Sir John Davies can be viewed by any historical scholar as one of the most significant legal figures in English History. As one of the many political advocates that most people tend to overlook, Davies takes his place among the other unsung heroes of seventeenth century England. Few people are aware of the impact Davies had concerning Ireland and the Tudor conquest of 1603. He was the first to introduce the English common law in Ireland and reconstruct property rights of Gaelic land. This would eventually give England the power to grant Irish land to certain loyal individuals. Davies was also responsible for the reorganization of these Gaelic lands and in due time he contrived a much needed legal doctrine. Davies would eventually set the criterion for common law that was not only implemented in Ireland but in other countries as well. These citations are only a fraction of the accomplishments that can be accredited to the man who served first as the Solicitor-General (1603-1606) and then as Attorney-General (1606-1619) for Ireland in the name of James I. England may have never succeeded in the governing of Ireland had it not been for the dedication and determination of Sir John Davies.
Sir John Davies came into this world on April 16, 1569. He was the son of John Davies, who until his death in 1580, had been a successful tanner. Davies mother, Mary Bennet of Pitthouse, would take it upon herself to raise John as well as his four siblings. Little is known about Sir John Davies during the earliest part of his childhood. However, we do know that he attended the Winchester school for four years and had a keen interest in literature during this time. He studied at Winchester until he was sixteen, and then it is assumed by certain historians, that Davies went on to further his education at Queen's College Oxford.
Davies studied at Oxford for only eighteen months, and historians are skeptical about whether or not he received a degree. After leaving Oxford, Davies spent some time at New Inn and decided that he wanted to pursue a career in law. Little did he know that this decision would prove to be invaluable to England. In 1588, Davies was enrolled in the Middle Temple and his acceptance was duly recorded: 'Mr. John Third son of John Davies of Tisburie, Wiltshire gent and late of New Inn gent'. Davies' records at Middle Temple show him to have been an excellent scholar.
However, his rambunctious personality led him into a few spots of trouble that ended up costing him his academic position. Davies was continually reprimanded as well as suspended on several occasions. Regardless, there seems to be a silver lining with every dark cloud as far as Davies is concerned, and thus one of these suspensions seemed to serve as a commencement of John Davies and his undying interest in continental law.
During Davies suspension for 'making outcries, forcibly breaking open chambers in the night and levying money as the Lord of Misrule's rent,' he once again returned to the continent accompanied by two fellow scholars by the names of William Fleetwood and Richard Martin. They traveled to Leyden in order to give Paul Merula, the famous Dutch jurist whom Davies had met on his first trip to the continent, letters of introduction that had been given to Davies by William Camden who was an antiquary. At this time, Merula held the office of civil law and jurisprudence at Leyden. Davies delivered the letter and talked with Merula about the logistics of his office. Events such as this seem to show that
Davies had been continually growing more vigilant about understanding the proceedings that took place under continental civil law.
Upon Davies return to England, he wrote a letter to Merula to not only thank him for his hospitality, but to acknowledge his longing to practice law such as Merula did. He also complained about the schooling for
English municipal law and how he longed for the excitement of civil law.
Although this friendship with Merula was not enduring, Davies interest in foreign affairs and civil law would be. Davies remained at the Middle
Temple from 1592 to 1598, and his success in law was paralleled only by his success as a poet. Even though I am not here to discuss Sir John Davies significance as a poet, it has to be made clear that without his poetical success, England may have easily overlooked one of its greatest politicians of the 17th century. Davies finished two of his most famous poems entitled Nosce Teipsum and Orchestra sometime during his early years at Middle Temple but were not published until 1595. These two poems were admired by Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who was Lord Deputy of Ireland at the time.
Mountjoy presented Sir John Davies in court as a promising literary scholar. Therefore, it was Davies poetry that first brought him into contact with Queen Elizabeth in 1594. She encouraged his further studies of law at the Middle Temple and had him sworn in as servant-in-ordinary.
