Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davies, John (1569-1626)
DAVIES, Sir JOHN (1569–1626), attorney-general for Ireland and poet, third son of John Davies of Chisgrove in the parish of Tisbury, Wiltshire, by his wife Mary, daughter of John Bennett of Pitt House, Wiltshire, was baptised at Tisbury 16 April 1569. He is described by Wood as the son of a ‘wealthy tanner;’ but in the entry which records his admission to the Middle Temple Society it is stated that his father was of New Inn, gentleman. From ‘Notes of the Life of Sir John Dauys, May 2nd 1674,’ preserved in vol. lxii. of the Carte Papers (Bodleian Library), it appears that ‘his father died when hee was very young, and left him with his 2 brothers to his mother to bee educated. She therefore brought them vpp to learning.’ In the same notes it is stated that he was educated first at Winchester and afterwards at New College, Oxford; but from the ‘University Register’ he is shown to have matriculated at Queen's College 15 Oct. 1585 (Oxf. Univ. Reg. ii. pt. ii. p. 147). On 3 Feb. 1587–8 he was admitted a member of the Middle Temple; and in 1590 he took his degree of bachelor of arts. A tract entitled ‘Sir Martin Marpeople, his Coller of Esses Workmanly wrought by Maister Simon Soothsayer, Goldsmith of London, and offered to sale upon great necessity by John Davies,’ 1590, 4to, preserved among the Martin Mar-Prelate tracts at Lambeth, was probably not written by the poet; and the same remark applies to the unique tract (preserved in the Bodleian Library), ‘O Vtinam,’ 1591, 4to. As early as June 1594 ‘Orchestra, or a Poeme of Dancing,’ was entered in the Stationers' Registers, but the first extant edition (12mo) is dated 1596. From the dedicatory sonnet to Richard Martin we learn that this graceful and brilliant poem was written in the space of fifteen days. When ‘Orchestra’ was republished in the collective edition of Davies's poems, 1622, a dedicatory sonnet to Prince Charles was substituted for the sonnet to Martin. On the title-page of the 1622 ed. are added after the title the words ‘not finished.’ Sir John Harington has an epigram ‘Of Master John Dauies's Booke of Dancing. To Himselfe’ (book ii. epigram 67). Marston alludes to the poem in the eleventh satire of his ‘Scourge of Villainy,’ 1598. At Bridgewater House is preserved a copy of the first edition of ‘Orchestra,’ with a manuscript dedicatory sonnet to Lord Ellesmere. Davies's notorious epigrams, which were frequently published (in company with Marlowe's translations of Ovid's ‘Epistles’) in undated collections, bearing the imprint ‘Middlebourgh’ (though doubtless published in London), were probably written about the same date as ‘Orchestra.’ An early transcript of them is preserved among the Harleian MSS., No. 1836. In the Farmer MS. (Chetham Library) are some ‘Gullinge Sonnets,’ by ‘Mr. Dauyes,’ addressed ‘To his good freinde Sr Anth. Cooke,’ which are evidently from the same hand as the epigrams.
In July 1595 Davies was called to the bar; and in February 1597–8, for a grave breach of discipline, he was disbarred. The facts relating to his expulsion and restoration have been given in great detail by Lord Stowell in a paper printed in vol. xxi. of ‘Archæologia.’ Richard Martin of the Middle Temple, a noted wit, to whom ‘Orchestra’ had been dedicated in 1596, appears to have provoked Davies by his raillery. While Martin was dining at the barristers' table Davies entered the hall, attended by two persons armed with swords. Pulling a cudgel from under his gown, he broke it over Martin's head. He then took boat at the Temple Steps. On his expulsion from the Middle Temple he returned to Oxford ‘in the condition of a sojourner’ (Wood); and during his retirement composed, in quatrains, his terse and subtle poem on the immortality of the soul, ‘Nosce Teipsum,’ which was published in 1599, 4to, with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth. A second edition followed in 1602. Nahum Tate, who edited the poem in 1697, dates the dedication ‘11 July 1592;’ but in the early editions the dedicatory verses are undated. At Holkham Hall is preserved a manuscript copy of ‘Nosce Teipsum’ with dedicatory verses, ‘To my honorable patron and frend Ed. Cooke, Esq., her Mties Attorney-Generall’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. 2, 375 a). Another manuscript copy has a dedication to the Earl of Northumberland, who befriended Davies after his expulsion from the Middle Temple. In the Carte notes it is stated that the poem was published, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, at the instance of Lord Mountjoy, and that ‘ye first essay of his pen was so well relisht yt ye queen encouraged him in his studdys, promising him preferment, and had him sworn her servant in ordinary.’
