Davies, Sir John (1569–1626), lawyer and poet, was baptised at Tisbury, Wiltshire, 16 April 1569. His father, whose name is usually given as John, but sometimes as Edward, Davies (d. 1580), was of Welsh descent, and his mother, Mary (née Bennett; d. 1590), came from a Wiltshire landed family. He was a third son, and had two younger sisters.
Early years and marriage Schooled at Winchester from 1580, he matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, 15 October 1585. He was admitted to the Middle Temple, London, on 10 February 1588, after some time spent at New Inn, and was called to the bar in July 1595. His reputation as a poet was first grounded upon his epigrams, but he went on to produce lengthier and more complex works, including Orchestra, or, A poeme of dancing, apparently composed in fourteen days in 1594 and published in 1596, and his ‘verse-treatise on immortality’, Nosce teipsum, published in 1599, of which five further editions appeared during Davies's lifetime. Although he ‘wrote, experimented in, even helped to introduce many popular types of poetry’, Davies has been considered an ‘extremely versatile technician’ whose poetry is ‘excellent in its kind, but irretrievably minor’ (Poems, ed. Krueger, xlviii). By 1600 he was engaged in the historical discussions of the Society of Antiquaries, some of his papers being subsequently published in Thomas Hearne's A collection of curious discourses (1771).
In 1594 Davies was presented at court by Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy (later earl of Devonshire). His literary skills served him well in cultivating patronage at court, and his contacts proved invaluable when, in 1598, he was expelled from the Middle Temple ‘never to return’, following his assault on a fellow member; an apology, and the support of influential figures, secured his readmission in 1601. He was elected to the English parliament in 1597 for the borough of Shaftesbury, and in 1601 for Corfe Castle, both Dorset seats; in the latter parliament he took a leading part in the attack on the grant of monopolies by the crown. He was named solicitor general for Ireland by James I on 18 September 1603, later claiming that it was Devonshire, by now the absentee lord lieutenant, ‘who first transplanted mee here’ to Ireland (Davies, Prose, ed. Grosart, ii, 164). He was knighted by the lord deputy, Sir George Carey, in Dublin on 18 October 1603. The efforts of Carew's successor, Sir Arthur Chichester (qv), saw him promoted to the post of attorney general for Ireland by patent dated 29 May 1606. He was created serjeant-at-law in England in February 1609 and in March 1609 married Eleanor Touchet (d. 1652), fifth daughter of George, Baron Audley, later 1st earl of Castlehaven. They had two sons, who predeceased their father, and one daughter, Lucy, later countess of Huntingdon. It does not appear to have been a happy match. By the 1620s Lady Davies had begun to gain a reputation for prophecy; consulted by persons of influence, her pronouncements also drew her into quarrels and, from 1633, to fines and imprisonment. She reportedly predicted her husband's death in 1623 and thereafter dressed in mourning clothes.
Attorney general for Ireland Davies's role as senior law officer in Ireland was conditioned by the recent military victory of the crown over Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, and his allies. Davies was to be a central figure in the drive to ‘complete’ the conquest by the consolidation of a kingdom of Ireland, on the English model, across the island as a whole, through the extension of royal power, common law authority, and English ‘civility’; he gave intellectual substance to the project, aiding the formulation of programmes intended to bring it forward and deploying his formidable legal skills to remove perceived obstacles to its completion. Echoing the views of some of his fellow New English administrators, his early reports on the religious condition of Ireland blended laments that there was ‘no more demonstration of religion then amongst Tartars or canniballs’ with professed optimism that more adequate provision of churches and protestant services, plus the banishment of catholic priests, would ensure ‘the greater part of the common people would presently and voluntarily come to church’ (Davies, Prose, ed. Grosart, i, xlviii, lxiii). He proved a ready recruit to Lord Deputy Chichester's campaign for conformity through coercion, notably through the use of royal mandates to compel the attendance at protestant worship of leading citizens of Dublin and other towns, and the indictment of large numbers of urban recusants. Arguing from an assumption of royal supremacy in matters ecclesiastical, derived from a medieval English legal heritage in which Ireland participated, Davies elaborated arguments to justify the application to Ireland of the stricter English penal legislation, and to fend off claims for papal jurisdiction exercised by, and over, catholic clergy.
