John Davies (April 16,
1569 – December 8,
1626) was an English poet and lawyer, who became
attorney general in Ireland and formulated many of the legal
principles that underpinned the British
born in Wiltshire, to John and Mary Davies. He was educated at
College for four years, a period in which he showed much
interest in literature. He studied there until the age of sixteen and
went to further his education at the Queen's
College, Oxford, where he stayed for a mere eighteen months, with
most historians questioning whether he received a degree.
Davies spent some time at New Inn after his departure from Oxford,
and it was at this point that he decided to pursue a career in law.
In 1588 he
enrolled in the Middle
Temple, where he did well academically, although suffering
constant reprimands for his behavior.
suspensions, his behavior cost him his enrollment.
In 1594 Davies' poetry brought him into contact with Queen Elizabeth
. She wished him to
continue his study of law at the Middle Temple and had him sworn in
as a servant-in-ordinary. In the following year, his poem, Orchestra, was published in July,
prior to his call to the bar from the Middle Temple.
In February 1598 Davies was disbarred, after having entered the
dining hall of the Inns in the company of two swordsmen and
with a cudgel. The victim was a noted wit who had
insulted him in public, and Davies immediately took a boat at the
Temple steps and retired to Oxford, where he chose to write poetry.
Another of his works, Nosce Teipsum
, was published in 1599
and found favour with the queen and with Lord Mountjoy
, later lord
deputy of Ireland.
Davies became a favourite of the queen, to whom he addressed his
work, Hymns of Astraea
, in 1599. Later that year, however,
was included in a list of published works
that the state ordered to be confiscated and burned. In 1601 he was
readmitted to the bar, having made a public apology to Martin, and
in the same year served as the member of parliament for Corfe
Castle. In 1603, he was part of the deputation sent to bring King
James VI of Scotland
as the new monarch. The Scots king was also an admirer of Davies'
poetry, and rewarded him with a knighthood and appointments (at
Mountjoy's recommendation) as solicitor-general and, later
Davies arrived in Dublin in November 1603, where Mountjoy had
accepted the submission of the rebel Hugh O'Neill
months earlier, at the close of the Nine Years War
. Finding pestilence
and famine all over Ireland, Davies noted that the courts still
commanded respect, but that the sloth of the protestant clergy and
the ruin of the churches was detrimental to religion. He condemned
the practice of issuing debased coinage and, in pursuit of the
establishment of regular quarter-sessions of the courts, went on
the Leinster circuit through seven counties in April 1604. In 1605
he travelled to England with the commendation of Sir Arthur Chichester
, who succeeded Mountjoy
in government, and had returned to Ireland by July.
Davies was very much committed to reform not just in the law but in
religious affairs too. He was all for banishing catholic clergy
from Ireland and for enforcing church attendances, and strict
measures to this end were taken on his return. He delivered a
powerful speech on 23 November 1605
in the court of Castle Chamber, dealing with the
summonsing of recusants to answer their contempt of the king's
proclamations. In May 1606 he submitted his report of his circuit
of the province of Munster
to Sir Robert Cecil
, the king's secretary, and was
made serjeant at law
appointment as attorney general. In the summer he travelled through
counties Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan, and a year later through
Meath, Westmeath, Longford, King's county and Queen's County, both
of which circuits he reported to Cecil. Davies always looked at
Ireland as a stepping-stone towards major political office in
England but he knew that his chances were hurt by the death of his
patron, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and his absence from the
court. In 1617 he failed to win the position of English Solicitor
General and consequently resigned as Attorney-General in Ireland.
He then returned to England permanently thinking that his chances
of gaining office there would be improved by his presence.
Davies became heavily involved in government efforts to establish a
plantation in the lately rebellious province of Ulster
. In September 1607, he delivered to Cecil his
report of the Flight of the
, a seminal event in Irish history and, before long, had
travelled into the absent earls' territories to lay indictments
against them there. In August 1608, he went with Chichester to view
the escheated lands, reporting that the people, "wondered as
much to see the king's deputy as the ghosts in Vurgil wondered to
see AEneas alive in hell
[sic]". In October he was in England,
pushing for the plantation of the
In May 1609, Davies was made serjeant, with a grant of lands valued
at £40 p.a. He revisited England in 1610 on plantation business,
which had so advanced that he thought his assistance to the
commission charged with bringing the project to fruition would no
longer be needed. In 1610 he defended proceedings brought by the
Irish against the plans for the plantation of Cavan, but in the
following year he begged for recall from Ireland. At about this
time he wrote the Discoverie of the True Causes why Ireland was
never entirely subdued
(pub.1612), a well-written - albeit
polemical - account of the constitutional standing of
In England, Davies spent much time in preparing the way for the
Irish parliament of 1613, to which he was returned for County
Fermanagh. In the first sitting he was proposed as speaker with the
Crown's approval, but an Irish candidate was proposed in opposition
to him, and comical disorder ensued when the Irishman was placed in
the chair and refused to vacate in favour of the government
candidate. Davies was seized by his own supporters and lifted
bodily into his opponent's lap; his opponent was then ejected from
the chair and withdrew himself from the chamber with 98 supporters,
whereupon the vote was taken in their absence. Davies was approved
as speaker by Chichester, and delivered a memorable speech on the
history and role of parliament in Ireland.
