The sitter was the son of Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford and his wife Catharine, née Brydges. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. He married, in 1637, Anne Carr, daughter of Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset and they had 6 surviving children. He was M.P. for Tavistock from 1640 to 1641. On the sudden death of his father from smallpox in 1641 he succeeded to the title of 3rd Baron Russell of Thornhaugh and to the title of 5th Earl of Bedford. In 1642 he held the offices of Lord-Lieutenant of Devon, Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset and General of the Horse in the Parliamentary Service. Initially Bedford followed his father's political lead and sided with the Parliamentarians, fighting alongside them in the Civil War battle of Edgehill in 1642. By the summer of 1643 he had aligned himself with the parliamentary 'Peace Party' which advocated a settlement with Charles I and he fought for the King (who pardoned Bedford for his previous offence) in the Siege of Gloucester and the battles of Newbury. Bedford was treated with suspicion by some of the Royalists and was given only minor responsibilities. Disillusioned, he rejoined the Parliamentary side at the end of 1643 but faced a similar suspicion which resulted in him being refused entry to the House of Lords. After the Restoration he returned to the House of Lords and he even bore the sceptre at the coronation of King Charles II. The King made him Governor of Plymouth and invested him as Knight of the Garter in 1672. In 1683 Bedford's son, William, Lord Russell was implicated in the Rye House Plot and was executed. At this point Bedford withdrew from politics until the Glorious Revolution when he was made a member of the Privy Council of William and Mary. He was created Duke of Bedford and Marquess of Tavistock in 1694 and Baron Howland of Streatham in 1695.
The present miniature is taken from a full-length double-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck of 1637 depicting William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford with George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol, now in the Spencer Collection at Althorp. Another version, by Henry Bone, dated May 1820, is in the Bedford Collection at Woburn Abbey (see R. Walker, 'Henry Bone's Pencil Drawings', The Walpole Society, LXI, 1999, p. 314), and a version by Henry Pierce Bone was sold Sotheby's, London, 11 July 1991, lot 281.