From the time of his arrival in Ireland, Davies lent a powerful voice to the complaints from Dublin concerning the powers of the northern Irish lords, whether exercised through territorial control or the ‘usurpation upon the bodies and persons of men’ – tenants who, though the ‘King's free subjects’, found their ‘lives and good depended upon’ the ‘will’ of figures such as Tyrone and who lacked ‘certain and durable estates’ (CSPI, 1603–6, 160). As law officer for the crown, and as advocate to the London administration, he promoted the establishment of shire government, with its common law courts and officers, and investigation into land titles, especially in Ulster. In 1606 he accompanied the lord deputy to south Ulster, and later drafted an extended report on proceedings in Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Cavan whereby, he claimed, Chichester ‘hath cut off three heads of that hydra of the North . . . for these three names of chiefry’, Maguire, MacMahon, and O'Reilly, ‘with their Irish duties and exactions, shall be utterly abolished’ (Davies, Historical tracts, 269–70). Davies formulated principles for general application in the north: the final extinction of Gaelic tenure and the reduction of lordship through the promotion of crown rights and the autonomy of lesser landholders. In Tyrone's case he insisted that much of the territory claimed by the earl was rightly in crown possession and could ‘be graciously re-granted, part to the natives, and part to the servitors of this kingdom’, to the profit of the king,
and an inestimable good to the common weal; but if this opportunity be not taken, they will have no Commonwealth in Ulster, and it will ever lie in the power of that barbarous family to hazard the Crown of Ireland as heretofore it hath done. (CSPI, 1606–8, 212–13)
By 1607 he could see in the suit brought against Tyrone by the earl's son-in-law Donnell O'Cahan (qv) a potential opening to begin the dismantling of Tyrone's lordship. Tyrone in turn denounced Davies as ‘a man more fit to be a stage-player than a counsel to His Highness, – who gave the earl very irreverent speech before the Council table’ (CSPI, 1606–8, 382–3).
The ‘flight of the earls’ (Tyrone and Tyrconnell (qv)) in September 1607, followed by the rising of Sir Cahir O'Doherty (qv) in the summer of 1608, altered the situation in Ulster. Tyrone's and Tyrconnell's own lands were deemed forfeit, while Davies's earlier formulations and insistence on the lapse of any legal right deriving from Gaelic title cleared the ground for confiscation and redistribution of land within the other Ulster territories. For Davies, upholding the rights of lesser Irish landholders had been an expedient to ensure a balance against the greater lords; with the latter gone, the opportunity should be taken to promote a more thoroughgoing rearrangement of the situation in Ulster and he emerged as one of the most committed advocates of large-scale plantation in Ulster, travelling to London in the winter of 1608–9 and again in early 1610 to present findings and assist in the formulation of plantation plans. Under the scheme, he received two land grants, in the barony of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and at Lisgoole Castle, Co. Fermanagh; both passed at his death to his daughter, Lucy, countess of Huntington. He continued to take the lead for the crown in high-profile legal cases, not least that concerning the valuable Bann fishery, which was revisited in the early twentieth century as ‘something of a cause célèbre within nationalist circles’ (Pawlisch, 99). In 1607 he initiated proceedings against the corporation of Waterford, the test case in the crown challenge to port towns over control of customs.
Last years in Ireland Davies was the crown's candidate for speaker of the commons in 1613. While the vote was being taken catholic MPs, angered at what they considered to be an unjustified creation of new parliamentary boroughs to ensure an artificial protestant majority, placed a catholic candidate, Sir John Everard (qv), in the speaker's chair. In the ensuing tussle ‘divers knights and gentlemen of the best quality took Sir John Davies by both his arms and lifted him from the ground and placed him upon Sir John Everard's lap’; Everard was subsequently removed from the chair, prompting catholic MPs to walk out of the commons in protest (McCavitt, ‘Parliamentary fracas’, 225, 231). Undeterred, Davies proceeded with his acceptance speech, recounting the history of the Irish parliament and ‘how far this parliament is like to excel all former Parliaments’ now that Ireland was
blessed . . . with an universal peace and obedience, together with plenty, civility, and other felicities, more than ever it enjoyed in any former age . . . when all the inhabitants of the kingdom, English of birth, English of blood, the new British colony, and the old Irish natives, do all meet together to make laws for the common good of themselves and their posterities. (Davies, Historical tracts, 294, 303, 304)
