Secretary of State

Born: ABT 1541

Died: 24 Dec 1608

Father: Richard DAVISON

Mother: ?

Married: Catherine SPELMAN (dau. of Francis Spelman and Mary Hill) 1570, Stepney Near, London, London, England


1. Francis DAVISON

2. Walter DAVISON

3. William DAVISON (b. 1577 - d. 1605) (m. Janet Scobie)




Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth. He was of Scottish descent, and in 1566 acted as secretary to Henry Killigrew (d. 1603), when he was sent into Scotland by Elizabeth on a mission to Mary, Queen of Scots. Remaining in that country for about ten years, Davison then went twice to the Netherlands on diplomatic business, returning to England in 1586 to defend the hasty conduct of his friend, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

In the same year he became Member of Parliament for Knaresborough, a privy councillor, and assistant to Elizabeth's secretary, Francis Walsingham; but he soon appears to have acted rather as the colleague than the subordinate of Walsingham.

He was a member of the commission appointed to try Mary, Queen of Scots, although he took no part in its proceedings. When sentence was passed upon Mary the warrant for her execution was entrusted to Davison, who, after some delay, obtained the Queen's signature. On this occasion, and also in subsequent interviews with her secretary, Elizabeth suggested that Mary should be executed in some more secret fashion, and her conversation afforded ample proof that she disliked to take upon herself any responsibility for the death of her rival. Meanwhile, the privy council having been summoned by Lord Burghley, it was decided to carry out the sentence at once, and Mary was beheaded on the 8 Feb 1587.

When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth she was extremely indignant, and her wrath was chiefly directed against Davison, who, she asserted, had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant. The Secretary was arrested and thrown into prison, but, although he defended himself vigorously, he did not say anything about the Queen's wish to get rid of Mary by assassination. Charged before the Star Chamber with misprision and contempt, he was acquitted of evil intention, but was sentenced to pay a fine of 10,000 marks, and to imprisonment during the Queen's pleasure; but owing to the exertions of several influential men he was released in 1589. The Queen, however, refused to employ him again in her service, and he retired to Stepney, where he died in Dec 1608.

Davison appears to have been an industrious and outspoken man, and was undoubtedly made the scapegoat for the Queen's pusillanimous conduct. By his wife, Catherine Spelman, he had a family of four sons and two daughters. Two of his sons, Francis and Walter, obtained some celebrity as poets. Francis Davison had been employed as private secretary to Sir Thomas Parry, but lost the job when Parry was sent ambassador to France in 1602. He is chiefly remembered as the co-author (with Thomas Campion) of the masque Gesta Graiorum acted at Greys Inn in 1595, and for A Poeticall Rhapsody (first issued in early May 1602, reprinted and progressively expanded in 1606, 1611 and 1621), the last of the Elizabethan poetry anthologies, that contains works by such leading lights as Sir Phillip Sidney; Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; Thomas Watson; Edmund Spenser; Sir Walter Raleigh; Campion; and perhaps John Donne.

Many state papers written by William Davison, and many of his letters, are extant in various collections of manuscripts. See Sir N. H. Nicolas, Life of W. Davison (London, 1823); J. A. Froude, History of England (London, 188I fol.); Calendar of State Papers 1580-1609; and Correspondence of Leicester during his Government of the Low Countries, edited by J. Bruce (London, 1844).

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