Davies continued writing poetry and studying the different elements of civil law with great enthusiasm. His fellow scholars at the Middle Temple included talented young men such as John Donne, Benjamin Rudyard, John Hopkins and John Marston. These men were of all great influence to Davies as well as to one another. They studied the law and while writing poetry and received friendly input from their camaraderie. As early as 1595, Davies realized how important it was to become recognized by the Sovereign and became aware of his poetry as a potential springboard for success. As with other young men of the sixteenth century, Davies wrote poetry just like a boy of the twentieth century might play intramural sports. It was a social skill that was considered a gentlemanly accomplishment. However, many of the young gentlemen that wrote poetry were very apprehensive about having their work published. This is why we have very little poetry from the sixteenth century considering that thousands of poems were probably written during this time. Davies Epigrams were published around this time, and in these poems he derides the tactless law students for their incompetence. Davies was adamant about the law and found little amusement in those students that did not take their studies seriously. He also gained attention during this time by composing a beautiful epithalamion in honor of the wedding between William Stanley and Elizabeth Vere, both of whom were members of very powerful aristocratic families. Davies realized, with the insight of Charles Blount, that he could dedicate his poetry to those who had influence and this in turn could help him in his pursuit of a legal career.
All seemed to be going well with Davies and his endeavors until an unfortunate event that took place during the Candlemas festivities of 1598.
During this time, Sir John Davies and his friend Richard Martin were both in a position to be elected as master of ceremonies. Martin narrowly won the election and he, as well as a few of his fellow scholars, took it upon themselves to continually remind Davies of the loss. Therefore, one evening "while the Masters of the Bench and other fellows were quietly dining publicly in the Hall, John Davyes, one of the Masters of the Bar, in cap and gown, and girt with a dagger, his servant and another with him being armed with swords, came into the Hall. The servant and the other person stayed at the bottom of the Hall, while he walked up to the fireplace and then to the lower part of the second table for Masters of the Bar, where
Richard Martyn was quietly dining. Taking from under his gown a stick, which is commonly called a bastinado he struck Martyn on the head with it till it broke, and then running to the bottom of the Hall he took his servant's sword out of his hand, shook it over his own head...and ran down to the water steps and jumped into a boat."
This attack by Davies was hard for the Masters of the Bench to interpret considering that Martin was one of Davies' closest companions. The two scholars were frequently reprimanded for their pranks on fellow students and they often traveled together when not involved in their studies. It could even be said that Davies greatly admired his friend considering that he dedicated his famous poem Orchestra to Martin by way of an opening sonnet. However, let it be known that Martin was an acquired taste and has been shown in court records to have been somewhat of a wit and had oftentimes set the dining hall roaring with his amusing japes. He was admired for his witticism by such men as John Hoskins and John Seldon, as well as the great poet Ben Jonson, who even dedicated a poem to Martin entitled The Poetaster.
The attack on Martin by Davies was never fully explained in the court records. The "Carte Notes" simply state that "being a high spirited young man, did, upon some little provocation or punctilio, bastinado Rich. Martin..." The Masters of Bench looked at the attack as being premeditated almost ceremoniously in order for full retribution to take place.
Whatever the case, the penalties for such an attack were severe.
Sir John Davies was expelled from the Middle temple "never to return" for this attack on Richard Martin as well as being imprisoned for a short time.
The "Carte Notes" state that Davies was "confined and made a prisoner."
However, there has been a disagreement amongst historians concerning the events that took place after Davies release from jail. Some scholars would like to have us believe that it was during this time of reflection that
Davies wrote his famous poem Nosce Teipsum. They would also promulgate that Davies accompanied a Lord Hunsdon to Scotland in order to be the first to applaud James I on his newly appointed title as King of England, and furthermore on this meeting was appointed Solicitor-General in Ireland simply because he was the author of Nosce Teipsum. This is nothing more than speculation and would be hard to prove knowing that Nosce Teipsum was written before the Richard Martin incident. It has also been theorized that Davies never once regretted what he had done. While he was being held in prison, Davies wrote the following lines: "Now Davies for a bird is in, But yet it is but for a Martin." Historians have also delved a little deeper concerning this time period and revealed that it was Sir Robert Carey, not his brother George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who went to Scotland to announce the news of the Queen's death. George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, had never even left England. Davies may have met James I on the king's journey south, but there is no solid evidence to prove that he received any special attention from James I during this time. However, let it be noted that it was recorded in a diary kept by John Manningham that: "Jo: Davies reports that he is sworne the King's man, that the king shewed him great favour."
