DIGBY, William, 5th Baron Digby of Geashill [I] (1661-1752), of Coleshill, Warws.; Sherborne, Dorset, and Southampton Square, Mdx.
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Family and Education
bap. 20 Feb. 1661, 4th but 3rd surv. s. of Kildare, 2nd Baron Digby [I], by Mary, da. of Robert Gardiner of London; bro. of Hon. Robert† and Hon. Simon Digby†. educ. privately; Winchester Coll. 1677; Magdalen Coll. Oxf. matric. 1679, BA 1681, DCL 1708; travelled abroad (France) 1683–4. m. lic. 22 May 1686 (with £8,000), Lady Jane (d. 1733), da. of Edward Noel†, 1st Earl of Gainsborough, 4s. (3 d.v.p.) 8da. (6 d.v.p.). suc. bro. Simon as 5th Baron Digby 19 Jan. 1686, cos. John Digby†, 3rd Earl of Bristol, in Dorset estate Sept. 1698.1
Gov. King Edward’s sch. Birmingham 1687, pres. 1688–91; commr. rebuilding Warwick 1695; gov. St. Bartholomew’s hosp. 1729–d. 2
Member, SPG 1704, common council, Georgia 1733.
In the later years of his life ‘the good Lord Digby’ was revered as a paragon of Christian virtue. From early manhood he wore his Anglican conscience heavily, living by the maxim which he urged upon an acquaintance in 1686 to keep ‘always a sense of religion in your thoughts’. Indeed, religion had a central place in his thought and action. As an MP his conscience lingered painfully over William III’s accession, which he came to accept only by degrees, and it seems to have been his inability to resolve his mind firmly upon the issue that drove him to turn his back on Parliament while still in his early maturity. Once free from the clutches of political life he was for the rest of his life able to maintain a dignified reputation through a life of semi-retirement, much occupied in the patronage of numerous charitable and religious projects and in regular contact with those whom he most respected, the pious and the scholarly. One of the foremost influences on Digby’s religious and intellectual development was John Kettlewell, who was appointed to the living of Coleshill in 1682 by his brother Simon, 4th Lord Digby. Kettlewell was a forthright and uncompromising exponent of the doctrine of passive obedience, and it is clear from Digby’s later utterances in Parliament that these theological precepts assumed a dominant place in his thinking on the Revolution.3
Having in 1686 succeeded his elder brother to the Digby barony, Digby was elected to the Convention of 1689 for Warwick, with the backing of Lord Brooke (Fulke Greville†) whose daughter Katherine had recently married Digby’s brother-in-law, the 2nd Earl of Gainsborough (Wriothesley Baptist Noel†). In February 1689 he had given his vote against the proposition that the throne was vacant, thus (with other Tories) indicating his belief that the hereditary line remained unbroken. Soon afterwards Kettlewell resigned the Coleshill living, having refused to take the oaths. Digby’s attainder in absentia by James’s Irish parliament on 7 May may have inclined him more favourably towards William and Mary, although according to one account an anonymous nobleman attempted to reinstate him in James’s esteem, in the belief that Digby was still sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. However, Digby reconciled himself so far as to take the oath of allegiance, acknowledging the fact of William’s accession, if not his right. Writing in February 1690 to his friend Lord Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†), whose attitudes were similar and who was also a patron of non-jurors, Digby expressed the ‘zeal I have to see the next H[ouse] of C[ommons] well filled’ with men of Tory heart. Early on in the new Parliament he was classed by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) as a Tory and as a probable Court supporter. He was one of the first to speak on 26 Apr. against the committal of the bill for establishing an oath of abjuration, but did so with circumspection:
It is a tender point that I am going to speak to; and, before I enter into the debate, I desire I may speak freely, without prejudice. Whatsoever concerns the constitution of the present government, I would not be thought to speak against; not for King James, if I speak against the bill. The foundation of the government is the present Bill of Rights; wherein the King promises his part etc., and we swear fealty. This is our original contract; if there be any, I am of opinion that is it. This oath I took with a good conscience, and will keep it. Till the King enlarges his part of the contract, I think we should not enlarge ours. I have heard of enemies against kingly government, and I fear this will create many more. This will not distinguish the enemies from the friends of the government. If this be, now the King is going into Ireland, it may be of dangerous consequence. These considerations weigh with me against the bill.