In Trinity term 1601 Davies petitioned to be restored to the Middle Temple, and in the following November, after making open apology to Martin, was readmitted to the society. In the same year (1601) he was returned to parliament for Corfe Castle, and he was one of the members of a parliamentary ‘grand committee’ appointed to thank the queen for withdrawing certain obnoxious patents. When Sir Robert Cecil entertained the queen in 1602 at his new house in the Strand, Davies composed for the occasion ‘A Contention betwixt a Wife, a Widdow, and a Maide.’ This ‘Contention’ and ‘A Lottery. Presented before the late Queene's Maiesty at the Lord Chancelor's House, 1601,’ are printed in Davison's ‘Poetical Rapsody,’ 2nd ed. 1608. In the same collection appeared a group of twelve dainty little poems, ‘Yet other twelve Wonders of the World: never before published,’ which in 1611 were set to music by John Maynard. On the death of Queen Elizabeth in March 1603, Davies accompanied Lord Hunsdon in his hasty journey to the Scottish court. James, on hearing that Davies was the author of ‘Nosce Teipsum,’ ‘embraced him and conceived a considerable liking for him’ (WOOD). While Davies was in Scotland his influence was solicited by Francis Bacon, who occasionally corresponded with him in later years. On 18 Sept. 1603 the king wrote to Lord Mountjoy, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, to cause a grant of the office of solicitor-general for Ireland to be passed under the great seal to Davies (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–6, p. 88), and in the following November Davies arrived in Dublin to assume the office. He had been recommended by Lord Mountjoy. A few days after his arrival he sent to Cecil a graphic account of the state of Ireland. Pestilence and famine were raging, and ‘the face of things appeared very miserable.’ But his first gloomy impressions were dissipated when he observed that the law courts were commanding respect. ‘I conceave,’ he writes, ‘a very good hope that after a parliament wherein many mischiefs may be removed and prevented, and after the people ar acquainted with the forms of justice … this kingdom will grow humane and civile …’ On 20 Feb. 1603–4 he sent to Cecil from Castle Reban (‘a remote and solitary place’) another long letter, in which he complained of the slothfulness and ignorance of the protestant clergymen, whom he described as ‘meer idols and cyphers, and such as cannot read their neck-verse if they should stand in need of the benefit of their clergy.’ He found churches ruined and preaching neglected, and he prays that commissioners may be sent from England to inquire into these abuses. In the same letter he complains of the facility with which the king's pardon could be obtained in cases of robbery and murder, points out the desirability of holding quarter sessions, and condemns the base coinage. His third letter to Cecil is dated from Dublin, 7 March 1603–4. On 19 April 1604 he announced to Cecil that he had been on circuit over the greatest part of Leinster. Sessions had been held in seven shires, and no difficulty had been found in securing competent jurors. In April 1605 Davies proceeded to England with Sir Richard Cooke, chief baron, to report on the state of Ireland, taking with him a letter to the lords of the council, in which his ‘industrious pains’ and ‘toilsome travels through most part of the kingdom’ were highly commended by Sir Arthur Chichester, the lord deputy. He returned in July 1605. The lords of the council showed their appreciation of his services by urging Chichester to pay the arrears of his allowance. One object towards which Davies diligently directed his efforts was the banishment of Roman catholic priests from Ireland and the establishment of the protestant religion. During his short visit to England he seems to have thoroughly impressed his views on the English authorities, for on his return to Ireland strict measures were taken to expel the priests and enforce the attendance of people at church. On 23 Nov. 1605 he delivered a powerful speech in the court of castle chamber when the recusants were summoned to answer their contempts