DIGBY, Sir John (1581-1653), of Bromham, Beds. and Great Queen Street, Westminster; later of Sherborne, Dorset

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



by 3 Mar. 1610 - 26 Mar. 1610

Family and Education

bap. 27 Feb. 1581, 4th but 3rd surv. s. of Sir George Digby† (d.1587) of Coleshill, Warws. and Abigail, da. of Sir Arthur Heveningham of Ketteringham, Norf; bro. of Philip*.1 educ. Magdalen, Oxf. 1595, MA 1605; I. Temple 1598;2 ?travelled abroad. m. 31 May 1609, Beatrice (d. 15 Sept. 1658), da. of Charles Walcot of Walcot, Salop, wid. of Sir John Dyve of Bromham, Beds., 2s. 2da. (1 d.v.p.).3 kntd. 8 Mar. or 14 May 1606;4 cr. Bar. Digby of Sherborne 25 Nov. 1618, earl of Bristol 15 Sept. 1622.5 d. 21 Jan. 1653.6 sig. Jhon Digbye; Bristol.

Offices Held

Carver, king’s Household by 1606-c.1611,7 v.-chamberlain 1616-25; PC 1616-25, 1641-6.8

Amb. to Spain 1610-16, 1617-18 (extraordinary), 1622-4; Holy Roman Empire 1621 (extraordinary).9

J.p. Beds., Dors., Northants., Som. 1617-26, 1628-c.1645, custos rot. Dors. 1642-c.1645;10 commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge 1617-c.1645, Western circ. 1629-c.1645,11 subsidy, Dorset, London and king’s Household 1621-2, 1624.12


Digby’s cousin, Sir Kenelm Digby, traced their family’s ancestry back to Saxon times in a bogus pedigree, a piece of antiquarian one-upmanship which discounted their verifiable thirteenth-century origins. Robert Digby was returned as knight for Leicestershire in 1373, but the family’s political interest thereafter shifted to Rutland. His younger grandson, lieutenant of the Tower under Henry VII, was granted the manor of Coleshill, Warwickshire in 1495, an estate subsequently enlarged by marriage and purchase. Digby’s father was of sufficient standing to be returned as knight for Warwickshire in 1581 and 1584.13 While the Warwickshire Digbys had extensive Catholic connections, they were regarded as loyal by the government: one report vouched for Digby’s uncle Reynold, a spy in the Spanish garrison at Antwerp during the 1570s, as a ‘true and faithful subject’.14 The same was not the case with his third cousin, John Digby of Seaton, in Rutland, who was imprisoned in the Tower for four years on suspicion of involvement in the Babington plot.15 The separate branches of the family remained close: in November 1605 Digby’s elder brother Sir Robert† was invited to join his Rutland cousin Sir Everard for the hunting party which served as a cover for the Gunpowder plotters’ intended seizure of Princess Elizabeth from Combe Abbey. Sir Robert, who remained above suspicion, took an active part in the pursuit of the conspirators, but Sir Everard was attainted and executed.16

As a younger son, Digby received a life annuity of only £40, half of which initially went towards the costs of his education at Oxford and the Inner Temple. Having apparently travelled abroad, he was presented at Court in 1604, when his mother recommended him to Viscount Cranborne (Robert Cecil†). As the latter had relatively little influence in the privy chamber, Digby probably secured his post as carver through the efforts of the treasurer of the Household, William, 1st Baron Knollys†, whose niece Lady Offaly was married to Digby’s brother Sir Robert. It was undoubtedly this position which brought him to the king’s attention, as James liked a ‘trial of wits’ at mealtimes; George Villiers was to make his initial mark at Court as a cupbearer.17 Digby used his position to mitigate the impact of the attainder on Sir Everard’s family, securing a lease of the latter’s Leicestershire estates, and a grant of two-thirds of the estates of his widow, confiscated after her conviction for recusancy in 1609. In June 1606 Cranborne, now earl of Salisbury, was warned that ‘young Digby’s place, person and disposition is much applauded by some discontented humours’, and that Digby was to present a petition to the king from loyal Catholics.18

While Salisbury may have had little influence over Digby’s Court career, he was undoubtedly responsible for his return to Parliament. In the autumn of 1609 the earl approached the corporation at Hedon, where one seat had lain vacant since December 1607. The townsmen agreed to send up a blank indenture on the understanding that the Member chosen should ‘in every respect defray his own charges and no ways be burdensome to us’, a condition Digby was well placed to fulfil. For some unknown reason Digby’s return was rejected by the Commons on 26 Mar. 1610, but the defect was remedied by a new return on 7 April. Digby first appeared in the records of the session on 17 Apr., when he was appointed to a committee to scrutinize a bill against ‘untimely hawking’. On the following day he was named to the committee for the bill to naturalize Salisbury’s secretary Levinus Munck†. His only other recorded contribution to the Parliament was as one of a deputation which presented the Commons’ grievances to the king on 7 July.19