Whether or not Davies met the King on James I's journey south cannot be proven. However, it can be confirmed that Davies did meet James I at the christening of Prince Henry, and it was written in the "Carte Notes" as thus:
A.D. 1594 when Prince Hen: was borne from whom Q. Eliz. was Godmother he went in the company of ytt Ambassye and when he kissed the King of Scots hand he was owned by him with the name of Nosce Teipsum Davies.
It was during this exile from Middle Temple that Sir John Davies took up a close acquaintance with Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. Davies had decided to publish his poem Nosce Teipsum and dedicate it to Queen Elizabeth through the advice of Lord Mountjoy, who also arranged for the young Davies to personally present a copy to the Queen herself. Davies wrote of the Queen describing her as "A happy angell to this happy Land," and flattered the Queen further by remarking that she was of "the diuinest and richest minde." Davies would go on to end the dedication by telling the
Queen to "stay long (sweet spirit) ere thou to Heaven depart, Which mak'st each place a heaven wherein thou art." While twentieth century scholars might find dedications such as these nothing more than an exercise in unctuousness; sixteenth century society required excessive adulation of the aristocracy in order for one to succeed. Davies might be considered a master at the art of dedication considering that he was noted for using one poem to serve more than one nobleman. It is a well-known fact that he had numerous manuscript copies to be used as dedications to certain individuals. A couple of the original manuscripts are still accessible to the public. One can be found at Alnwich Castle and is dedicated "to the right noble, valorous, and learned Prince Henry, Earle of Northumberland." Davies would go on to admire Prince Henry as one who "did protect me in distresse,"; this was probably in reference to the time that Davies was suspended from the Middle Temple. Davies was also noted for dedicating A Discoverie of the True Causes to King James, as well as dedicating his Le Primer Report des Cases "To the Right Honovrable My Singvlar Good Lord, Thomas Lord Ellesmere, Lord Chancellor of England."
One of Davies' greatest adulations can be found in his composition entitled Hymnes of Astrae that was published in 1599. In an ingenious format, the poems are all acrostics: if you read the very first letter in every line vertically, the letters spell the royal name ELISABETHA REGINA. Such skill is one of the reasons why Sir John Davies should not be cast aside by twentieth century scholars as a minor poet of Elizabethan England. Some scholars have even gone so far as to call this type of Davies poetry Elizabethan "foppery," or "a silly tour de force that vanishes from consciousness in proportion as it is successful." However, these critics of Davies' poetry need to realize that this type of poetry was considered "fashionable" during the English Renaissance.
Davies' poem entitled Hymnes of Astrae could be considered his greatest achievement as far as royal appraisal is concerned. Numerous poets glorified Queen Elizabeth in their work. Some of these poets truly admired the Queen for her personal qualities as well as her leadership while others were simply using poetry as a rung on their ladder to success. Davies felt that Astrae, the goddess of justice would be an excellent representation of the Queen. The goddess Astrae was responsible for giving mankind many blessings during the golden age. She eventually became insulted by mankind's way of life and ascended into the heavens where she is now seen as the constellation Virgo. Davies draws upon the gracious traits of Astrae in his Hymnes and praises Queen Elizabeth for possessing the same traits. Davies first two Hymns focus on the goddess herself and what she symbolizes. He then relates the goddess' portraiture to Elizabeth by exalting the Queen as "The Mayd" who "Hath brought againe the golden dayes / And all the world amended" (Hymne I), who has bestowed "Peace, the milke and hony, / Humanitie, and civil Art"(Hymne II) to the world.
