Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davison, William (1541?-1608)
DAVISON, WILLIAM (1541?–1608), secretary of Queen Elizabeth, was, according to his own account, of Scottish descent. In June 1566 he went to Scotland as secretary to Henry Killegrew, the English ambassador, and congratulated Mary of Scotland on the birth of her son James. According to Sir James Melvill, he described himself at that early date as `a favourer of the king's right and title to the crown of England,' and was anxious to deprive Killegrew of his office, in order to gain it for himself. He seems to have stayed in Scotland for ten years. When Killegrew urged his own recall (17 Aug. 1575), he recommended Davison as his successor. The suggestion was not accepted, and Davison was removed to the Low Countries in February 1575-6. His instructions, dated 29 March 1576, directed him to report on the prospects of a permanent peace between Spain and Holland (Lansd, MS. 155), and on 2 July 1577 he was appointed resident agent at Antwerp. He obtained for the States-General a loan of 50,000l. from the English government, and brought over in May 1579 28,000l. worth of jewellery as security, On 19 Jan. 1578-9 a grant was made him of the reversion to the clerkship of the treasury and warrants, and of the post of custos brevium of the king's bench. Early in 1583 he went on a second diplomatic mission to Scotland. Robert Bowes [q. v.] was his companion. Their object was to prevent James VI from forming an alliance with France, which La Mothe Fénelon, a French envoy, was already on his way to Scotland to arrange. Davison met Fénelon on the Journey, and they discussed Catholicism (Davison to Burghley, 3 Jan. 1582-3). Davison at first met with apparent success; demanded his recall in May 1583, and left Bowes to complete the business. But the subsequent confusion caused by the rising of the Earl of Gowrie and his friends in Queen Mary's behalf, and the growing strength of the French party in Scotland, led to Davison's return. From Berwick in 'May 1684 he reported at length on the complications of Scottish politics, and in June settled in Edinburgh. Leicester, who always appears to have been on friendly terms with him, corresponded with him and begged him to give James a favourable impression of his political aims. Davison bitterly complained of Lord Hunsdon's unjust suspicions of him, and in September he returned to London, without having arrived at any definite understanding with James. In August 1585 he was for the second time sent to the Low Countries to negotiate an alliance with the States-General. This he did efficiently, and he was made commander of Flushing. On 22 Jan. 1585-6 his friend Leicester came over with English troops and formally accepted, from the States-General, without waiting for instructions from home, the office of governor of the Low Countries. After a short delay Davison returned to England to account for Leicester's conduct. The queen was indignant and hotly denounced Davison (Davison to Herle, 17 Feb. 1585-6; Davison to Leicester, 27 Feb. in Leicester Correspondence, 118). A stormy interview followed. Davison threatened to leave the queen's service. Leicester threw the blame on Davison, and wrote to him to that effect (10 March 1585-6). The letter is still extant in Harl. MS. 285, f. 230, with Davison's denial of the accusation noted in the margin (Leicester Corresp, 168). Sir Philip Sidney kept Davison informed of Leicester's denunciations of him, and on 2 July 1586 Davison temperately defended himself in a letter to the earl. The storm had then blown over, and no one was seriously injured. Davison's diplomacy in the Low Countries was bearing good fruit, and he was admitted to the privy council. In the autumn of 1586 he became assistant to Walsingham, the queen's secretary of state. The warrant of appointment was not signed till 12 Dec, but two months before that date he was directing the queen's official correspondence and in personal attendance on her.