Digby was presumably not expected to play a significant role in Parliament in 1610, but his low profile may have owed something to his involvement in a dispute on his wife’s behalf. Lady Digby was being sued by Isabell Brounker, the mistress of her first husband Sir John Dyve, for payment of a debt of £3,000 under a bond plausibly claimed to be a forgery. However, Brounker may have had a genuine grievance, as she believed that her adversary, having secured administration of Dyve’s goods in 1607, had suppressed a will in which Dyve had made generous provision for his bastard son. Digby could not afford any diminution of his wife’s jointure income, estimated at £1,200 a year, and consequently a Star Chamber suit was brought against Brounker for forgery in January 1610. She had powerful allies, however, as her husband was a servant of Lord Bruce, the master of the Rolls, and the quarrel might have continued for years but for the fact that Digby’s servants managed to eject Brounker from her house, held under a lease from Dyve, in July 1610; Brounker probably dropped her suit in return for readmission to her home.20

Digby was appointed ambassador to Spain two weeks before Parliament reconvened in the autumn of 1610. As he did not leave for Madrid until April 1611, he probably attended the session, although he left no trace upon the poorly recorded debates. His selection for such an important post seems surprising, as his only prior experience of diplomacy had been to deputize for the master of ceremonies, Sir Lewis Lewknor*, at a meeting with the French ambassador in January 1610. His apparent sympathy for his Catholic relatives may have recommended him for the post, but his cause was probably promoted by the pro-Spanish Howard faction, to whom he was linked through Knollys. While abroad he corresponded with both the head of the Howard family, Henry, earl of Northampton, and the king’s favourite, Robert Carr.21 He was initially ordered to explore the possibility of a match between Prince Henry and the Infanta Anna, the eldest daughter of Philip III. Henry’s objections to a Catholic bride, and the existence of concurrent overtures for a match with Tuscan and Savoyard princesses, made this an unlikely prospect, but the offer conveniently served to disrupt Spanish efforts to conclude a marriage between the Infanta and Louis XIII of France.22 Digby was well aware of the potential consequences of a Franco-Spanish agreement, warning his Venetian counterpart that ‘if the Spanish could secure peace for ten years they would grow formidable for the world at large’, but the Spanish only offered the English a union with the much younger Infanta Maria, and the project foundered long before Henry’s death in November 1612.23

Digby apparently made a considerable impact at the Spanish Court: the Venetian ambassador described him as ‘a person of great prudence and ability who will live sumptuously, for in addition to the thousand crowns [£250] a month of salary which his king assigns him, he is very rich and can supply all that is required’.24 In fact, Digby’s personal income was still restricted to the £40 annuity he had been given by his father: his wealth was derived from his wife’s estate, and from the generous allowance of £6 a day he received as ambassador, which gave him a theoretical income of over £3,000 a year. In practice, his salary was only paid intermittently. Consequently he was forced to borrow £1,000 from the Spanish ambassador to England in 1613, which the latter only recouped ‘with some difficulty’ from the Exchequer; while in the following year Digby was delayed in England for several months while waiting for an advance.25 Digby may well have been owed considerable sums by the end of his embassy, as the £10,000 payable for his grant of the manor of Sherborne in 1616 was waived by the Crown.26

Digby returned to England in the spring of 1614, arriving soon after the opening of the Addled Parliament with intelligence about the identities of the Spanish pensioners at the Jacobean Court. His diplomatic post prevented him from seeking election to the Commons, and he returned to Spain in the autumn.27 In Madrid he raised the subject of a Spanish Match for Prince Charles, but the talks stalled over Spanish insistence that any marriage be preceded by a relaxation of the English recusancy laws. Digby returned to England in March 1616 to discuss the matter with James, where he found the power of the Howards diminished by the Overbury scandal and the rise of Villiers, the new favourite.28 According to the Spanish ambassador, he took the opportunity to make disparaging remarks about both the earl of Somerset (Carr, the disgraced favourite) and lord treasurer Suffolk, now head of the Howard family. However, he continued to benefit from the Howard connection: his appointment as vice-chamberlain of the Household in the following month was probably intended as a counterweight to the influence of lord chamberlain Pembroke, one of the Howards’ chief opponents. It must also have been the Howards who secured Somerset’s manor of Sherborne for Digby at this time, in the face of some interest from Villiers.29

Digby was sent back to Spain in 1617 with further terms for a Spanish Match, but Philip III was not prepared to strike a deal without substantial concessions on toleration, which James was not then prepared to concede; Digby thus returned to London empty-handed in May 1618. He received a barony as a reward for his efforts, and was subsequently elevated to the earldom of Bristol. However, he was sent back to Spain in the changed diplomatic circumstances of 1622 to conclude the negotiations for the Spanish Match. His authority was undermined when Prince Charles and Villiers (marquess and presently duke of Buckingham) arrived in Madrid in March 1623.30 Digby naturally resented Buckingham’s usurpation of his diplomatic role, and when he returned to England after the collapse of the negotiations in the following year, he was kept away from Court and threatened with prosecution.31 Dismissed from Court office after James’s death, in the following year he and Buckingham attacked each other in Parliament. The case against Bristol was continued in Star Chamber, but the suit was soon dropped and he was allowed to live at Sherborne, effectively under house arrest.32

