John Davies (poet)

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Sir 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 Empire.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Ireland
  • 3 Ulster
  • 4 Later career
  • 5 Poetry
  • 6 Family
  • 7 Legacy
  • 8 References

Early life

Davies was born in Wiltshire, to John and Mary Davies. He was educated at Winchester School 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 the Queen's College, 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. Following several 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 striking Richard Martin 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, his Epigrams 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 to London 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 attorney-general, in Ireland.


Davies arrived in Dublin in November 1603, where Mountjoy had accepted the submission of the rebel Hugh O'Neill some six 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 the 23rd of 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 after his 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 Salisbry, 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 improve upon 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 Earls, 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 province.

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 Ireland.

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 Bann Fishery and the cases of Tanistry and Gavelkind, which set precedents in Irish constitutional law, with wider implications for British colonial policy.

Later career

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 Society of Antiquaries, and in 1621 again served as a member of the English parliament, where he occasionally spoke on Irish matters. On the 7th of 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 Castlehaven. 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 long sleep".


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 Atraea. Queen Elizabeth became an admirer of Davies' work, and these poems contain acrostics that spell out the phrase, Elisabetha Regina. A list of his works can be found at

Sir John 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 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. 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 Era, addressing the relation of body to soul, and of Materialism to Idealism. A.H. Bullen described it as being "singularly readable for such a subject: highly accomplished verse, no Elizabethan quaintness, bothe subtle and terse."

A.H. Bullen also described Davies' Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing 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 human activity.

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 Toucher 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, 1625 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, Toucher 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 ladye. 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 Thomas Stearns 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, 1921–1922).
  • 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, Jan. 1990, Vol. 76, Issue I
  • Ben Coates "Sir John Davies (1569-1626)" History Today, Apr. 2005, Vol. 55, Issue 4
  • A.L. Rowse "Sir John Davies in Literature and History" History Today, Sep. 1976, Vol. 26, Issue 9
  • Francis R. Johnson "The Poems of Sir John Davies (Book)" Modern Language Quarterly, Sep. 1942, Vol. 3, Issue 3
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