In 1615, Davies' reports of Irish cases were published; he had
appeared as counsel in many of these, including the case of the
Fishery and the cases of Tanistry
which set precedents in Irish constitutional law, with wider
implications for British colonial policy.
In 1619, Davies relinquished office and, retiring from Ireland,
began to practise as king's serjeant in England; eventually he also
went on circuit there as a judge. He was a founder member of the
, and in 1621 again served as a member of the
English parliament, where he occasionally spoke on Irish matters.
On 7 December 1626
Davies (who had always been corpulent) died in his bed of apoplexy
brought on after a supper party. He had just been appointed lord
chief justice of one of the superior courts in England, but never
took his place on the bench.
Davies' wife, Eleanor Touchet
(married in March 1609), was the daughter of the first Earl of
. She had a history of insanity in her family and
had developed a devotion to prophecy based on scriptural anagrams.
During the marriage, she published several fanatical books of
prophecy, a manuscript for one of which her husband had burned.
Although Davies was exasparated by his wife's excesses (he once
said, "I pray you weep not while I am alive, and I will give
you leave to laugh when I am dead
"), she is said to have
accurately foretold the date of his death and wore mourning clothes
for the three years leading up to the predicted time; as the date
approached — three days before — she "gave him pass to take his
Davies wrote poetry in numerous forms, but is best known for his
epigrammes and sonnets. In 1599 he published Nosce Teipsum
(Know thyself) and Hymnes of Astraea.
became an admirer of Davies' work, and these poems contain
acrostics that spell out the phrase, Elisabetha Regina
list of his works can be found
Davies is a great example of "new" poetry in the 1590s. This was a
poetry characterized by a burning delight in intellectual analysis
and a pure passion for knowledge. Davies' works are very well
represented in Elizabethan anthologies. The last complete edition
of his poems appeared in 1876 and is long out of print.
His most famous poem, Nosce Teipsum
, was reprinted
numerous times, and was one of the first English poems to use the
of the heroic couplet
for a poem of
its scope. It won him the favor of James I, by which he won
promotion in Ireland. The poem summarizes the main issues in
religious thought in the Elizabethan
, addressing the relation of body to soul, and of Materialism
A.H. Bullen described it as being "singularly readable for such a
subject: highly accomplished verse, no Elizabethan quaintness,
bothe subtle and
A.H. Bullen also described Davies' Orchestra, or a Poem of
as "brilliant and graceful." This poem, formed in tiny
octavos, reveals a typical Elizabethan pleasure: comtemplating and
trying to understand the relationship between the natural order and
Much historical knowledge can be gained from the reading of Davies'
poetry. Queen Elizabeth's anger at Bishop Fletcher's second
marriage, to a beautiful young woman, becomes more understandable
after taking into account her loose character explained in Davies'
writings. Another epigram speaks of a practice of "masochism" at
the time. This is where sexual gratification comes from physical
pain and suffering, perhaps being whipped by women.
Davies married Eleanor Touchet in 1609 at the age of forty. Davies
had two children by his marriage. His only son was an idiot but his
daughter married an earl and became Countess of Huntingdon. It is
thought by many that his wife may have been one of his biggest
problems in getting a job. On July 28
she was working on a commentary of the
book of Daniel and belevied she heard the voice of the prophet.
Following this experience she wrote about it and took it to the
Archbishop of Canterbury. When Davies found and burned her writing
she predicted he would die within three years and went into
mourning. In November 1626 Davies was appointed to high office in
England. In early December, following Davies' new appointment,
Touchet started weeping during a dinner with friends. When asked
why, she explained it was in anticipation of Davies' funeral.
Davies was found in his home, dead of apoplexy on the morning of
December 8th. In 1633, Touchet was brought before the high
commission in England on charges relating to her religious anagram
practices. During a fruitless examination of her under oath, one of
the commissioners devised an anagram of his own: Dame Eleanor Davys - never so mad a
. She was sent to prison, and afterward remarried,
but was deserted by her new husband and buried next to Davies on
her death in 1652.
In political terms, Davies was significant in his work on
constitutional law and in framing the terms of the Plantation of Ulster
, a model that
served the English crown as it extended its colonial reach in North
America and elsewhere. In literary terms, he was a fine poet who
lay quite neglected from the mid-17th century, until his cause was
championed by T. S. Eliot
- Nicholas P. Canny Making Ireland British, 1580–1650
(Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-19-820091-9.
- Dictionary of National Biography 22 vols. (London,
- James Shapiro 1599: A Year in the Life of William
Shakespeare (London, 2005) ISBN 0-571-21480-0.
- Fergus O'Donoghue "Book Reviews: Modern European"
Catholic Historical Review, January 1990, Vol. 76, Issue I
- Ben Coates "Sir John Davies (1569-1626)" History
Today, April 2005, Vol. 55, Issue 4
- A. L. Rowse "Sir John Davies in Literature and
History" History Today, September 1976, Vol. 26, Issue 9
- Francis R. Johnson "The Poems of Sir John Davies
(Book)" Modern Language Quarterly, September 1942, Vol. 3,