DAVISON, William (c.1541-1608), of Stepney, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

m. c.1570, Catherine, da. of Francis Spelman of Norfolk by his w. Mary Hill, 4s. 2da.

Offices Held

Sec. to Henry Killigrew, the ambassador to Scotland June 1566-1575 or 1576; envoy to, Netherlands 26 Mar.-20 May 1576, Aug. 1577-May 1579; to Scotland 10 Dec. 1582-Sept. 1584; to Netherlands 25 Aug. 1585-Feb. 1586; principal sec. and PC 30 Sept. 1586; clerk of the Treasury and custodian of King’s bench recs. by 1607.1


Davison claimed to be of Scottish descent, but his parentage and early background are unknown. His name does not appear on university or inns of court registers, and nothing has been found to account for his entry into government service. It may well be that his public career began with an introduction by Walsingham to Killigrew, who became his lifelong friend. Killigrew wrote to Walsingham after some years in Scotland, ‘Mr. Davison hath deserved more at my hand than I am able to deserve. I thank you for him, and I pray you thank him for me’. The three men shared strong puritan beliefs, agreeing that a major aim of English foreign policy should be active support for European protestants. By his marriage to Catherine Spelman, Davison became connected with the Cecils and with the Earl of Leicester. A letter from Killigrew to Leicester survives, written in August 1575, in which Davison is described as ‘a gentleman who has married a kinswoman of your lordship’s, though unknown, I think, to you’. When Killigrew was leaving Scotland he approached the Earl to get Davison appointed as his successor, again stressing the kinship between the two as well as Davison’s experience of Scottish affairs. Later, when Davison was in the Netherlands, Leicester habitually addressed him as ‘cousin’. It is not surprising, then, to find Davison regularly working with the Leicester-Walsingham puritan group in the Privy Council.2

After a successful apprenticeship in Scotland, he was sent early in 1576 to the Low Countries, on a special mission to counter French influence on the Prince of Orange. Elizabeth had hoped that he might help to bring about peace, or at least a temporary truce. She was not yet prepared to go so far in helping the protestants there as Davison and his friends desired, and in 1577 he was given two more assignments in the Netherlands, the second lasting for nearly two years, with the object of keeping peace. He found himself in a ‘labyrinth of occupation’, but had no hope that his exertions would be successful in persuading Don John, Philip II’s governor in the Low Countries, to come to terms with the rebellious provinces. Only a fortnight after his arrival he wrote home ‘Of peace there is no hope, and of a war the effects are likely to be as bloody as any this country has suffered in many years’. Don John was a man of ‘cruel, revenging and insolent nature’, obviously preparing for war. The rebels’ leaders themselves alarmed Davison by their divisions and negligence, but he admired the Prince of Orange. ‘I know no man her Majesty may build upon’, he wrote to Leicester, ‘if not on him’. Experience of Spanish policy convinced him that a league of Catholic rulers against Elizabeth constituted a pressing danger to England, and he wrote repeatedly to Walsingham and other councillors, urging them to persuade the Queen to support Orange by promising active help to the States if they would submit to the Prince’s government.3

From about October 1577, after the arrival of the Archduke Matthias in the Netherlands had caused Elizabeth to delay her promised help, Davison’s despatches contained even more complaints about the Queen’s loss of prestige in the Low Countries owing to her vacillations, the lack of support for his own work among ministers in England, and insufficient or contradictory instructions. The usual excuses for recall of the Elizabethan diplomat, poor health and crippling expenses, also made their appearance in his letters. Walsingham, himself an advocate of plain speaking, warned him that Elizabeth disliked his outspoken comments, and was beginning to listen to charges made by his enemies that he acted ‘rather as an agent for the Prince [of Orange] than for her Majesty’. He remained in the Netherlands until May 1579.4