The following Hymnes (III-XII) deal with Davies further glorifying
Queen Elizabeth/Astrae by using the world and its natural beauty as an analogy. Davies refers to Queen Elizabeth as the "Lively Spring which makes all new" (Hymne III) ; the "sweet month of May" (Hymne IV) ; "the queen of flowers," and the "Sweet nurse-child of the Spring's young howres," (Hymne VII) etc. Davies ends this poetical tribute to the Queen by writing a Hymn entitled "To Enuy." This Hymn is Davies' personal declaration confirming that his poetical talent cannot be bought, and that his poetry stems from only absolute admiration. Some of us realize that this affirmation could be debatable.
Davies continued his social climb with more complimentary poetry. He wrote what some have called "occasional poetry" which were poems written for special occasions. He wrote two sonnets of commendation for George Chapman's Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595) to celebrate its publication. On one occasion, Davies sent the Lord Chancellor Ellesmere an autographed copy of Orchestra as a consolation for his second wife's recent death. Davies entitled the poem "On the Death of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere's Second Wife in 1599," and signed "Yr. Lps in all humble Duties and condoling with yr. Lp. most affectionately Jo. Davys." In this particular poem, Davies focuses more on the Lord Chancellor himself and his personal qualities than on his wife. This was a very political move considering that it was Ellesmere, and not the deceased, who had influence.
Davies also wrote two poems in honor of James I and his queen "first coming into England." They were entitled "The Kinges Welcome" and "To the Queene at the Same Time." These poems are notorious for their syrupy praise of the King and his queen, but as I have stated earlier, this was commonplace during the time.
Davies most notable occasional poem was written to celebrate the wedding between Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford and the granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, to William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby. This wedding was very political because "an earls daughter married to an Erle, / Gives and receives like honor mutually." It was titled "Epithalamion Io: Dauisij,; and wasn't published until recently. This poem holds great significance due to the fact that some scholars have traced its origin back to some of the earliest documented wedding songs. Other renaissance poets followed suit and it can therefore be derived that Sir John Davies, along with Spenser, was one of the original founders of nuptial poetry.
Davies' "Epithalamion" is his attempt at developing a new kind of poetry. Although influenced greatly by Spenser, Davies' poem is in an original format even though the idea of developing a poem through a series of songs can be seen as a hackneyed practice even before the seventeenth century. Davies' epithalamian "songs" move in succession from past, to present, to future. The songs are full of praise and beauty for the characters Erato and Thalia. Davies starts the song with adulation for the young couple's lineage and then proceeds to expound on the couple's relationship. He ends the poem by wishing them happiness and promises them a place in heaven after a long life on this earth. This is just one more example of Davies' insight into the world of poetry as a profitable application.
Another type of poetry that has been a scholarly study of interest is the poetry that Davies wrote in order to entertain aristocracy. Three examples of this type of poetry are Davies' Yet Other Twelve Wonders of the World, A Lotterie, and A Contention betwixt a Wife, a Widdow and a
Maide. Davies wrote these poems for the guests of distinguished aristocratic figures during one of their social gatherings. This was of great benefit to the young Davies considering that it was an excellent way to become recognized by men and women who had great influence in government. These persons could be considered kings in the eyes of an aspiring lawyer. Davies ingenious poetry would compliment all distinguished positions of aristocratic society that one of these nobles might have held.
He doesn't concentrate on what a respectable citizen should strive to do, but on the conduct one should avoid. One poem that could be found somewhat ludicrous and comical in modern society would be found in Davies' "General Prologue":
IV. The Lawyer
The rest of these entertaining poems followed suit and were all complimentary of the profession to which they referred. It seems that Davies could have taken the profession of a chimney sweep and made it a noble one if the occasion called for such. Davies even used his poetical talent to entertain the Queen herself on several occasions. Queen Elizabeth is known to have traveled quite a bit during her reign. During these excursions, she would sojourn various political nobleman and their families. These protuberant men would often beseech Sir John Davies to come to their house in order to entertain the Queen with his poetry. This afforded Davies many an opportunity to use his poetical talents as a consequential political move.
The Law my calling is, my robe, my tongue, my pen,
Wealth and opinion gaine, and make me Iudge of men.