Bristol only emerged from political obscurity in the autumn of 1640, when he was one of the delegates who negotiated the treaty of Ripon with the Covenanters, a service which probably explains his restoration to the Privy Council in February 1641.33 He and his son George, Lord Digby† were both active royalists, and consequently their estates were ordered to be sold by the Long Parliament.34 The pair went into exile in France, and despite rumours that he was secretly negotiating to compound for his estates in 1650, the earl was still living at St. Germain-en-Laye near Paris when he drew up his will a year later. He left his wife (who had remained in England) the contents of his house at Sherborne, and divided the remainder of his estate between his two sons; the will was not proved until after the Restoration.35 Both of Digby’s sons converted to Catholicism after his death; the elder was succeeded as 3rd earl by his son in 1676, but the title lapsed on the latter’s death in 1698, when the Sherborne estate went to the Warwickshire branch of the family.36

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. J. Nichols, Hist. and Antiqs. Leics. iv. 474; Vis. Warws. (Harl. Soc. xii), 17; C142/212/45.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; I. Temple Admiss.
  • 3. St. James Clerkenwell (Harl. Soc. reg. xiii), 34; J. Hutchins, Hist. and Antiqs. Dorset, iv. 248; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 478; Vis. Beds. (Harl. Soc. xix), 23; Nichols, iii. 474.
  • 4. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 139.
  • 5. C66/2167/6; 66/2282/6.
  • 6. Nichols, iv. 474.
  • 7. HMC Hatfield, xviii. 182; E179/70/121-2.
  • 8. APC, 1615-16, p. 469.
  • 9. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 61, 143, 258-9, 267.
  • 10. C231/4, ff. 42, 211, 259, 261; C231/5, p. 530.
  • 11. C181/2, f. 287; 181/3, f. 259.
  • 12. C212/22/20-23.
  • 13. Nichols, iv. 462-7, 473-4; VCH Rutland, ii. 222-3; E. Acheson, Gentry Community, 226-7; F. Heal and C. Holmes, Gentry in Eng. and Wales 1500-1700, p. 36; CPR, 1494-1509, p. 65; C142/120/3; 142/121/103; 142/212/45.
  • 14. Nichols, iii. 474; HMC Hatfield, ii. 90; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1566-79, pp. 482, 485; CSP For. 1575-7, p. 235; 1577-8, pp. 322, 331-2.
  • 15. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 348, 360, 626; APC, 1586-7, pp. 235, 241-2; 1590, p. 333; Vis. Rutland (Harl. Soc. iii), 20.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 242, 260, 266; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 484.
  • 17. PROB 11/70, f. 246; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 431; N. Cuddy, ‘Revival of the Entourage’ in D. Starkey et al. Eng. Ct. 184, 198-9; C142/386/114; CP sub Lady Offaly.
  • 18. C66/1748; Add. 34765, f. 17v; C2/Chas.I/D50/34; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 182.
  • 19. SP14/49/25; C219/35/2/146; CJ, i. 414b, 418b-19a, 447a; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 253-4.
  • 20. STAC 8/13/4; STAC 8/69/20; PROB 6/7, f. 97v; Ct. of Jas. I ed. G. Goodman, ii. 134-5.
  • 21. Ct. of Jas. I, ii. 134-5; CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 22, 140, 152; CSP Ven. 1607-10, p. 416.
  • 22. R. Strong, Henry Prince of Wales. 80-85; CSP Ven. 1610-13, p. 197.
  • 23. CSP Ven. 1610-13, pp. 211-13, 229, 231, 255-6; Narrative of Spanish Marriage Treaty ed. S.R. Gardiner (Cam. Soc. ci), 105-6.
  • 24. CSP Ven. 1610-13, p. 173.
  • 25. Ct. of Jas. I, ii. 134-5; Bell, 258; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 474, 551-2.
  • 26. C66/2090/9; 66/2093/2; 66/2115/2.
  • 27. Chamberlain Letters, i. 526, 557.
  • 28. Spanish Marriage, 116-124; R. Lockyer, Buckingham, 21-4.
  • 29. Spanish Marriage, 126; Cuddy, ‘Revival of Entourage’ in Starkey et al. Eng. Ct. 216-17; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 405.
  • 30. Spanish Marriage, 125-46; Lockyer, 140-65.
  • 31. Ct. of Jas. I, i. 375-6, 403; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, pp. 666-9; Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 21.
  • 32. C. Russell, PEP, 302-22, 327; Ct. of Jas. I, i. 397-409; APC, 1626, pp. 131-2, 260, 331, 349; 1627, pp. 70-1.
  • 33. C. Russell, Fall of British Monarchies, 157-63, 263.
  • 34. CSP Thurloe, i. 80-1; CCC 1304-5, 2168-9; A. and O. ii. 520-45.
  • 35. Nicholas Pprs. ed. G.F. Warner (Cam. Soc. n.s. xl), 204-5; PROB 11/299, ff. 90-1.
  • 36. Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion ed. W.D. Macray, vi. 202; Nichols, iii. 474.