It was at once a telling instance of the dominant strands in Davies's interpretation of the Jacobean dispensation in Ireland and of the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Such sentiments found fuller expression in Davies's A discoverie of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued, nor brought under obedience of the crowne of England untill the beginning of his majesties happie raigne (1612). Highly structured and lucidly expressed, the Discoverie pursued the question of a ‘perfect conquest’ through an account of ‘martial affairs’ from the time of Henry II (qv), followed by a consideration of ‘the defects of the civil policy and government’ in Ireland, not least the failure to admit the native Irish to English law, making ‘a perpetual separation and enmity between the English and the Irish’. Instead ‘the English, which hoped to make a perfect conquest of the Irish, were by them perfectly and absolutely conquered’ through adopting Irish customs which ‘made all their possessions uncertain . . . the true cause of such desolation and barbarism in this land’, and ‘which made the lord an absolute tyrant, and the tenant a very slave and villein’; by such means the ‘English colonies . . . became degenerate’ (Davies, Discovery, ed. Myers, 124, 133, 162, 164, 169, 172). Crown and law were presented as framing a commonwealth for the benefit of all, with ethnic division and lordly tyranny banished, and by the efforts of Davies and those of like mind. Repeatedly reprinted, the work did much to shape later perceptions of Jacobean England, for all that more recent assessments have presented it as a ‘rhetorical construct’ trumpeting ‘the unprecedented success of Irish reform’ and overlooking the ‘self-serving nature of the king's Irish administration’ of Davies's own day (Flanagan, 164), while ‘concealing a history of atrocity and injustice’. As its modern editor suggests, for ‘all of its perceptiveness and historical methodology, the Discovery remains, expectedly, a promotional document, for the Crown as well as for Davies’ (Flanagan, 164; Davies, A discovery, ed. Myers, 53). In 1615 he published Le primer report des cases . . . en les courts del roy en Ireland (1615; trans. 1762 as A report of cases and matters in law resolved and abridged in the king's courts in Ireland), the first collection of Irish law reports (and the last before the eighteenth century), dominated by prominent cases in which Davies himself had taken a leading role.
Return to England, death, and reputation Davies only ever saw his Irish posting as a temporary one. On 30 October 1619 he was succeeded as attorney general by Sir William Ryves (qv), and returned to England and to legal practice, now with the rank of king's serjeant (30 June 1612); he resided at Englefield in Berkshire. Elected to the English parliament in 1621 he responded to a motion for a committee to investigate matters Irish by insisting that ‘we cannot make laws to bind them . . . but may make a representation to the king’, at once upholding the position of the Irish legislature and the royal prerogative. He voiced opposition to plans for a bill restricting imports of Irish cattle; a planter himself, he defended Ireland as ‘a commonwealth but growing. Stop them in their trade and you kill them in their growth’ (Treadwell, 158, 163), and thereby, he might have added, reduce crown revenue.
In 1622 Davies published a revised edition of his major poems. His A perfect abridgement of the eleaven bookes of reports [of Sir Edward Coke] (1651) and The question concerning impositions (1656) were published posthumously, the latter composed during the reign of James I and addressing one of the most controversial issues of the day. In 1626 he was named chief justice of king's bench in England, but on the day set for his installation (usually given as 8 December), he was found dead of apoplexy following a convivial gathering the previous evening. The date of his death is usually given as 6 or 7 December. His funeral sermon was preached by John Donne, and he was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
At the very moment of his death, Davies was, arguably, poised to make an even greater impact upon Stuart political and legal life than he had made on that of Jacobean Ireland. His reputation as an administrator, fuelled by the survival of his lengthy and often penetrating reports, has latterly been scaled back, and Chichester, rather than Davies, has been advanced as ‘the indefatigable driving force of the Dublin administration’; but Davies is still credited with influence ‘out of proportion to his middle-ranking position’ and a ‘unique role . . . in the articulation of Dublin government policy by his frequent visits to England’ (McCavitt, Chichester, 78–9, 89, 224). Pawlisch has argued for his broader significance in the development of judge-made law in the common law tradition, and that ‘Davies's imperial formula regulating the legal position of natives and their property rights in Ireland . . . set the pattern for colonial expansion elsewhere’ (Pawlisch, 13). The later twentieth century rediscovered Davies's thinking as part of English society's complex relation to the common law. A doughty defender of common law's customary origins, and of its intrinsic worth, he was nonetheless well aware of, and ready to draw pragmatically upon, civil and canon law ideas. While historians have debated his position on such thorny questions as the relation of law to royal prerogative, his Irish career tends to suggest an unoriginal but deeply held perception of how royal authority and common law together made for the good of the commonwealth, freed from instability and lesser tyrannies. His writings extended investigation into the Irish past, and not least into the institutions of Gaelic society; his unearthing of information was far from disinterested, the findings, as in the case of Cavan landholding, may be ‘shot through with inaccuracies and inconsistencies’ (Brady, 176), and the whole packaged for persuasive presentation, with discordant voices silenced. Ultimately, Davies's very facility with the spoken and written word served to shape, and at least partly to bring into being, an Ireland of the imagination which was itself a potent legacy. The virtuoso never died in Davies.