against the king's proclamations. He tells Cecil soon after that if the one corporation of Dublin were reformed the example would be quickly followed by the rest of the community. Believing that ‘the multitude was ever made conformable by edicts and proclamations,’ he beseeches Cecil not to despair of reducing the recusants to obedience. Another of Davies's letters to Cecil, dated 4 May 1606, gives a very valuable account of the state of Munster, where he had been holding the assizes. On the elevation of Sir Charles Calthorpe to the bench Davies succeeded to the post of attorney-general for Ireland, 29 May 1606, and he was afterwards called to the degree of serjeant-at-law. In the summer vacation of that year he made a journey through Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Cavan, and recorded his ‘observations’ in a long letter to Cecil. Grosart (Davies's Works in the Fuller Worthies Library, iii. 120) dates the letter 1604–5, and George Chalmers (Davies's Historical Tracts, 1786) gives the date 1607. But it is plain that the journey was made in the summer of 1606 by a reference to this journey in a letter of the next 12 Nov. In the summer of 1607 he went on circuit through the counties of Meath, Westmeath, Longford, King's County, and Queen's County, and reported to Cecil that it was almost a miracle to see the quiet and conformity which everywhere prevailed. A few weeks afterwards (September 1607) he sent Cecil a full relation of the flight of Tyrone and Tyrconnell. In January 1607–8 he went to Ulster to indict the fugitive earls. He sent privately to Cecil a copy of the indictment, and announced that the proceedings for outlawing the earls would be completed at the beginning of Trinity term. In July the lord deputy, with Davies and other commissioners, set out from Dublin to Ulster to view the escheated lands. A letter from Davies to Cecil, dated 5 Aug. 1608, gives a picturesque account of the journey, describing how the ‘wild inhabitants’ of the remoter districts ‘wondered as much to see the king's deputy as the ghosts in Virgil wondered to see Æneas alive in hell.’ A second commission for the plantation of Ulster was appointed in 1609, and a third in 1610. Davies, who showed great zeal in the work, was despatched in October 1608 to England with Sir James Ley, lord chief justice, in order to acquaint the lords of the council with the details of the proposed settlement. For his services in the matter of the plantation the king conferred on him (by patent dated 29 May 1609) the dignity of a serjeant, and directed that he should receive a grant of lands to the value of 40l. per annum. About March 1608–9 he married Eleanor Touchet, daughter of George, baron Audley. He returned to Ireland in June 1609, but in February 1609–10 was again in London on business connected with the commission. During his stay in London he addressed a letter to Cecil expressing a hope that he may be recalled as soon as the work of the commissioners is ended, for Irish affairs (he writes) are in so improved a condition that any English lawyer would be competent to take his place. In July and August 1610 the commissioners set themselves to carry out the scheme of plantation in Cavan. The dispossessed natives instructed counsel to impugn the legality of the commissioners' action, and Davies vindicated the justice of the proceedings in an oration wherewith the natives ‘seemed not unsatisfied in reason, though in passion they remained ill-contented, being grieved to leave their possessions to strangers, which their septs had so long after the Irish fashion enjoyed.’ In a letter to Cecil dated 29 July 1611 Davies again begged to be recalled. He had now more leisure at his disposal, and found time to write his learned and elaborate treatise, ‘A Discoverie of the Trve Cavses why Ireland was neuer entirely Subdued, nor brought vnder Obedience of the Crowne of England, vntill the Beginning of his Maiesties happie Raigne,’ which was published at London in 1612, with a dedication to the king, and republished in 1613. Early in 1612 he came to England on Irish business, and on 20 April, finding that the arrangements for the holding of the Irish parliament (which was to meet in November) would not be completed before midsummer, he begged Cecil to procure him permission to practise in the meanwhile in London. He was detained in London until the end of September. The day finally appointed for the opening of the Irish parliament was 18 May 1613, on which day the members of the lower house assembled to elect a speaker. Sir Thomas Ridgeway proposed Davies, who had been returned for Fermanagh, as speaker, intimating that his appointment had been recommended by the king. Thereupon Sir James Gough, as champion of the catholic party, proposed Sir John Everard, a noted lawyer and a recusant. During the scene of disorder that ensued the catholic members contrived to instal Everard in the chair. As Everard refused to vacate the chair, Sir Oliver St. John and Ridgeway ‘took Sir John Davys by the arms, lifted him from the ground, and placed him in the chair, in Sir John Everard's lap, requiring him still to come forth of the chair.’ Eventually Everard was ejected from the chair, and withdrew from the outer chamber, in company with his ninety-eight supporters. When he had been formally presented to the lord deputy (21 May) and his election had been approved, Davies delivered a memorable speech, in which he reviewed at length the history of Irish parliaments. In the following September commissioners of inquiry from England arrived in Dublin to consider the grievances of the catholic members. One result of their inquiry was to confirm Davies's election to the speaker's chair. On the reassembling of the Irish parliament, 11 Oct. 1614, Davies delivered a congratulatory address to the members; and in the same year he was returned to the English parliament as member for Newcastle-under-Lyne (Willis, Not. Parl. iii. 173). He was associated at this time with Sir Robert Cotton and others in re-establishing the Society of Antiquaries. In 1615 was published at Dublin ‘Le Primer Discours des Cases et Matters in Ley resolues & adiudges en les Courts del Roy en cest Realme. Collect et Digest per Sr J. Davys,’ &c., fol.; 2nd ed. 1628, fol. He continued to hold office until 30 Oct. 1619, when he was succeeded by Sir William Ryves (Pref. to Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–6, p. lxvi). On 21 June 1619 he had written to Buckingham asking that Ryves might be appointed as his successor (Grosart, Memorial, Introduction, p. cix). He continued his professional practice as king's serjeant in England, and frequently went on circuit as a judge. His ‘ Charge to the Jurors of the Grand Inquest at York’ has been printed by Dr. Grosart from a manuscript copy. In the parliament of 1621 he sat as member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and occasionally spoke on Irish matters. In 1622 he collected in a single volume his poems ‘Nosce Teipsum,’ ‘Astræa,’ and ‘Orchestra.’ His ‘Abridgement of Sir Edward Coke's Reports’ first appeared in 1651; and his treatise, ‘The Question concerning Impositions, Tonnage, Poundage, Prizage, Customs, &c. … Dedicated to King James in the latter end of his reign,’ was not published until 1656. Wood mentions a ‘Metaphrase of several of K. David's psalms’ among the ‘several MSS. of his [Davies's] writing and composing.’ A manuscript copy of ‘The Psalmes translated into Verse. An. dni. 1624,’ is preserved in the Laing collection, Edinburgh University Library, and there is strong internal evidence to show that these are the translations to which Wood referred. To the translations are appended some miscellaneous poems, which also seem, with one or two exceptions, to belong to Davies. The contents of the manuscript have been published by Dr. Grosart.
On 9 Nov. 1626 Chief-justice Crew was discharged from his office for refusing to countenance the legality of the king's forced loans. Davies, who had strenuously supported the king's demands, was appointed his successor; but he never took possession of the office. On the night of 7 Dec. 1626 he was at a supper-party given by Lord-keeper Coventry, and on the morning of 8 Dec. he was found in his bed dead of apoplexy. There is a coarse allusion to Davies's corpulence in Manningham's ‘Diary.’