The knowne dishonest cause, I neuer did defend,
Nor spun out sutes in length, but wisht and sought and end:
Nor counsell did bewray, nor of both parties take,
Nor euer tooke I fee for which I neuer spake.
Sir John Davies was as resourceful as he was clever, and herealized that Blount was correct in the fact that poetry could be used to gain the attention of the royal court. These dedications may not have afforded Davies with immediate Royal attention, but they would eventually result in his political success.
Davies was admired during his lifetime by many influential aristocratic men. One of these as I have already mentioned was Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. Blount was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and, therefore, the friendship between Davies and Blount can be seen as very beneficial to the young poet. Blount was probably one of the first people to point out to Davies that poetry could be used as a vehicle for one to become recognized in the aristocratic society. Blount had studied at Oxford and the Inner
Temple before serving in Parliament as well as having had a successful career in the military. Blount knew how to get what he wanted in the Queen's sovereign and probably passed this knowledge onto the young Davies. Blount realized that Davies' had a lot of potential and may have felt that an association with the young poet might prove to be just as beneficial to Lord Mountjoy himself.
Social connections during the Renaissance were just as influential in determining one's future as a college education is today. We have already seen that Davies relationship with significant figures in the aristocratic society led to his gaining the attention of the Queen and his future success. However, it was his God-given talented in poetry that kept this future politician in favor with aristocratic society. E.M. Forster would probably not have found sixteenth century England to his liking considering that he stated in his book entitled Two Cheers for Democracy:
"I believe in aristocracy, thoughif that is the right word, and if a
democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and
influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the
Fortunately, Sir John Davies did not hold the same opinion.
A scholar by the name of John F. Danby has classified the Elizabethan poets in four different categories. He classifies Davies as a poet much like the great John Donne. Danby suggests that Davies was "a gentle-man-poet" who wasn't necessarily looking for fame through his poetry per se, but used his literary skills "as a kind of leverage" so that he could gain the attention of the crown and in turn could "grapple with the rich prize to his heart with hoops of conceits."
Davies' poetry may have also proven to help him charm the influential Robert Cecil. Davies had written a letter in 1601 to Cecil's secretary stating that he hoped his literary skills might prove to be of some use to Cecil in the future.
With the help of Robert Cecil, Sir Thomas Egerton, and a few of England's most distinguished citizens, Davies was reinstated at the Middle Temple in July, 1601. These men saw the legal promise in the young John Davies, and therefore, secured his future. With his return to the Middle Temple, Davies was guaranteed the right to practice law. Therefore, let it be acknowledged that without the recognition of his poetry, Davies may have never been reinstated to the Middle Temple, and hence would have never been able to reform Ireland as Solicitor-General.
The rest of Sir John Davies personal life can be obtained through numerous accounts dealing with his marriage, relationship to his children, and his poetry. These affairs could supply any English doctoral student with enough material for a dissertation. However, I am here to delve into his career as Ireland's Attorney General, and the role he played in the adoption of English common law in Ireland.
It was in 1601 that Davies made his mark and became recognized by the House of Commons and the affiliates associated with thus in an issue dealing with monopolies. The House had to make a decision to either ban monopolies or petition to the Queen for her advice on the matter. Robert Cecil was in court, and he expected the House to go by way of petition. The House had already taken the matter under hand until Sir John Davies unexpectedly took the floor. His preamble consisted of a few legal statements randomly presented to the court about events such as these happening in the past. He then loudly protested to the petitioning of the Queen. He felt that the House had the power to make the decision on its own and that God had given them the power to do so. Therefore he thought that it would be "most fit to proceed by bill and not by petition." Needless to say, Cecil was not gladdened by Davies boisterous address to the House, and was further vexed with Davies continuation in the matter during the afternoon session of court. Although Davies must have realized that the influential Cecil would have his way, he continued to state his position until the very end. This incident can be used to shed some light on the character of Sir John Davies.