While wishing to avoid the imputation of Jacobitism, Digby was not prepared to deny James’s right to the throne. The resort to an argument for a contractarian balance between King and Parliament, though on the surface highly unusual for a Tory, was calculated to appeal to Whig sections of the House in order to widen the scope of opposition. Much more like a Tory, he denied the existence of any ‘contract’ before the Bill of Rights, and implied thereby the possibility of continued loyalty to James II. His fears of dangerous consequences if the bill passed into law, from an inevitable sharpening of the distinction between firm and dubious supporters, were probably genuine. It may have appeared to Digby that James’s attempt to recover his right indicated that he had not ‘abdicated’, and it is perhaps possible to surmise from his initial rejection of the Association in 1696 that had the bill been passed Digby would not have abjured. Years later, in Anne’s reign, he wrote:
There is hardly any precept in the Bible more plainly, more frequently, more earnestly enforced than that of obedience to governors and I do not see how a man can take up arms against his prince without rebelling against God himself.
On 29 Apr., three days after the defeat of the abjuration bill, another measure was ordered for the greater security of the government, and for providing new oaths, with Digby as one of the drafting committee. At the beginning of June King William passed through Warwickshire on his way to Ireland, stopping to dine with Sir Clement Fisher, a friend of Digby. William evidently used the occasion to try to reconcile influential opinion, for Digby and one or two other doubters were among those present, while a group of loyal Whigs were excluded.4
That Digby continued to feature as an adherent of the Court is confirmed by further lists drawn up by Lord Carmarthen at the end of the year, but in April 1691 he was marked by Robert Harley* as a Country supporter. His appointment to a series of important committees, together with the occasional surviving reference to contributions in debate, shows him to have been an active and prominent parliamentary performer. He presented a bill on 1 Dec. 1691 to explain a proviso about royal mines in the 1689 Act repealing a medieval statute against ‘the multiplying of gold and silver’, though he afterwards took no further part in the proceedings on the bill. His active interest in this measure is explained by his partnership in Sir Carbery Pryse’s* lead and silver mines in Cardiganshire. Though granted a month’s leave on 20 Jan. 1692, Digby was back in the House before the end of February. On 5 Dec., in the next session, he spoke against the King’s proposal to retain 20,000 troops in England for defence, and on the 14th opposed the second reading of the bill for ‘preservation of their Majesties’ sacred persons and government’ on account of its ‘multiplying of treasons, which he thought not safe at this time’. On the 29th he obtained a fortnight’s leave to attend his mother’s funeral. In a working list of Court supporters compiled by Lord Carmarthen between March and December 1692, Digby was listed as one who might be influenced in favour of the Court by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* He took an interest in the game bill introduced at the beginning of February 1693: having been nominated to the drafting committee on the 8th, he was ordered on the 23rd to convey it to the Lords after third reading. Following the King’s rejection of the place bill in January 1694, Digby was named to the committees ordered to draft, then redraft, a ‘representation’. When the King’s response was considered on 1 Feb. he echoed the sentiments of Paul Foley I and Robert Harley in criticizing it as ‘so general, that the answer will serve anything’ and called for further elucidation. He prefaced these remarks, however, by saying that if a representation had not been ordered by the House, he would have been content himself for the question of the King’s conduct to have rested.5
