The Earl of Bristol is a peerage title first created for the Digby family in 1622 and subsequently to the Herveys in 1714. The title is still held by the Herveys to this day although it has now been superseded by the title Marquess of Bristol.

Digby

John Digby was the son of a George Digby of Coleshill in Warwickshire and come to the attention of James I when delivering a message confirming the safety of his daughter Elizabeth during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. As a result of such happy chance John was knighted by James in 1607 and employed on various diplomatic missions concerning the negotiations of a suitable marriage for his sons. In particular he was despatched to Spain in 1611 to negotiate a betrothal with the Spanish infanta, a project that he returned to time and again over the next few years.

As a reward for these efforts he was raised to the peerage as Baron Digby in 1618 and then created Earl of Bristol on the 15th September 1622. But shortly after his elevation to an earldom, his delicate negotiations with the Spanish were upset by the behaviour of Prince Charles and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham on their arrival at Madrid in 1623. Charles and Buckingham however blamed John for the breakdown in negotiations, who found himself excluded from court on his return to England in 1624.

When Charles became king in 1625 John Digby was imprisoned in the Tower of London and although soon released the king deliberately withheld from him his writ of summons to attend the House of Lords. This led to the famous Earl of Bristol's Case which eventually established the right of all peers to receive a writ of summons to the House. Even then his troubles weren't entirely over as in 1634 he found himself in the Fleet prison after punching a courtier by the name of James Crofts. But despite his treatment at the hands of the king he supported Charles in his dispute with Parliament and was thus restored to favour. He supported the Royalist cause during the English Civil War and fought at the Battle of Edgehill. John was later named by Parliament as one of those excepted from pardon and so went into exile at Caen in 1644 and remained in France until his death on the 16th January 1653.

His eldest son George won election to the House of Commons in 1640 was initially amongst the leading critics of the king (very likely because of his father's treatment), but later made an impassioned speech arguing against the attainder of the Earl of Stafford. This made him extrememly unpopular in the lower House and he narrowly escaped being physically assaulted on at least one occasion. It was partly in order to protect him from such attacks that Charles called him up to the House of Lords in his father's barony of Digby.

As the Baron Digby George now achieved a position of influence with the king and has been described as "the evil genius of Charles". He appears to have been on particularly good terms with queen Henrietta Maria of France and promoted her scheme for the impeachment of the five members, but it is belived that he was also sufficiently indiscrete to let the cat out of the bag and allowed the five members time to escape. His involvement in this scheme naturally annoyed the House of Commons, and George perhaps wisely fled to Holland in advance of his impeachment on the 26th February 1642.

George soon returned to England fought at the battle of Edgehill, was made lieutenant general of the royal forces north of the Trent but met defeat at the battle of Sherburn in 1645, fled to Ireland where he hoped to do wonders for the king's cause but failed, before finally escaping to France. Whilst in France he served as a lieutenant-general in the French army and at one time aspired to supplant Cardinal Mazarin but was expelled from France and joined king Charles II at Bruges.

In January 1653 he succeeded his father as the 2nd Earl and later returned to England at the Restoration, but since he had become a Roman Catholic during his period of exile he was excluded from office. He soon developed a violent dislike of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and sought to have him impeached. His petition was rejected and George only avoided arrest by going into hiding for two years. However he was back in the House of Lords in 1667 by which time the king had also developed an equal dislike of the Earl of Clarendon. Thereafter he continued his somewhat erratic and inconsistent career until his death on the l0th of March 1677.

Described by Horace Walpole as "a singular person whose life was one contradiction", the 2nd Earl was a man of considerable and diverse abilities who singularly failed to put any of them to any good purpose. His old adversary the Earl of Clarendon was not far off the truth when he remarked that George was "none the wiser for any experience or misfortune that befell him". He was succeeded as 3rd Earl by his son John Digby, who in contrast to his predecessors lived an unremarkable life. But despite being twice married he died without surviving issue on the 18th September 1698 rendering his titles extinct.

Hervey

The Hervey family first appear in Bedfordshire during the thirteenth century but afterwards seem to have established themselves in Suffolk where they are known to have held the estate of Ickworth since the fifteenth century. They eventually obtained some degree of prominence in the county of Suffolk and by the seventeenth century we find a John Hervey as a member of parliament for Hythe and holding a position in the household of Catherine of Braganza.

It was this John's nephew and namesake who became the member of parliament for Bury St Edmunds in 1694 and such was his enthusiasm for the Protestant monarchy and the Hanoverian succession that he found himself regularly rewarded for his loyalty, being created the Baron Hervey of Ickworth in 1703 and Earl of Bristol on the 19th October 1714. He is however, rather overshadowed by his son, known as John Hervey, Baron Hervey of Ickworth (He was called to the House of Lords by a writ of acceleration in 1733.) the author of the "detailed and brutally frank" Memoirs of the Court of George II. John, however, predeceased his father on the 5th August 1743, so that when the 1st Earl died on the 20th January 1751 the Bristol title passed to a grandson, George William Hervey.

The 2nd Earl served in the army and as a diplomat and was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 but died unmarried in March 1775 and the title passed to his brother Augustus John Hervey. The 3rd Earl had enjoyed a successful career in the Royal Navy serving with distinction against the French and in the West Indies, becoming a vice-admiral of the blue. His active life at sea had ceased with the Peace of Paris in 1763 succeeded his brother in the peerage in 1775

Augustus is most famous for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Chudleigh and the consequent scandal that erupted when his wife later claimed to have married the Duke of Kingston. Such complex marital arrangements left Augustus no time to organise any legitimate issue and so on his death in London on the 23rd December 1779, the title passed to his younger brother Frederick Augustus Hervey.

In contrast to his older brothers Frederick had sought a career in the church and by 1767 had risen to the status of the Bishop of Cloyne, becoming the Bishop of Derry in the following year. (It helped that his brother was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland at the time, even though he never set foot on the island.) Thus known as the 'Earl Bishop' or sometimes as the 'Bishop of Bristol', Frederick was noted for ability to spend money. He was quite capable of spending it on himself (he had expensive tastes) but he also lavished money on building roads and the development of agriculture on his extensive Irish estates and so won the approval of his tenants. He dabbled in the Irish volunteer movement in 1782 and narrowly escaped arrest, but afterwards gave up on politics and took to touring Europe with a large entourage in tow. Such was the impact of the arrival of the Earl Bishop and his party on the rudimentary tourist industry of the late eighteenth century that special provisions were often required. He is thus remembered by the proliferation of Hotels Bristol across the continent. He eventually died at Albano in Italy on the 8th July 1803, and was buried at the church in Ickworth.

His elder son, Augustus John Hervey having already predeceased him in 1796 he was succeeded in the title by his younger son Frederick William Hervey who was created Marquess of Bristol and Earl Jermyn in 1806. His descendants continue to hold these titles to the present day.


THE EARLS OF BRISTOL

DIGBY

HERVEY

The 5th Earl became the Marquess of Bristol in 1806

SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for BRISTOL, EARLS AND MARQUESSES OF
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
  • Stirnet Genealogy at http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/genfam.htm
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm

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