William Davison: A Re-Introduction

For early modern historians, the cast of the Elizabethan polity may seem all too familiar. However, one privy councillor is much less recognisable. As a diplomat and principal secretary, William Davison participated in events unfolding at the highest level of politics, both at home and abroad. However, Davison’s accomplished diplomatic career has been overshadowed by his involvement in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in February 1587. It therefore seemed to me that Davison was long overdue some historiographical attention. The purpose of my doctoral thesis (entitled ‘Diplomacy and Political Relationships in the Mid-Elizabethan Polity: The Life and Career of William Davison’) is two-fold – first, to re-assess Davison’s career and re-assert his importance, particularly prior to the execution of the Queen of Scots; second, to re-centre diplomats within the historiography of Elizabethan high politics. This blog post is intended as a brief re-introduction to Davison, including his background, family, and career.

Very little is known about Davison’s personal life. He was probably born in the 1540s, married Catherine Spelman in the early 1570s, and died on 21st December 1608. By 1574, he was in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, the principal secretary, as part of an embassy to Scotland under Henry Killigrew.[i] It is possible that Davison served Walsingham during his French embassy of 1570 to 1573, though due to the loss of these records, this remains unknown.[ii] His wife Catherine was the daughter of Francis Spelman, a Norfolk squire, and Margaret Hill. Through his mother-in-law Margaret, Davison was related to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and the scholar John Cheke, whose youngest son, Edward, worked for Davison during his resident embassy. Davison and Catherine had 6 children who lived to adulthood – four sons named Francis, Walter, Christopher, and William, and two daughters, with the married names Mrs Townley (the elder) and Mrs (possibly Catherine) Duncombe (the younger).[iii] By the 1590s, Francis was a poet, associate of the Bacon brothers, and client of the Earl of Essex.[iv] Walter became a poet and soldier, and by 1602 was serving in the Low Countries. Both he and his mother presumably died before 1608, as they are not mentioned in Davison’s will.[v] By the 1620s, Christopher worked for the Virginia Company, was elected secretary of Virginia in 1621, and died in 1623.[vi] Little is known about William and the two daughters.

Like many of his contemporaries, there are no portraits of Davison. However, he left a huge archive of correspondence. Above – a sample of Davison’s handwriting. London, Cotton Galba C/VIII f. 33 – 17 Feb. 1586, Davison to Leicester.

Davison served on two missions to Scotland under Henry Killigrew, in 1574 and 1575, before being sent to the Low Countries in March 1576.[vii] By the mid-1570s, the protestant rebels, led by Prince William of Orange, were struggling, as the Spanish governor-general Don John made violent progress through the country.[viii] Of particular importance was the sacking of Antwerp in November 1576, in which over 8,000 people were killed.[ix] Since the Dutch were England’s closest protestant allies, the collapse of the revolt would make the English coast vulnerable to Catholic invasion. However, Elizabeth and her government disagreed about the necessary course of action. The more staunchly protestant of her councillors, including Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham, favoured intervention in the wars; however, Elizabeth and Burghley did not want to aggravate Philip II, and were deeply concerned over the cost of providing aid. Meanwhile, the Catholic Duke of Anjou, an erstwhile suitor to Elizabeth of whom the Privy Council was deeply suspicious, was offering aid to the States-General. It was into this hotbed of diplomatic, political and religious tensions that Davison was thrown, and within which his deeply protestant worldview was forged. Davison undertook his first solo mission in spring 1576, followed by a brief mission on behalf of Leicester in early 1577.[x] Then, from 1577 to 1579, Davison served as resident ambassador, during which time he was responsible for managing the English loans, negotiating with Orange and the States-General, and dealing with a revolt in Ghent under Duke John Casimir.

Following several years at home and in Scotland, Davison returned to the Netherlands in 1584. Once Henry III of France refused to offer aid to the States-General, Elizabeth finally intervened. Davison played an instrumental role in the negotiations for the Treaty of Nonsuch, both at home and abroad, and was responsible for implementing the treaty’s conditions in autumn 1585. When Leicester arrived in December, Davison became embroiled in his decision to accept the position of governor-general, which would give him sovereign power.[xi] Elizabeth had already refused to become the new Dutch sovereign, so both Leicester and Davison knew that this move would not be well-received. Davison was dispatched home to break the news to the Queen, and consequently received the worst of her wrath.