Almost nothing seems to be known of Davison between his return from the Low Countries and his Scottish mission of 1583-4. When he went north, accompanying the French envoy La Mothe Fénelon, at the end of December 1582, he had instructions to travel as slowly as possible, since Elizabeth’s government did not wish Fénelon to reach Scotland until James VI’s cousin, Esmé Stuart, Seigneur D’Aubigny, had left it. Davison and Fénelon therefore made a tedious journey north, enlivened by a long religious discussion which Davison enjoyed. Less enjoyable was a chance meeting with D’Aubigny on the road, when the two Frenchmen carried on a conversation which Davison could not hear because of the wind. Robert Bowes, Elizabeth’s chief agent in Scotland at this time, found Davison’s Scottish experience, and his knowledge of the contemporary European situation, invaluable, and except for one short break the two men worked together until September 1584.5

The death of William of Orange made it essential for Elizabeth to send a first-rate man to the Netherlands, and Davison was again chosen. He managed to negotiate a treaty with the States, but the later stages of his mission were complicated by Leicester’s assumption of the governorship, and Elizabeth’s anger at his action. Though at first a strong supporter of the Earl, and one of the foremost advocates of his coming out ‘to help redress the confusions of this anarchy, in greatest want of authority and order’, Davison found Leicester, with his arrogance and tactlessness, a sad disappointment. At first the Earl appreciated his help, and wrote that he would be very loath to part with him:

He hath done her Majesty as much honour and service here as any ambassador that I have known in any foreign place; he hath great credit among all sorts here; is acquainted with almost all persons and places; has been through all Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders; knows every town in them and has observed all that has passed since the first employment here.

But on Davison’s return to England in February 1586 he found himself, not for the last time, the scapegoat in a difficult political situation. Elizabeth upbraided him for not having openly opposed Liecester’s taking the title of governor, ‘wherein I had, as she pretended, greatly deceived her opinion and trust she had reposed in me’. Davison refused to accept this unjust attack meekly, defending himself on the ground that the Queen had herself told the deputies of the States that she would not restrain them from giving authority to her representative. Elizabeth told him ‘how little she looked for so peremptory, and, as she termed, partial dealing’ at his hands, to which Davison, instead of a courtier’s apology, retorted by begging leave to go home and pray for her, ‘whom ... salvation itself was not able to save, if she continued in the course she was in’.6

If Davison hoped that his account of this interview would win Leicester’s gratitude, he was deceived. To a courtier like the Earl it was obvious that Davison had bungled the matter, and he accused him of ‘negligent carelessness’. The storm blew itself out after a time, with Burghley, Hatton, Heneage and others interceding on Leicester’s behalf, but Davison brooded over his unjust treatment for some months, refusing comfort from Walsingham and Sir Philip Sidney; he was at the time suffering from an unspecified illness which may have been the result of overwork and depression.7

In September 1586, with the problem of Mary Stuart becoming daily more acute, and Walsingham’s health deteriorating, another secretary was needed. It has been suggested that Davison was appointed so that on him would rest the responsibility for any step against Mary which Elizabeth’s government found it necessary to take. But there is no need to adopt such a cynical view of Elizabeth or her ministers. Davison was an acknowledged expert on affairs in Scotland and the Netherlands, places of vital importance in the contemporary situation; he was known to be a man of integrity, high intelligence and industry—in fact an obvious candidate for the post. He was by this time an intimate friend of Walsingham, and the two men saw eye to eye on all important matters of policy. Burghley was presumably backing him; he wrote later, ‘I know not a man in England so furnished universally for the place he [Davison] had, neither know I any that can come near him’.8

It is unfortunate for Davison’s reputation that the bare five months of his active secretaryship have been stressed to the exclusion of his earlier career. Before the end of 1586 he had taken over much of Walsingham’s routine work; he was sworn as a Privy Councillor, and entered Parliament for the duchy of Lancaster borough of Knaresborough, doubtless owing his seat to Sadler, who was chancellor of the duchy. There is no mention of him in the known parliamentary journals, but as a Privy Councillor he could have attended some of the more important committees, including those on Mary Queen of Scots (4, 7, 12 Nov.). He did not go to Fotheringay with the commissioners for Mary’s trial, but as the secretary on duty at court, sent Burghley and Walsingham instructions from the Queen, who scribbled at least one note at midnight, ordering the commissioners to ‘stay’ the sentence until they had communicated with her. Forwarding this, Davison made it clear to his fellow secretary that he hoped it would arrive too late; but he was disappointed.