On 6 Oct. 1586 a commission was issued for the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Davison was appointed one of its forty-six members, in accordance with the opinion of the judges that all privy councillors should be nominated. It was not the queen's original intention to have appointed him, and he took no part in the commission's proceedings. He was never at Fotheringhay,nor was he present when the commissioners passed sentence of death on Queen Mary at Westminster on 25 Oct. After the two houses of parliament met (29 Oct.) they combined to petition Elizabeth for Marys execution (12 Nov.) Elizabeth ordered Burghley to prepare the warrant, and Burghley gave it to Davison to present to the queen for signature. French and Scottish ambassadors were at court at the time petitioning for Mary's life, and Elizabeth told Davison to hold the warrant over for a more convenient season. In the course of the six following weeks. Sir Amias Paulet, Mary's warder at Fotheringhay, repeatedly wrote to Davison urging on him the necessity of carrying out the sentence immediately, but Davison did not venture to mention the correspondence to Elizabeth. On 1 Feb. 1586-7 Lord Howard of Effingham, the naval commander, had an audience of the queen at Greenwich, and strongly deprecated further delay. On leaving Elizabeth, Howard was directed to send Davison to the royal chamber. The secretary found Elizabeth in her most gracious mood. After some general conversation she read the warrant which Davison carried with him, and signed it. At the same time she hinted that she would have preferred to avoid the necessity of this violent step, and requested Davison to hint to Paulet that he might privately rid her of his troublesome prisoner. Such suggestions had been already made in high places, and Davison now, as before, protested against them. On leaving Elizabeth Davison showed the signed warrant to Lord Burghley, who was with Leicester at the moment; called on Walsingham; and took the warrant at five o'clock in the afternoon to the lord chancellor, who affixed the great seal without reading it. At a later hour Davison signed a letter to Mary's warders, Paulet and Sir Drue Drury, drawn up by Walsingham, in which plain hints were given that Elizabeth wished them to relieve her of the duty of ordering their prisoner's execution. Paulet and Drury replied by indignantly declining to undertake a secret assassination. On 2 Feb. 1586-7, the day after the warrant was signed Elizabeth sent for Davison ; inquired whether the warrant was sealed ; complained of his haste, and repeated her personal objections to figuring in the unhappy business. Later in the same day Davison, who kept Hatton and Burghley informed of his intercourse with Elizabeth, gave the warrant to Burghley: Burghley called the privy council together, and the letters ordering the execution of the warrant were immediately sent hy the hand of Robert Beale [q. v.] to the Earl of Kent and other commissioners. On Saturday 4 Feb. Davison again had an audience of the Queen, who told him that she had dreamed that Mary was executed, and reiterated her horror of taking the full burden on herself. On the following Sunday or Monday a similar conversation took place, and Elizabeth inveighed gainst the `daintiness' and `niceness' of Paulet and Davison in declining to help her to assassinate Mary—a step which, she hinted, Leicester approved. On Tuesday the 7th Davison had his fifth and last interview with the queen, when she told him to write to Paulet to hasten the execution—an order which Davison deemed unnecessary and did not obey. The next morning, 8 Feb., Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay. On 9 Feb. Burghley sent for Davison and consulted with him how to communicate the news to Elizabeth. According to Davison, she first heard it unofficially, almost as soon as the news reached London, and appeared to treat it with calm indifference, but on the following morning she passionately declared to Hatton that she had never ordered the execution, and that it had been carried out by the privy council, and chiefly by Davison, against her known wish. At the moment Davison was suffering from an attack of palsy, and gladly took the advice of some of his fellow privy councillors to absent himself from court. A day or two later Lord Buckhurst received orders from the queen to arrest him. He was at first too ill to be moved, but recovered sufficiently by the 14th to be conveyed to the Tower. Lord Burghley protested against this injustice, and wrote a warm letter in Davison's behalf, for which he substituted at the last moment a more cautiously worded appeal. On 12, 14, and 16 March Davison was interrogated by Hatton in the Tower. The questions were constructed to show that Davison had disobeyed the queen's injunctions of secrecy; that he had been strictly forbidden to part with the warrant or show it to anybody, and that he was aware that Elizabeth had no immediate intention of executing the sentence on Mary. Davison described all that had taken place, but delined to incriminate the Queen by repeating the suggestions of assassination. He also drew up three statements addressed to Walsingham, detailing ` that which passed betwixt her majesty and him in the cause of the Scottish queen.' On 28 March 1587 he was brought before the Star-chamber,although his health was still very bad, and charged with `misprision and contempt.' In his defence he asserted that after the warrant was signed the queen distinctly said that 'she would not be troubled any more with it,' which fully justified him, he urged, in not bringing the warrant before her a second time. When he was pressed by his judges to explain why he had told Burghley that the queen meant to execute the sentence, Davison burst into tears and declined to argue the matter further, insisting that he had acted throughout ' sincerely, soundly, and honestly.' He was sentenced to a fine of ten thousand marks, and imprisonment in the Tower during the queen's pleasure. Many of the commissioners spoke highly of Davison's past services and habitual honesty, and acquitted him of all evil intention. Davison was not permitted to discuss the sentence, but was allowed to express his concern at the queen's displeasure. A careful perusal of the proceedings proves that no substantial case was made out against Davison, and that the signing of the warrant by the queen without any previous consultation with him justified all his subsequent conduct. He was deliberately made a scapegoat by his vacillating mistress. Although his private opinion was undoubtedly in favour of Mary's execution, he did not parade it offensively before either Elizabeth or the council.