Nevertheless, Davison’s skill was still recognised by the Queen, and he was promoted to the position of junior principal secretary, under Walsingham, in September 1586.[xii] It was during this time that Davison became involved in the most critical moment of the entire reign, the execution of the Queen of Scots.[xiii] As secretary, Davison was responsible for holding the signed death warrant, and, alongside Lord Burghley, he arranged the dispatch of the death warrant without Elizabeth’s knowledge. Following the execution, both Elizabeth and Burghley lighted on Davison as a convenient scapegoat, which led to his trial in Star Chamber. Davison was deprived of his office, and, despite the efforts of his new patron, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, he lived the rest of his life under a cloud of disgrace.

In a letter written to Essex in 1596, Davison lamented the consequences of his involvement in Mary’s execution, which had ‘for these ten yeares space served as the occation and meanes of overwhelming and drowning both the memorie and merrit…of all my former travailes in a Sea of disgraces’.[xiv] It is therefore intended that by exploring the most significant events in Davison’s career, as well as the development of his relationships, his political creed, and the role of diplomats more generally, my thesis will begin to rehabilitate his reputation, and reassert both the ‘memory and merit’ of Davison’s ‘former travails’.[xv]

By Rosalyn Cousins (Editor), University of Leeds, UK.

Rosalyn is a PhD candidate in the School of History, University of Leeds, funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. Her research explores diplomacy, counsel and patronage in the mid-Elizabethan polity. She is blog editor for the Society for Court Studies, and website and blog co-editor for the Northern Early Modern Network.


[i] Simon Adams, ‘Davison, William (d. 1608), diplomat and administrator’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2008 (2004)) <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/7306>, p. 2.

[ii] Adams, p. 2.

[iii] Adams, p. 1; Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Life of William Davison, Secretary of State and Privy Counsellor to Queen Elizabeth (London: Printed by and for John Nicholas and Son, 1823), p. 205ff.

[iv] John Considine, ‘Davison, Francis (1573/4–1613×19), poet and anthologist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2008 (2004)) <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/7300>.

[v] Adams, pp. 1, 16; Considine, p. 2.

[vi] Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1915), p. 95.

[vii] Gary M. Bell, A Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives, 1509-1688 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1990), pp. 184, 244; Adams, pp. 2-3.

[viii] On the Dutch Revolt and Anglo-Dutch relations in the 1570s, see: Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt (Harmondsworth: Pelican Lane, 1979); Simon Adams, ‘The Decision to Intervene: England and the United Provinces 1584-1585’, in José Martínez Millán (ed.), Felipe II (1527-1598): Europa y la Monarquía Católica, Volume I (Madrid: Editorial Parteluz, S. L., 1998), pp. 19-31; Simon Adams, ‘Elizabeth I and the Sovereignty of the Netherlands 1576-1585’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 14 (2004), 309-319. For an overview, see G. R. Elton, England Under The Tudors (London: Methuen & Co., 1974 (1955)), chapter XI, part 5, ‘Alencon and the Netherlands’, pp. 322-329.

[ix] Parker, p. 178.

[x] For an overview of these missions, see Adams, pp. 2-6;, R. B. Wernham, Before the Armada: The Growth of English Foreign Policy, 1485-1588 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), p. 330ff; Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 205ff.

[xi] On Leicester’s governorship, see John Bruce (ed.), Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his government of the Low Countries, in the years 1585 and 1586 (London: Printed for the Camden Society, 1844)

[xii] Adams, p. 12.

[xiii] On the dispatch and execution, see Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (London: Cape, 1960), pp. 366-79; Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I (Yale University Press: London, 2008), pp. 286-95; Mark Taviner, ‘Robert Beale and the Elizabethan Polity’ (University of St. Andrews: unpublished doctoral thesis, , 2000), Chapter 8, pp. 214-43.

[xiv] London, British Library, Stowe MS 145 f. 132 – 1596, Davison to Essex.

[xv] Stowe MS 145 f. 132.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (April 26, 2023). William Davison: A Re-Introduction. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uo


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