His widow (who was remarried to Sir Archibald Douglas) was buried by his side in 1652. She published several fanatical books of prophecy. In her rhapsodical ‘Appeal,’ 1641, she states that one of her manuscript prophecies was burnt by Davies, ‘whose doom I gave him in letters of his own name (John Daves, Joves Hand) within three years to expect the mortal blow; so put on my mourning garment from that time.’ Three days before his death she ‘gave him pass to take his long sleep;’ whereupon he retorted ‘I pray you weep not while I am alive, and I will give you leave to laugh when I am dead.’ In 1633 she was imprisoned in the Gate House by order of the high commission court, and fined 3,000l. Among her books are ‘The Stay of the Wise,’ 1643; ‘The Restitution of the Reprobates,’ 1644; ‘The Bride's Preparation,’ 1644. Her last publication was ‘Tobit's Book,’ 1652. Davies had a son, an idiot, who was drowned in Ireland, and a daughter, who married Ferdinando, sixth earl of Huntingdon. From the earl's great-grandson Carte obtained Davies's Irish papers, which are now largely represented by the ‘Chichester Collection’ in the Carte MSS., Bodleian Library (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–6, pp. lxii–iii).
Davies's complete works have been collected by Dr. Grosart in the Fuller Worthies Library, 3 vols. 1869–76. His two famous poems, ‘Nosce Teipsum’ and ‘Orchestra,’ have been frequently published, and a collection of his ‘Historical Tracts’ was edited by George Chalmers in 1786. Some antiquarian essays attributed to Davies were first printed in Hearne's ‘Collection of Curious Discourses written by eminent Antiquaries,’ 1771, 8vo. It is doubtful whether he was the author of ‘A New Post, with Soveraigne Salue to Cure the World's Madnes. … By Sir I. D., knight,’ n. d., which Grosart prints among his works. Chalmers and others ascribe to him ‘The Declaration … concerning the Title of his Maiesties Sonne Charles … to the Duchy of Cornewall,’ 1613.
Care must be taken to distinguish the Irish attorney-general and poet from another Sir John Davies, who was implicated in Essex's rebellion. He held an office in the Tower of London, and was entrusted by Essex with the task of guarding the hall of the queen's palace at Whitehall as soon as her attendants should be overpowered. His confession, when arrested on the failure of the plot, shows him to have been much in Essex's confidence. Although convicted and sentenced to death on 5 March 1600–1, he was subsequently pardoned (Spedding, Bacon, ii.; State Trials). A third Sir John Davies is described by Mr. F. R. Davies in ‘Notes and Queries’ (1st ser. vii. 39, 2nd ser. xi. 209, 352, 3rd ser. viii. 250) as marshal of Connaught under Elizabeth, but no such name appears in the lists of persons filling that office in Lascelles' ‘Liber Munerum Hibernic.’ He is said to have owned much property in Mayo and Roscommon, including Clonshanville Abbey, and his descendants are stated to be very numerous in Ireland. A fourth Sir John Davies is described by F. R. Davies as master of the ordnance in Ireland in 1599, and his identity cannot be determined.
[Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss, ii. 400–5; Wood's Fasti, ed. Bliss, i. 250; Chalmers's preface to Historical Tracts; Grosart's Memorial Introductions; Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–25, prefaces and passim; Hazlitt's Bibliographical Handbooks; Collier's Bibliography; Corser's Collectanea; Woolrych's Lives of Eminent Sergeants, i. 186–219; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iii. 82–3, 336–7, 3rd ser. ii. 461; Gardiner's Hist. of Engl. i. 382, 401, 406, 439, vii. 302–3; Court and Times of Charles I, 174, 182, ii. 259, 280; Ballard's Memoirs of British Ladies, ed. 1775, 191–7.]