704.4
Digby’s own political ambitions centred on Newark. The management of his election in 1705 was attributed to Willoughby, although his own involvement in the administration of the forest may also have made him acceptable to Newcastle, who was steward of Sherwood. On the list of the new Parliament Digby was classed as a ‘Churchman’ and Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) counted his return as a loss. He duly confirmed this analysis by voting against the Court candidate in the division on the Speaker, 25 Oct. 1705. On 6 Dec. he acted as a teller against bringing in candles, in order to forestall a motion to take into custody the Tory mayor of Norwich for proceedings at the recent parliamentary election. Digby was given leave of absence on 20 Dec., to recover his health. His name appears on two later lists of this Parliament, one in early 1708 in which he was classed as a Tory and one which incorporated the returns of 1708, in which he was marked as a Court supporter. He did not seek re-election in 1708.5
Attempts by Digby to return to the Commons in 1710 were thwarted when the machinations of the county election led Willoughby to stand at Newark ‘in opposition to Mr Digby whom he himself formerly brought in there’. Wisely, Digby did not push his candidacy in such circumstances, nor did he vote in the county contest. In January 1711 Newcastle attempted to exploit Digby’s discomfiture over the election by promising to support his quest for employment if he in turn applied to Lord Scarsdale, since Willoughby ‘is not so forward to know you as I think he ought to be’. However, Willoughby obviously felt an obligation towards Digby, for on being elevated to the peerage as Baron Middleton, he wrote to Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) to ensure that the Duchess of Newcastle placed her interest at Digby’s disposal. Paradoxically, Newcastle’s death in 1711 may have strengthened Digby’s interest, since he was now in personal correspondence with the lord treasurer over forestry matters. In the ensuing by-election, however, he was overwhelmed by Brigadier Richard Sutton*, a defeat he himself ascribed to the failure of the Duchess of Newcastle’s agents to obey their orders and support him. Following this debacle the Duchess wrote to Oxford asking for his favour towards Digby, adding that Middleton concurred with her request. In the 1713 election Digby was persuaded by Middleton to stand at East Retford, on a promise that every endeavour would be used with the lord treasurer ‘that he might have something that he might hold with being in Parliament, instead of what was designed him’. Middleton backed up his promise, with a recommendation to Auditor Harley (Edward*), but there is no record of Digby having received any additional offices. Returned unopposed for East Retford in 1713 he may have been incapacitated with gout for part of the session, as he wrote in April 1714 of being ‘laid up with the gout in so violent a manner that I have not been able to move across my room’. He was classed as a Tory on the Worsley list and on two comparative lists of the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments.6
Re-elected in 1715, probably as a result of an agreement with the Whigs, Digby voted against the impeachments of the Tory ministers. It was on these grounds that he refused initially to sign a loyal address to the King, although he subsequently relented. He continued to act as a j.p. and to serve the new Duke of Newcastle in the forest, paying particular attention to the welfare of the ducal hounds. Nevertheless, he did not modify his Tory views, voting for both Tory candidates in the county election of 1722. He died on 3 Aug. 1728.