Attributed to Adriaen Hanneman (c.1601–71)
Bristol’s first public appearance came at the age of 12, when he eloquently presented a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of his father...
This recently discovered portrait shows George Digby, second earl of Bristol, one of the most notorious royal advisers during the Stuart period. Noted for his bold and occasionally misjudged decision making, Bristol was an enthusiastic fighter, challenging several prominent courtiers to duels (including Prince Rupert), and his life can be traced through a series of extreme highs and lows. The likeness is confirmed by other contemporary portraits of Bristol, such as those by Van Dyck [for example, Dulwich Picture Gallery] and the sitter’s Garter sash. The portrait is attributable to Adriaen Hanneman, whose distinctively smooth flesh tones and Van Dyckian style were much sought after by Royalists in exile during the Cromwellian Interregnum. This portrait would most likely have been painted in the mid-1650s – Bristol was awarded the Garter in 1653 – and shows the Earl in the martial pose befitting his rank as a lieutenant-general in the French army.
Bristol was born in Madrid, as the son of James I’s ambassador to Spain, and lived there until he was 11, when his father was recalled in disgrace. Bristol’s first public appearance came at the age of 12, when he eloquently presented a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of his father. Soon, Bristol was a member of the Commons himself, where he became an avid supporter of Charles I, publishing a much criticised speech in 1641 to rally support for the King (which was in turn publicly burned). To save him from being harassed by an enraged Commons, Charles elevated Bristol to Baron Digby of Sherborne.
Nevertheless, Bristol’s pugnacious spirit saw him emerge as an early fighter for the Royalist cause. In 1642 he was involved in a secret meeting with a group of disbanded troops, provoking fear amongst the Commons of a military uprising. Instead of responding obediently to Parliament’s request of an explanation, he set sail for the Netherlands, rejoining the King in 1642 to command a cavalry charge in Edghill on October 23rd. Around this time he also entered an ill-fated and short-lived union with Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew. Soon, they quarreled, as Bristol did with most of Charles’ advisers, but in this case the disagreement had disastrous consequences. Bristol wanted the Royalist army to enter battle at Naseby on 14th June 1645, convincing Charles that Rupert’s disagreement with the proposal indicated disloyalty. Rupert was dismissed – but the Royalist army was defeated. After yet another defeat at Sherburn, Bristol fled to Ireland, and then to France.
After failing to persuade the Prince of Wales to launch a Royalist counter-attack from Ireland, Bristol, who had now fallen entirely from favour, joined the French army as a volunteer. His courage quickly earned him high rank and in January 1653, the month he also succeeded his father as Earl of Bristol, he was awarded the Garter. Following the Restoration, Bristol’s lands and titles were restored and he played a vital role in Charles II’s marriage negotiations. After another fall from grace, Charles II warranted his arrest and he went into hiding. He emerged a few years later and died on 20th March 1677 and was buried a Chenies, Buckinghamshire.