The story of Davison’s disgrace over Mary’s death is well known. On 1 Feb. 1587 Elizabeth, following an interview with Lord Howard of Effingham, agreed to sign the warrant, and told Davison to have the lord chancellor affix the great seal to it, keeping the matter secret, but informing Walsingham, who was ill at his London house. However, she instructed the secretaries to write to Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s custodian, suggesting that he and his colleague Sir Dru Drury should have her quietly murdered. Paulet and Drury refused to ‘make so foul a shipwreck’ of their consciences, but on at least three occasions during the week between the signing of the warrant and Mary’s execution Elizabeth spoke to Davison about the matter, telling him that ‘one of great place’ had advised her in favour of assassination. Burghley and Hatton, the leading ministers with whom Davison took counsel, assumed responsibility for calling the Privy Council together in Burghley’s rooms, where the decision was taken to send Robert Beale to Fotheringay with the warrant, without the Queen’s permission. A note by Beale suggests that the two commissioners for the execution, the earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, as well as Paulet, Drury and Beale himself, were present at a further discussion of the method to be adopted to kill Mary, before public execution was finally decided.

During the storm which followed Mary’s death, Burghley and other Councillors were at first afraid that the Queen meant to have Davison hanged, and all those who had agreed to the despatch of the warrant, prosecuted. Burghley, anxious for his own position as well as wishing to save Davison, warned the judges to be careful about answering the Queen’s questions on the extent of her prerogative, and the attorney and solicitor-general exerted themselves to get Davison tried in Star Chamber, where he would have more hope of leniency. But too many other careers were at stake for Councillors to stand by Davison openly. At his trial at the end of March in the Star Chamber he defended himself as well as he could, but ineffectually, since ‘he could not out of duty and reverence contest the matter ... desiring not to be urged to utter the private speeches which passed between the Queen and him’. On the charge of a great indignity, misprision and contempt against her Majesty, and a great abuse offered to her Council, he was sentenced to a fine of 10,000 marks and imprisonment during pleasure.9

The effect on Davison of this unpleasant episode has been exaggerated. His fine was remitted; he continued to receive his £100 salary as secretary, and up to May 1590, when Walsingham died, he also received a share of the secretary’s profits from the signet office, the hanaper and the petty bag. He was released about September 1588, as soon as the defeat of the Armada made it safe to free him, and influential friends, notably the Earl of Essex, tried on Walsingham’s death to get him restored to the active exercise of his secretary’s office. The Queen, however, refused to countenance so open and cynical a repudiation of her behaviour in 1587; support from Essex was of doubtful value; and Burghley, who was already grooming his son Robert for the post of secretary, doubtless preferred to have the office vacant so that he could keep control of it until Robert was sufficiently experienced to step into his shoes. So Davison remained in retirement for the rest of the reign. His financial position may already have been worrying him: in 1594 he was granted land worth £200 a year, which he sold for £5,000, but this cannot have gone far towards compensating him for the loss of the regular profits of the signet office and other emoluments. He had obviously no hope of preferment from James I, who, however, treated him better than might have been expected, and allowed him to keep his £100 salary. Davison played no further part in public affairs.10

Almost everything known about Davison concerns his public life. He apparently never aspired to become a country gentleman, and his children made no outstanding marriages. Apart from his puritanism and a taste for genealogy, shown in his compilation of pedigrees of Scottish nobles, he remains an enigmatic character. There is no doubt of his deep religious beliefs. He and Henry Killigrew, wanting a preacher for the congregation of Merchant Adventurers at Antwerp, communicated their need to John Field and the London presbyterian conference, who chose Walter Travers. In Scotland again, Davison gave constant encouragement to the presbyterians. His will, drawn up on 18 Dec. 1608, has a devout preamble:

I bequeath my soul into the hands of my most gracious and merciful God in Jesus Christ, through whose merits alone I expect and wait for with all His Saints a happy and blessed resurrection at His glorious and bright appearance.