During December 1694 and January 1695 Digby managed a bill through the House for the rebuilding of Warwick, following the fire which had destroyed the western part of the town in the previous September. The bill, in which he was named as one of the ‘commissioners or judges’, duly received the Royal Assent on 11 Feb. On 5 Feb., during proceedings on the Lancashire Plot, he told against taking a suspect into custody. A clear sign of Digby’s closer association with the Country party was seen on 14 Mar. when he seconded Sir Christopher Musgrave’s (4th Bt.) nomination of Paul Foley I for the Speakership. His services to Warwick, in quickly procuring the legislation necessary to begin rebuilding in the town was probably the uppermost consideration behind his unopposed re-election in the autumn. Forecast as likely to oppose the Court in the division of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade, he voted against fixing the price of guineas at 22s. In the wake of the Assassination Plot he refused at first to sign the Association and was reported at the end of February to be one of the ‘ringleaders’ of the non-subscribers. However, in common with the other Warwickshire MPs who refused to sign, he was not dismissed from the bench. Indeed, he was unusually active at this time in issuing warrants against Catholics and others suspected of disaffection, but his sudden resignation from the lieutenancy on 15 June clearly indicates that his conscience was troubled. Lord Northampton, the lord lieutenant, was ‘sorry that you still persist in the same mind, and that you will not consider your own and [your] country’s good but leave them both exposed to the pleasure and disposal of other men’.6
On 17 Nov. Digby spoke on the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, cautioning against the misuse of Parliament’s judicial power. His theme was that ‘the just power of Parliament’ should be exercised only in situations ‘wherein the government is nearly concerned’, and he questioned whether the allegations against Fenwick amounted to such a threat. In the division on the 25th he voted against the attainder. On 8 Mar. 1697 he was granted an unspecified period of leave. His final undertaking in the House before standing down at the next general election was the management of a private estate bill, originating in the Lords, to enable his Noel in-laws to sell off land towards settlement of debts left by his father-in-law, the 1st Earl of Gainsborough, who had died in 1689. In the comparative analysis of the old and new House of Commons drawn up soon after the 1698 election he was classified as a Country supporter ‘left out’. A combination of political and private factors appear to have influenced his decision to retire. His behaviour over the Association in 1696 had probably made him less acceptable to Lord Brooke, who at this time effectively controlled Warwick’s two seats. At the same time Digby was weary of London and with the demands of parliamentary attendance. On 9 July he wrote to his friend Edward Nicholas, the Member for Shaftesbury: ‘I fancy you will now be looking towards Shaftesbury: I cannot heartily wish you success, but rather that you would turn country gentleman, and live quietly after the example of your old friend.’ Again on 14 Sept.: ‘You are pleased with the country as a mistress, I wish you would make it a wife.’ Even so, he was anxious for details about the composition of the new Parliament, asking Nicholas to provide him with lists, ‘marked’ if possible. Commenting on these, he observed, ‘I fear we are not much mended’ but confessed that party distinctions were now of no concern to him. It is possible that he felt somewhat ostracized by his former colleagues in the House: he had confided to Nicholas on 16 Aug., ‘I have no parliamentary friend at present I can be so free with’.7
Within a few months Digby had succeeded to the estates of his cousin the 3rd Earl of Bristol at Sherborne in Dorset. The monument to the Earl which Digby commissioned includes an epitaph, composed by his old Oxford friend Dr John Hough, which might equally well refer to Digby’s own aspirations: ‘He was naturally inclined to avoid the hurry of a public life, yet was careful to keep up the post of his quality.’ Much of the remainder of Digby’s life was taken up with religio-charitable activity. During the late 1690s he extended his mining interests by investing in Sir Humphrey Mackworth’s* lead mines, attracted no doubt by the philanthropic intentions with which Sir Humphrey cloaked his scheme. Digby must also have known Mackworth through their common association with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which had been established in 1698. Though Digby was not himself especially active in the society, he was a patron and a close friend of one of its founders, Dr Thomas Bray. Digby had first appointed Bray to the living of Over-Whiteacre, a short distance from Coleshill, and in 1690 to that of nearby Sheldon. Subsequently he took a close interest in many of Bray’s varied projects, particularly the establishment of parochial libraries. These were set up initially on an experimental basis in the neighbourhood of Coleshill, but soon afterwards Bray took the idea to Maryland. In September 1700 Digby agreed to become the SPCK’s ‘lay correspondent’ for Warwickshire, and in June 1701 ranked among the founding members of Bray’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.8
Digby’s letters to Edward Nicholas show that withdrawal from the Commons by no means extinguished his appetite for news of parliamentary proceedings, albeit only ‘for diversion’, and, just as on religious matters, he could not refrain from offering detailed encouragement and advice to acquaintances on the political topics of the day. In the competition for the Speakership at the beginning of December 1698, Digby agreed that Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., was most likely to succeed, though not without paying tribute to Hon. John Granville as an able committee chairman. Typically, at the end of the same month, he delighted ‘to hear the disbanding bill goes on so merrily’, and complained of the continuation of too large a military establishment in Ireland which he found unpopular among ‘the countrymen’. In January 1699 he was concerned about a newly introduced game bill and apprehended that ‘mischief rather than good’ was likely to come from it. There were some reports in January 1701 that he was ready to re-enter Parliament. Whatever the truth of these, he was subjected to considerable pressure during the summer of 1703 to stand for a vacancy at Oxford University, having the previous year appeared to Lord Nottingham as ‘yielding, though not desirous to do it then’. His original intentions remained unshaken, however, and he was ‘universally despaired of’ by Dr Charlett and other High Tory eminences within the university. Following the 1705 election, Nicholas’ confession to Digby that as a Court Tory he would be obliged to vote against William Bromley II for the Speakership met with a characteristic warning against acting merely out of ‘a wrong notion of gratitude or some other false argument’:
a great deal more depends upon this than the having a Speaker our friend. All the world sees now which way things are tending . . . and there is nothing so likely to stop this cancer as a majority of the House of Commons appearing early against it.9
Throughout Anne’s reign Digby took an active interest in the affairs of his native county, and was often present at meetings of county gentry for purposes electoral or otherwise. A major preoccupation during these years was the project for providing Birmingham’s expanding population with a new church, a project of which he was a principal promoter, having in 1703 been one of the earliest subscribers. When by February 1707 the scheme was ready for legislative sanction he forwarded a petition to the county Members, ‘to whom the people of Birm[ingham] do commit your management of this good work in the H[ouse] of C[ommons]’, and issued detailed instructions on how they should proceed. To William Bromley II he delegated the task of securing support in the House from ‘other friends’. The bill failed to emerge from the Lords, and it is probable that Digby was involved in the second, successful attempt in 1709. His vigorous attachment to Anglican doctrines shone through in a set of ‘rules for your conduct’ which he compiled for his son Robert, in about 1708, in which he warned against ‘some Calvinistical opinion . . . particularly the doctrine of predestination which cannot possibly be true if God be just’:
Upon a just and impartial inquiry I dare answer that you will not find a better constituted church than the Church of England and therefore you [ought] not only to profess yourself a faithful member of it, but to be an advocate for it upon all occasions and endeavour to support it by all lawful means. She has at this time (as in most times she had had) many open and secret enemies, many false and lukewarm friends and will need all the assistance of her true sons. But remember that passion and ill language will support no cause.