The Earl of Essex did his best to procure Davison's pardon, and twice in 1587 he wrote to Davison that he had pleaded his cause with Elizabeth, who admitted his deserts, but would give no positive answer to his demands. Lord Grey also petitioned for his release. Lord Burghley's conduct was less explicit, and he evidently wished to defer Davison's restoration to the queen's favour. In 1589 Davison was released from the Tower. Essex promised to recommend him for official service, and in April 1590 even wrote to James VI, in order to enlist his influence on Davison's side. Here he failed, but on Walsingham's death in 1590, many persons urged Elizabeth to bestow the vacant secretaryship on Davison. Burghley, however, obtained the office for his son Robert [see Cecil, Robert]. On 7 Dec. 1590 Davison petitioned the queen to rehabilitate him, but she declined to receive the letter. Finding all avenues to office thus closed against him, Davison retired to a house at Stepney, reduced by the payment of his fine to great poverty. He succeeded to the offices of custos brevium in the king's bench and clerk of the treasury and warrants, to which the reversion had been granted him in 1579, and on 25 July 1607 James I generously agreed to grant these offices on his death to George Byng of Wrotham, Kent, and Henry Byng of Gray's Inn, on trust, the profits to be applied to the payment of his debts and the support of his children. He died about 21 Dec. 1608, and was buried at Stepney on the 24th. His will was proved 9 Jan. 1608-9.
Davison married, about 1570, Catherine, daughter of Francis Spelman, younger son of William Spelman of Norfolk and a relative of Sir Henry Spelman, by Mary, daughter of Richard Hill. His wife appears to have died before him. By her he had four sons, Francis [q. v.], Christopher, William, and Walter [q. v.], and two daughters, one of whom [Catherine) married one Duncombe, and the other one Towneley. Christopher was admitted a student of Gray's Inn, 1597 ; translated some psalms into verse (Harl. MS. 6930), and in March 1609-10 petitioned that the legal offices conferred on the Byngs by the wish of his father should be transferred to him. William was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1604. A William Davison, who was mayor of Rochester in 1714, and whose descendants are still alive, claimed descent from Elizabeth's secretary.
A mass of state papers in Davison's handwriting survive. Many letters of his, relating to his Scottish missions, are in Cott. MSS. Calig. ch. vii. and viii.,and in Harl. MS. 291. Letters concerning his work in the Low Countries are in Cott. MSS. Galba, ch. viii. and ix., and in Harl. MSS. 36 and 285, and in Lansd. MS. 150. Notes on Scottish history and politics appear in Harl. MSS. 290 and 291, where a short satire, entitled `Three Months' Observations of the Low Countries,' is also extant (f. 262). In Harl. MS. 168, f. 197, is a letter to Elizabeth dissuading her from a peace with Spain, and in Harl. MS. 6893 are `instructions for a traveller,' addressed to his son. The latter forms part of a little volume entitled `Profitable Instructions; describing what speciall Observations are to betaken by Travellers … by … Robert, late Earle of Essex, Sir Philip Sidney, and Secretary Davison,' London, 1633. ' Davison's apologies for his conduct, several of his letters, and his will, are printed in Sir Harris Nicolas's biography. Some of his letters also appear in Wright's `Queen Elizabeth and her Times,' vol. ii.[Life, by Sir N. H. Nicolas (1823); Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Sir Amias Paulet's Letter-book, ed. Morris; Strypc's Auuals; Sir James Melvill's Memoirs; Leicester Correspondence (Camd. Soc); Camden's Annals; Burton's Hist. of Scotland; Froude's Hist. of England; Lingard's Hist. of England; Thorpe's Scottish State Papers; Cal. State Papers, 1580-1609.]