A brief synopsis of Ireland's government is necessary in order for
one to appreciate the significance that Sir John Davies had in establishing English common law. Starting in the early 1500's, the Tudor government was beginning to spread its influence throughout Ireland. The Plunketts and the Anglo Norman Nugents began to aver their power all over the county of
Brefnie in the name of the English Crown. At the same time, a militia by the name of O'Reilly was in greater power and held rural Ireland under its control. By 1566, the O'Reilly sovereignty began to gain the attention of the Crown. As the strength of the O'Reilly clan reached its peak in 1584, the county of Brefnie was made a shire by England and was christened the county of Cavan. 1594 saw the beginning of the
Nine Year War, and the O'Reilly's would slowly fall from power during the next few years. The town of Cavan was then taken by Lord Mountjoy in 1600, and the last man to hold the family name of "O'Ragahallie" would meet his demise in 1601. However, a man by the name of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, would make his presence felt during the course of the Nine Years War and would eventually force
England to commit more money towards the conquest of the rebellious island than was previously expected. However, this English investment turned out to be rewarding. With the help of Spanish forces, England would finally compel O'Neill to accede to the Crown on March 30, 1603 after England's victory over the O'Neill clan at the battle of Kinsale.
Even though England was finally in control of Ireland at this time, the English government realized that military force alone could not keep Ireland's inhabitants under royal dominion. The English government was forced to come up with a number of reformations concerning Ireland that would insure the dismantling of rebel forces that may still have been present.
Even though the Nine Years War had officially come to an end, an
English Garrison consisting of 9000 troops remained in Ireland to ensure domestic security. The English government realized that brute force alone could not bring Ireland under their control, therefore, Sir John Davies took it upon himself to introduce common law to the native inhabitants of the island. One result of Davies establishment of common law in Ireland was the rights and privileges that it bestowed on these lower class native inhabitants. Old Gaelic and Irish law allowed the small percentage of upper class families to reign supreme while the lower class citizens suffered. Davies English common law reforms focused more on the individual rather than the entire family. This enabled a citizen to become prosperous even if his last name wasn't O'Neill or O'Reilly. This citizen was also given the right to seek justice when a crime was committed against him, without fear of having his family being injured or his property destroyed. Davies accomplishments with the adoption of English common law in Ireland would eventually be used as a model in procuring English rule in the American colonies.
Realizing that English common law was derived from eleventh-century
Roman Law, and that "there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip," Sir John Davies found that he could manipulate some of the statutes that were vague due to English interpretation and use them to England's advantage. He therefore resolved that when England conquered any territory it would result in what he called a "Lordship Paramount." This granted England sole possession of all the land therein and the power to distribute that land to individuals they deemed worthy. This law would make it difficult for a conquered nation to gather forces for a counterattack.
Another important issue that Davies would deal with and eventually resolve was what was known as the custom of tanistry and Gavelkind. Gavelkind dealt with the property of the deceased and which heirs were entitled to that property. In the laws of Gavelkind in the county of
Kent, it was written that all property would be divided in equal portions between all legitimate heirs. However, Irish Gavelkind stated that women were not entitled to property but that bastard males would be. The custom of tanistry bestowed all of the property rights and privileges of the present king or chief to the man who was to succeed him even while the said king or chief was still alive. Davies saw this as unlawful considering that it was James I who would ultimately decide which persons were granted land rights and privileges. Therefore, Davies and the other crown lawyers stated that residents would enjoy their land by privilege of the King of England and that it would be the laws of England, not the old Gaelic law, that would be enforced. This gave the individual more opportunity to possess land and in consequence took a lot of authority away from Gaelic lordships.
Davies was also responsible for the implementation of religious conformity and the mobilization of the Irish revenue, the constitutional assimilation of the autonomous Gaelic lordships to the crown, as well as the reduction of medieval corporate liberties.
These events, along with numerous others, prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Sir John Davies was a man of conviction and a legal force to be reckoned with. He was of short temper as well as obstinate and he held to his convictions. England may have never seen Ireland under its sovereignty if it had not been for the perseverance of Sir John Davies. He was truly a living example of English tenacity.
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©1997 Dave Horne. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.
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