Digby could therefore find no stomach for the Arian views of his old friend William Whiston, a leading proponent of ‘primitive Christianity’. Whiston’s intellectual questings led him to doubt Trinitarian doctrine and condemn the Athanasian creed as a ‘dangerous heresy’, and in November 1712 he tried to interest Digby in the founding of a society for promoting these opinions. Digby urged his friend to ‘consider well what you are a-doing’, and, while he couched his advice with professions of impartiality, it was clear that his orthodox mind was quite closed to Whiston’s thinking.10
Following the Hanoverian succession, Defoe reported in his Tour that Digby ‘is at present a little on the wrong side as to the government, not having taken the oaths to King George’, and that most of the market-town of Coleshill were ‘eminently that way too’. At the time of the Atterbury Plot in 1721 he was mentioned in a list, supposedly of sympathizers to the Jacobite cause, as ‘old though well-affected’. Digby’s philanthropic achievements in the vicinity of his estates in Warwickshire and Dorset were prodigious and he received a glowing tribute from his friend Bray in a work published in 1728. He had settled the tithes of Coleshill and Over-Whiteacre; provided land and money for ‘a very fine parsonage-house’ at Coleshill; rebuilt a ruined chapel at Sherborne; founded two libraries at Coleshill and Over-Whiteacre; contributed ‘bountifully’ to others at Warwick and Sherborne; built a parochial library and rectory at Sheldon; and founded charity schools at Coleshill and Sherborne. Furthermore, on his Irish estates he rebuilt a church and founded a charity school. In later years at Sherborne he helped to enlarge the vicarage, founded a school for poor girls, and shortly before his death gave £1,000 to the almshouse of St. John the Evangelist. In 1733 he became a member of James Oglethorpe’s† Georgia Society, originally established to settle newly released debtors in America, which had been founded from a trust fund set up by Bray. Three of Digby’s sons predeceased him; his second and third sons, Hon. Robert and Hon. Edward, later successively represented Warwickshire as Tories. His elder son’s violent insanity forced him in 1715 to secure an Act of Parliament disinheriting him. Digby died at Coleshill on 27 Nov. 1752, aged 90, and was buried at Sherborne, the barony and estates passing to his grandson Edward Digby†. Under his will, which contained only a single charitable bequest (of £100 towards the discharge of ‘poor prisoners’ in Warwick county gaol), he left a personal estate of £23,000, and an additional £12,000 for the purchase of land to be settled on his younger grandsons.11
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
Unless otherwise stated. this biography is based on H. Erskine-Hill, Social Milieu of Pope, 132-65.
- 1. IGI, Warws.; Winchester Long Rolls 1653–1721 ed. Holgate, 27, 30.
- 2. Dugdale Soc. Publns. vii. 108, 114, 118; Great Fire of Warwick (Dugdale Soc. xxxvi), 121.
- 3. Birmingham Central Lib. Wingfield-Digby mss ‘B’, 159, ‘Some few rules for your conduct’.
- 4. Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 26, f. 310; Bodl. Rawl. A.79, f. 70; Ballard 25, f. 16; Add. 42592, f. 136; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 595; Wingfield-Digby mss ‘B’, 159, ‘Some few rules for your conduct’, p. 5.
- 5. BL, Dept. of Printed Bks. 695. 1. 14(.5); Luttrell Diary, 290, 319; Cobbett, v. 829, 832–5, 838; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 127.
- 6. Warws. Recs. ix. pp. xxix–xxx; HMC Kenyon, 405; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 122; Add. 29578, f. 579.
- 7. Cobbett, v. 1101; Egerton 2540, ff. 100, 109, 113, 115, 117.
- 8. DNB (Bray, Thomas); Hist. Mag. of Prot. Episcopal Church, xxxiii. 18; Chapter in Eng. Church Hist. ed. McClure, 79; H. P. Thompson, Thomas Bray, 23; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 358.
- 9. Egerton 2540, ff. 132–3; SRO, Hamilton mss GD406/1/4657, Gawin Mason to Hamilton, 2 Jan. 1700[-1]; Bodl. Rawl. lett. 92, f. 153; Add. 29589, ff. 109–10.
- 10. Warws. RO?Mordaunt mss CR/iii/98, 21, 16–20, ‘List of . . . Gentlemen who met at the Swan, Warwick, 25 Nov. 1701’, Digby to Mordaunt, , 13 Jan., 12, 21, 26 Feb., 10 Mar. 1706–7; CR/iv/55, William Clerke to same, 18 Aug. 1712; Egerton 2540, f. 136; Thompson, 83; Wingfield-Digby mss ‘B’, 159, ‘Some few rules for your conduct’, p. 2; 80, 81, Whiston to Digby, 6, 18 Dec. 1712; 146, 147, Digby to Whiston, 29 Nov., 15 Dec. 1712.
- 11. Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 481; P. S. Fritz, Ministers and Jacobitism 1715–45, p. 152; LJ, xx. 39; Add. 32730, f. 299; Hutchins, Dorset, iv. 254.