Digges was a younger son of Sir Dudley Digges and Mary Kempe Digges. Born probably at his father’s Chilham Castle, in Kent County, England, he was baptized in Chilham Parish on March 29, 1621. His father was a prosperous and well-connected merchant, an owner of shares in the Virginia Company of London, a member of the House of Commons in the 1610s and 1620s, and master of the rolls to Charles I during the 1630s. Digges was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the law courts, on May 19, 1637, and he may have gained knowledge of the colonial trade there or in a London mercantile house during the 1640s. Sometime during that decade he married Elizabeth Page, whose brother John Page (d. 1692) became a member of the governor’s Council. Of their seven daughters and six sons, Dudley Digges (d. 1711) also sat on the governor’s Council.
Digges’s religious affiliation and political opinions during the English Civil Wars are not known, but his career in England and in Virginia indicates that he retained the confidence both of influential Puritans and of royalists. Sometime before or early in 1650 he moved to Virginia. He purchased 1,200 acres of land in York County on December 11, 1650, and patented more than 3,000 acres of land in Gloucester County in 1653. Digges planted a particularly fine variety of sweet-scented tobacco that commanded a high price in the London markets and became so well known that for generations after his death it was referred to as ED tobacco.
In addition to planting tobacco and probably facilitating business contacts between other planters and London merchants, Digges produced silk in quantity. He distributed silkworm seed to other planters and encouraged them to begin production on their plantations. He imported two skilled Armenian silk workers from the Ottoman Empire and by 1654 was regarded as the premier silk producer in Virginia. To a collection entitled The Reformed Virginian Silk-Worm (1655) his London friend John Ferrar contributed a report from Digges and a poem lauding his achievements.
On November 22, 1654, the governor and Council recommended to the House of Burgesses that Digges be elected to the Council. The House unanimously consented, “he haveing given a signal testimony of his fidelity to this collony and Common-Wealth of England.” On March 31, 1655, the assembly elected Digges governor of Virginia. In that office he dealt with a border controversy that resulted from a longstanding claim of William Claiborne, a member of the Council, to ownership of Kent Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, which Maryland claimed under its charter. Digges was also concerned about political turbulence in Maryland, where Puritans had wrested control from the proprietary governor. Low tobacco prices threatened the prosperity of both colonies. Assembly records and Digges’s correspondence with Oliver Cromwell and other officials in London indicate he and the Council in Virginia could not resolve the first and second problems and were unable alone to do much about the third.
The General Assembly that convened on December 1, 1656, commissioned Digges to represent the colony’s interests in those matters in London, to which he was planning to return on personal or family business. He relinquished the governor’s office and left Virginia sometime after the assembly concluded its work about December 15. In London during the winter of 1657–1658, Digges helped negotiate a settlement of the political strife in Maryland. In December 1660, a few months after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II appointed Digges to the influential new Council of Foreign Plantations, forerunner of the Board of Trade. Digges presented a quantity of Virginia silk, probably from his own plantation, to the king early in 1661, and two years later he and Governor Sir William Berkeley presented the king with silk that Berkeley had produced. In August 1662 the two men requested that the king suppress tobacco cultivation in England because it had aggravated a glut on the market and lowered the prices that Virginia planters received. Digges and other men representing the colony’s planters testified before the Privy Council in the autumn of 1664 about depressed tobacco prices, and he recommended that the king take steps to reduce tobacco production in the colonies and encourage production of silk, flax, naval stores, and potash.
Digges returned to Virginia during the second half of 1669, intending to settle his business affairs there and then retire to England. In the spring of the following year Berkeley appointed him auditor of the royal revenue in the colony, and on April 19, 1670, Digges again became a member of the governor’s Council. He attended meetings often during the next five years and took responsibility for settling complex disputes involving property and other matters. Digges also resumed tobacco and silk production. In 1671 the assembly awarded him £100 as “the author and promoter of a hopeful advantagious designe of makeing silk” and for other “important Services” he had rendered. In October of that year the king appointed Digges surveyor of tobacco exports at a salary of £250 per annum. Digges relinquished that position early in 1674, when he became collector of customs in Virginia. In lieu of a salary, he kept half the money he collected and paid one-third of that to an assistant who performed most of the work.
Edward Digges died on March 15, 1675, probably at his York County residence, later known as Bellfield, where he was buried.