SIR JOHN DAVIES, a poet and statesman, was the third son of John Davies, of Tisbury, in Wiltshire, not a tanner, as Anthony Wood asserts, but a gentleman, formerly of New Inn, and afterwards a practitioner of law in his native place. His mother was Mary, the daughter of Mr. Bennett, of Pitt-house in the same county. When not fifteen years of age he was sent to Oxford, in Michaelmas term 1585, where he was admitted a commoner of Queen's college, and prosecuted his studies with perseverance and success. About the beginning of 1588 he removed to the Middle Temple, but returned to Oxford in 1590, and took the degree of B.A. At the Temple, while he did not neglect the study of the law, he rendered himself obnoxious to the discipline of the place by various youthful irregularities, and after being fined, was at last removed from commons. Notwithstanding this, he was called to the bar in 1595, but was again so indiscreet as to forfeit his privileges by a quarrel with Mr. Richard Martin, whom he beat in the Temple hail. For this offence he was in Feb. 1597-8 expelled by the unanimous sentence of the society. Martin was, like himself, a wit and a poet, and had once been expelled for improper behaviour. Both, however, outlived their follies, and rose to considerable eminence in their profession. Martin became reader of the society, recorder of London, and member of parliament, and enjoyed the esteem of Selden, Ben Jonson, and other men of learning and genius, who lamented his premature death in 1618.
After this affair Davies returned to Oxford, where he is supposed to have written his poem on the "Immortality of the Soul." There is some mistake among his biographers as to the time of its publication, or even of its being written. If, as they all say, he wrote it at Oxford in 1598, and published it in 1599, how is either of these facts to be reconciled with the dedication to queen Elizabeth, which is dated July 11, 1592? Mr. Park, whose accuracy and zeal for literary history induced him to put this question to the readers of the Biographia Britannica, has not attempted a solution, and it must remain in this state, unless an edition of the "Nosce Teipsum" can be found of a prior date, or any ground for supposing that the date of the dedication was a typographical error. This poem, however, procured to him, as he deserved, a very high distinction among the writers of his time, whom, in harmony of versification, he has far surpassed. Whether Elizabeth bestowed any marks of her favour does not appear. He knew, however, her love of flattery, and wrote twenty-six acrostic hymns on the words "Elizabetha regina," which are certainly the best of their kind.
It is probable that these complimentary trifles made him known to the courtiers, for when the queen was to be entertained by Mr. Secretary Cecil, our poet, by desire, contributed his share in "A Conference between a gentleman usher and a post," a dramatic entertainment, which does not add much to his reputation. A copy exists in the British Museum, Harl. MS. No 286. His progress from being the terrae filius of a court to a seat in parliament is not known, but we find that he was chosen a member in the last parliament of Elizabeth, which met on the 27th of October 1601. He appears to have commenced his political career with spirit and intelligence, by opposing monopolies, which were at that time too frequently granted, and strenuously supporting the privileges of the house, for which the queen had not the greatest respect.
In consequence of the figure he now made, and after suitable apologies to the judges, he was restored in Trinity term 1601 to his former rank in the Temple. Lord chancellor Ellesmere appears to have stood his friend on this occasion, and Davies continued to advance in his profession, until the accession of James I. opened new prospects. Having gone with lord Hunsdon to Scotland to congratulate the new king, the latter, finding that he was the author of "Nosce Teipsum," graciously embraced him, as a mark of his friendship, and certainly no inconsiderable proof of his taste.
In 1603 he was sent as solicitor-general to Ireland, and immediately rose to be attorney-general. Being afterwards appointed one of the judges of assize, he conducted himself with so much prudence and humanity on the circuits as greatly, to contribute to allay the ferments which existed in that country, and received the praises of his superiors, "as a painful and well-deserving servant of his majesty." In Trinity term 1606 he was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law, and received the honour of knighthood on the 11th of February 1607. His biographer attributes these promotions to the patronage of lord Ellesmere and the earl of Salisbury, with whom he corresponded, and to whom he sent a very interesting account of a circuit he performed with the lord-deputy in July 1607. Such was Ireland then, that a guard of" six or seven score foot and fifty or three score horse" was thought a necessary protection against a peasantry recovering from their wildness.
In 1608 he was sent to England with the chief justice in order to represent to king James the effects which the establishment of public peace, and these progresses of the law, had produced since the commencement of his majesty's reign. His reception on such an occasion could not but be favourable. As his residence in Ireland afforded him many opportunities to study the history and genius of that people, he published the result of his inquiries in 1612 under the title of "A Discovery of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued till the beginning of his majesty's reign." This has been reprinted four times, and has always been considered as a most valuable document for political inquirers. Soon after the publication of it he was appointed the king's serjeant, and a parliament having been called in Ireland in the same year, he was elected representative for the county of Fermanagh, the first that county had ever chosen; and after a violent struggle between the Roman catholic and protestant members, he was chosen speaker of the house of commons. In 1614 he interested himself in the restoration of the society of antiquaries, which had been instituted in 1590, but afterwards discontinued, and was now again attempted to be revived by sir James Ley; at this period it could enumerate among its members the names of Cotton, Hackwell, Camden, Stow, Spelman, and Whitlock. In 1715 he published "Reports of Cases adjudged in the king's courts in Ireland." These, says his biographer, were the first reports of Irish judgments which had ever been made public during the four hundred years that the laws if England had existed in that kingdom. To the Reports is annexed a preface, addressed to lord chancellor Ellesmere, "which vies with Coke in solidity and learning, and equals Blackstone in classical illustration and elegant language."
