George, Lord Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol, 1612-77
Cultured, charming and brilliant courtier with a fatal tendency to recklessness and a reputation as King Charles I's “evil genius”
George Digby was born in Madrid, the eldest son of John Digby, first Earl of Bristol (1580-1653), who was the English ambassador to Spain during the reign of James I. At the age of 12, George presented a petition at the bar of the House of Commons on behalf of his father who had fallen from favour and been imprisoned in the Tower of London by the Duke of Buckingham. George's eloquence and graceful bearing made a favourable impression on the assembled Members of Parliament, and his father was released soon after.
In 1626, Digby entered Magdelen College, Oxford. He gained a reputation as a diligent scholar and was a member of the cultivated circle that gathered at his father's country seat at Sherborne in Dorset. During the 1630s, however, Digby became alienated from the government. This was partly a consequence of his father's disgrace at the hands of Buckingham, and was made worse when on a visit to London in 1634, Digby was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet Prison after defeating William Crofts, a Court favourite, in a duel. Around 1635, he married Lady Anne Russell (d.1697), whose father, the Earl of Bedford, was a leading opponent of King Charles' policies.
Digby was elected MP for Dorset in both the Short and Long Parliaments (1640) and was initially in opposition to King Charles. In November 1640, he suggested that the House of Commons should draw up a remonstrance against the ministers responsible for the King's unpopular policies, an idea adopted by John Pym which resulted in the Grand Remonstrance of 1641. Digby was appointed to the committee for the impeachment of the Earl of Strafford and was a leading advocate of the Triennial Act of February 1641. However, Digby strongly objected to the bill of attainder by which Strafford was condemned to death and delivered an eloquent speech in protest at its injustice, probably at the instigation of his father and father-in-law. Digby's defence of Strafford provoked hostility in Parliament and his speech was publicly burnt by the hangman by order of the House of Commons.
In June 1641, King Charles rescued Digby from the fury of the Commons by elevating him to the House of Lords as Baron Digby of Sherborne. Thereafter, he became one of the King's most fervent supporters. He advised the appointment of the notorious Sir Thomas Lunsford to the post of lieutenant of the Tower of London in December 1641 and encouraged the King in his rash attempt to arrest the Five Members in January 1642. He further advised the King to seize the Five Members by force after they had withdrawn from Westminster. Although the King rejected this advice, it added to Digby's extreme unpopularity amongst Parliamentarians, which he compounded by attempting with Lunsford to seize the arsenal at Kingston-upon-Thames in the King's name. The attempt was foiled by the local militia. Summoned to appear before the House of Lords to answer for his conduct, Digby fled to the Netherlands.
Digby returned to England and joined the King at York during the summer of 1642. He raised a regiment of horse and served as its colonel, fighting with distinction at the battle of Edgehill in October 1642. In December, he rode with Lord Wilmot in a daring raid to capture the town of Marlborough. However, Digby quarrelled with the King's nephew Prince Rupert at the siege of Lichfield in April 1643, after which he resigned his commission and returned to Court. When Viscount Falkland was killed at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643, Digby replaced him as Secretary of State. This was a controversial appointment in view of Digby's reputation and his uncompromising Royalism. He was also appointed to the Privy Council and became one of the King's most influential civilian advisers throughout the rest of the First Civil War.
Despite his courtly charm and brilliance, Digby was regarded by many as the King's "evil genius". His advice was often unrealistic and wildly over-optimistic; his continual quarrels and intrigues were divisive and detrimental to the Royalist war effort. He supported the Queen's policy of seeking foreign alliances and help from Ireland, and engaged in a series of negotiations with France and Spain that caused political damage to the King's cause with no practical outcome. In 1645, he succeeded in manoeuvring his rivals on the Privy Council, Sir Edward Hyde and Lord Culpeper, away from the King's immediate circle and having them transferred to the Prince of Wales' Council based in Bristol, which left him as the King's principal civilian adviser.
Digby's enmity towards Prince Rupert ultimately proved fatal to the Royalist cause. Against Rupert's advice, he urged the King to engage the New Model Army in battle at Naseby in June 1645, which resulted in the destruction of the main Royalist field army. While Rupert recognised the hopelessness of the King's position after Naseby and urged a treaty with Parliament, Digby continued to insist that the war could still be won. He convinced King Charles that Rupert had become untrustworthy and succeeded in having the Prince and his supporters removed from their commands in September 1645.
Anxious to avoid an encounter with the furious Prince, Digby persuaded King Charles to appoint him lieutenant-general of Royalist forces in the north. Accompanied by Sir Marmaduke Langdale, he rode with the remnants of the Northern Horse in October 1645 on a futile expedition to join forces with Montrose in Scotland. They were defeated near Carlisle, after which Digby escaped to the Isle of Man. He then made his way to Ireland, where he worked with the Marquis of Ormond in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a Royalist alliance with the Irish Confederates. With all hope of launching a counter-attack from Ireland dashed, Digby joined the Royalist exiles at the court of Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris. When Prince Rupert arrived in October 1647 he challenged Digby; the Queen had to intervene to prevent them fighting a duel. Lord Wilmot also challenged Digby; a duel was fought in which Wilmot was wounded.
In November 1648, Digby's name was included on Parliament's list of seven Royalists to be excluded from pardon for their roles in the wars.
Having lost the confidence of the Queen, Digby was left behind in Paris when the Prince of Wales and his advisers left France in the hope of invading England during the Second Civil War. Digby volunteered for service in the French royal army. By 1651, he had attained the rank of lieutenant-general and was commander of French forces in Normandy. He succeeded to his father's title as second Earl of Bristol in January 1653. Bristol remained in the French service until the summer of 1656 when he was ordered to leave France after involving himself in an unsuccessful intrigue against Cardinal Mazarin. He joined Charles II's court at Bruges in the Spanish Netherlands where his fluency in Spanish and knowledge of the subtleties of diplomacy proved useful to Charles in his negotiations with Spain and in his efforts to promote the Royalist interest in Spain's war against the Anglo-French alliance.
In January 1657, Bristol was re-appointed to his old office of Secretary of State. He remained an important figure at the court-in-exile until January 1659 when it was discovered that he had secretly converted to Roman Catholicism. This was a serious embarrassment to Charles, who was trying to distance himself from all Catholic associations in order to win favour with English Protestants. Bristol's conversion was apparently genuine, but he was dismissed from office and lost all political influence as a consequence.
Bristol returned to England at the Restoration in 1660. He regained his lands and titles, but was granted no important office at court because of his Catholicism. Bristol continued his political rivalry with Edward Hyde, now Earl of Clarendon, and had to go into hiding for four years after falsely accusing him of treason in 1663. He had the satisfaction of assisting in Clarendon's impeachment in 1667, but was never restored to royal favour himself. He died in March 1677. His wife had him buried at the Russell family vault at Chenies in Buckinghamshire.
John Barratt, Cavaliers, the Royalist Army at War 1642-46 (Stroud 2000)
Ronald Hutton, George Digby, second earl of Bristol, Oxford DNB, 2004
C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)