He died about 21 Dec. 1608 and was buried on the 24th at Stepney. He had large debts, even his Stepney house being mortgaged for £700 to his ‘kind and loving and most faithful friend’ George Byng of Wrotham, a cousin of Mrs. Davison. Byng, together with Henry Byng of Gray’s Inn, his brother, was appointed executor of the will, most of which is concerned with Davison’s office of ‘clerk of the Treasury and warrants and custos brevium of King’s bench’. He had been granted the reversion to this post as early as June 1579, but may not have come into possession of it until much later. In 1607 he had secured the reversion for George and Henry Byng, ‘whose names were used only of trust by me, the benefit of the said office to be wholly to me and my assigns’. He obviously hoped that the profits of the post would pay his outstanding debts, for most of which the Byngs were standing surety, and provide allowances for his four sons. The marriage portions of his daughters were still unpaid, and he asked the executors to see that his sons-in-law, Duncombe and Towneley, received annual instalments of the promised money. The will contains no charitable bequest nor, apart from a £10 annuity to his widowed sister Anne Carpenter, any legacies beyond those to his children. All the goods and chattels were to go towards the payment of debts, and George Byng was instructed to sell the Stepney house to make sure that all obligations to him personally were met. Eventually the Treasury office was to descend to Christopher, Davison’s second son. The will was proved on 9 Jan. 1609.11

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N.M.S.


  • 1. DNB; N. H. Nicolas, Davison, 212-13; EHR, xliv. 104-6; APC, xiv. 236.
  • 2. Nicolas, 2; CSP Scot. 1574-81, pp. 31, 171, 176; Read, Walsingham, iii. 429.
  • 3. CSP For. 1575-7, pp. 291, 308, 309, 317, 319, 553; 1577-8, pp. 44, 54, 74, 76, 84, 85, 148, 153, 170, 223, 320, 328.
  • 4. CSP For. 1577-8, pp. 135, 203, 208, 251, 336, 478, 492, 525, 597, 654, 665, 666, 669, 672, 675, 704; 1578-9, pp. 402, 437, 471; CSP Dom. 1566-79, p. 523.
  • 5. Read, Walsingham, ii. 184; CSP Scot. 1581-3, pp. 221, 242.
  • 6. CSP For. 1584-5, pp. 149, 179, 278, 395, 399; 1585-6, pp. 83, 154, 166, 172, 241-2, 303, 346; Leycester Corresp. ed. Bruce (Cam. Soc. xxvii), 117 seq.
  • 7. Leycester Corresp. 168, 205, 332, 343; CSP For. 1585-6, p. 591; Nicolas, 29-32.
  • 8. Leycester Corresp. 343; Read, Burghley, 351; Neale, Eliz. 278; Nicolas, 38.
  • 9. Neale, Eliz. 278-82; Parlts. ii. 136-42; CSP Scot. 1586-8, pp. 307, 323, 348, 446; Nicolas, 232 seq.; HMC Hatfield, iii. 218, 220-1; Add. 48027, ff. 528, 529, 576; D’Ewes, 394, 395, 399.
  • 10. EHR, xliv. 104-6; xlvi. 632-6; Neale, Eliz. 330; Nicolas, 180-5; CSP Scot. 1586-8, pp. 522-4.
  • 11. Eliz. Govt. and Soc. 140, 304-5; Nicolas, 199, 205-6; Harl. 830, f. 115; PCC 29 Dorset.