In 1616 he retired from Ireland, and found that a change had taken place in the English administration. He continued, however, as king's serjeant, in the practice of the law, and was often associated as one of the judges of assize. Some of his charges on the circuits are still extant in the British Museum. In 1620 we find him sitting in the English parliament for Newcastle-under-Line, where he distinguished himself chiefly in debates on the affairs of Ireland, maintaining, against Coke and other very high authorities, that England cannot make laws to bind Ireland, which had an independent parliament. Amidst these employments he found leisure to republish his "Nosce Teipsum" in 1622, along with his "Acrostics" and "Orchestra," a poem on the antiquity and excellency of dancing, dedicated to Charles prince of Wales, originally published in 1596. But this first edition has escaped the researches of modern collectors, and the poem, as we now find it, is imperfect. Whether it was not so in the first edition may be doubted. His biographer thinks it was there perfect, but why afterwards mutilated cannot be ascertained.
Sir John Davies lived four years after this publication, employed, probably, in the duties of his profession; and at the time when higher honours were within his reach, he died suddenly of an apoplexy in the night of the 7th of December 1626, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. He had previously supped with the lord keeper Coventry, who gave him assurances of being chief justice of England. He was buried in St. Martin's Church in the Fields, where a monument was erected to his memory, which appears to have been destroyed when the old church was pulled down.
He married, while in Ireland, Eleanor, the third daughter of lord Audley, by whom he had one son, who was an idiot and died young, and a daughter, Lucy, who was married to Ferdinando lord Hastings, afterwards earl of Huntingdon. Sir John's lady appears to have been an enthusiast; a volume of her prophecies was published in 1649, 4to. Anthony Wood informs us that she foretold the death of her husband, who turned the matter off with a jest. She was harshly treated during the republic for her officious prophecies, and is said to have been confined several years in Bethlem hospital, and in the Tower of London, where she suffered all the rigour that could be inflicted by those who would tolerate no impostures but their own. She died in 1652, and was interred near her husband in St. Martin's church. The late earl of Huntingdon informed lord Mountmorres the historian of the Irish parliament, that sir John Davies did not appear to have acquired any landed property in Ireland from his great employments. The character of sir John Davies as a lawyer, is that of great ability and learning. As a politician he stands unimpeached of corruption or servility, and his "Tracts" are valued as the result of profound knowledge and investigation. They were republished with some originals in 1786 by Mr. George Chalmers, who prefixed a Life of the Author, to which the present sketch is greatly indebted.
As a poet, he was one of the first of his day, but has been unaccountably neglected, although his style approaches the refinement of modern times. The best arbiters of poetical merit, however, seem to be agreed that his "Nosce Teipsum" is a noble monument of learning, acuteness, command of language, and facility of versification. It has none, indeed, of the sublimer flights which seem adapted to philosophical poetry, but lie is particularly happy in his images, which strike by their novelty and elegance. As to his versification, he has anticipated the harmony which the modern ear requires, more successfully than any of his contemporaries.
His "Orchestra," if we consider the nature of the subject, is a wonderful instance of what a man of genius may elicit from trifles. His "Acrostics" are considered as the best ever written, but that praise is surely not very great. It is amusing, however, to contemplate him gravely endeavouriug to overcome the difficulties he had created, and seeking with great care to exchange an intruding word for one better suited to his favourite initials.
According to Wood, he wrote a version of some of the Psalms, which is probably lost. It is more certain that he wrote epigrams, which were added to Marlow's translation of Ovid's Epistles, printed at Middleburgh in 1596. Mr. Ellis has given two of them among his "Specimens," which do not excite much curiosity for the rest. Marlow's volume is exceedingly scarce, which may be accounted for by the following information: in 1599, the hall of the stationers underwent as great a purgation as was carried on in don Quixote's library. Marston's Pygmalion, Marlow's Ovid, the satires of Hall and Marston, the epigrams of Davies, &c. were ordered for immediate conflagration by the prelates Whitgift and Bancroft. There are other pieces frequently ascribed to sir John Davies, which, Mr. Ritson thinks, belong to John Davies of Hereford, but as our author superintended the edition of his poems printed about four years before his death, he included all that he thought proper to acknowledge, and probably, if we except the epigrams, nearly all that he had written. The lord Dorset recommended an edition of his works to Tate, who published the "Nosce Teipsum," with the preface. In 1773 another edition was published by Mr. Thomas Davies from a copy corrected by Mr. William Thomson, the poet, including the "Acrostics" and "Orchestra." The whole have been added to the late edition of the Poets.