William Davison (diplomat)

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William Davison (c. 1541 – 21 December 1608) was secretary to Queen Elizabeth I. He played a key functional and diplomatic role in the 1587 execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and was made the scapegoat for this event in British history. A Secretary of some influence he was active in forging alliances with England's protestant friends in Holland and Scotland to prevent war with France.


Court official

Davison was of Scottish descent. In June 1566 acting as secretary to Henry Killigrew he was recommended to the English court on a mission to Mary Stuart on the birth of her son. Discreetly he assured her Queen Elizabeth wanted her son to inherit the English throne. Killigrew heartily recommended to Walsingham "Mr Davison hath deserved more...."[1] Davison's wife was Leicester's 'cousin' by marriage, and clearly William Davison was a member of the Council's puritan group around Leicester-Walsingham.[2]

In 1576-7 Davison was sent on at least three separate missions into France to attempt to broker peace, and prevent war with England. Davison perceived the Spanish Governor of the Netherlands to be cruel and vengeful. He wrote his patron Leicester many times urging strongly an alliance with the Prince of Orange to stop a Catholic alliance forming for an invasion of England. As influence slipped away Davison complained of ill-health and the cost of his embassy. In May 1579 he returned at last to England.[lower-roman 1] He was granted the reversion of the Clerk of Treasury's office on 16 Jan 1578 by the Queen herself, to which he eventually succeeded years later.[3]

Sent into Scotland by Elizabeth on a mission to communicate with Mary, Queen of Scots in 1582-3 to escaort King Henri III of France's ambassador securing an audience with King James. Tactful and helpful Davison worked closely with the Queen's agent, Robert Bowes until September 1584. The death of anglophile Prince of Orange propitiated yet another mission to the Netherlands, for Davison, already an experienced diplomat. Although praised for his diplomactic role by the puritan Earl of Leicester, when he returned he found the Queen incensed by their assumption of Governorship in Amsterdam or an English mission acting alone. In a typically trenchant mood Davison saw no need to apologise but insisted that he would pray the Queen changed course. Davison's biographer, Nicolas described Davison as becoming depressed, withdrawing from Court to nurse his wounded presbyterian pride. Davison drifted further away from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, his erstwhile and more towards the extreme war party around Walsingham.[4] 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 from 30 September 1586.

Davison 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 the idea of taking any responsibility upon herself for the death of her rival. The judges sat on 11th October and proceedings began on 14th. It was prorogued four days later, only to meet again on 25th in Star Chamber at Westminster. In her absence the Queen was still found guilty. On 29th Parliament petitioned for execution to be carried out.

Meanwhile the privy council, having been summoned by Lord Burghley, decided to draft the warrant on 6 December, two days after the Queen's Proclamation, and carry out the sentence at once. Finally the Queen siged the warrant on 1st February. She ordered Davison to hold onto it, and unsealed. Davison passed it over to Burghley, who immediately despatched it to Fotheringhay Castle. Mary was beheaded on the 8th February, 1587. Officially Davison continued as principal secretary until Walsingham's death in April 1590. Yet Walsingham the spymaster remained the more dominant personality, and is generally considered behind the scheme to execute the Queen of Scots.


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 seal the warrant, but this instruction did not arrive until 2nd February 1587, and Burghley had already taken the initiative.[lower-roman 2] The secretary was arrested and thrown into the Tower, but although he defended himself vigorously, he did not say anything about the Queen's wish to get rid of Mary by assassination.[lower-roman 3] 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.[5] Owing to the exertions of several influential men he was released in September 1588 after the invasion crisis had passed; the Queen, however, refused to employ him again in her service, but he kept his office, and probably never paid the fine.[6] His friends notably Earl of Essex tried to get him the exercise of the Secretary's office, particularly after Walsingham's death in 1590. However Burghley coveted the post keeping it vacant for his son Robert Cecil. He was excluded from the emoluments of office for the remainder of the reign. And James I was even less likely to offer preferment.

Davison and family retired to Stepney, where he died on 21st December 1608, and was buried on 24th. The fruits of the office of custos brevium were "benefit of said office wholly to me and my assigns." Despite mortgaging his home in 1579, his widow was not evicted it seems, the debt not called until much later.

Davison appears to have been an industrious and outspoken man, and was undoubtedly made the scapegoat for the Queen's conduct. By his wife, Catherine Spelman, daughter of Henry Spelman of Norfolk, Esq., whom he married around 1570, he had a family of four sons and two daughters. Two of his sons, Francis and Walter, obtained some celebrity as poets.[7]

Many state papers written by him, and many of his letters, are extant in various collections of manuscripts. His will's exectors were brothers of Grays Inn, George and Robert Byng, who had mortgaged his house in Stepney.[8] Davison left his widow with large debts. When all debts were paid on the sale of the house, his second son Christopher Davison was to inherit the right to a Treasury Office as proven in the will by 9 January 1609.[9]

Offices held
Date Post
1566 Secretary to Henry Killigrew
June 1566–1575 or 1576 Ambassador to Scotland
26 March–20 May 1576 Envoy to Netherlands
August 1577–May 1579 Envoy to Netherlands
10 December 1582–September 1584 Envoy to Scotland
25 August 1585–February 1586 Envoy to Netherlands
30 September 1586 Principal secretary and Privy Councillor
by 1607 Clerk of Treasury and custos brevium of King's bench Records.[10]

Fictional portrayals

He is a minor character in the play Maria Stuart by Friedrich Schiller.


  1. the State Papers require this to be May, but Nicolas biography finds it was April.
  2. Lord Burghley held a crucial Privy Council meeting on 3rd February at his house at which they agreed to seal the warrant without telling the Queen.
  3. Queen Elizabeth I issued a Royal Proclamation and signed the Warrant, eventually. But there is evidence that Burghley and Walsingham manipulated the Privy Council to provoke the Queen and managed Parliament to rubber-stamp the execution warrants. Davison is generally thought to have been superseded by the dual power brokers Walsingham and Cecil, with authority assumed from Davison.


  1. Nicolas (1823), pp.4-5
  2. Calendar of State Papers Scotland 1574-81, pp.171, 176
  3. Nicolas, p.12-13
  4. Nicolas, pp.29-32
  5. Simond D'Ewes, pp.394-5, 399
  6. S.Doran, "The Tudor Chronicles", Quercus, pp.354-7
  7. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/davison-william-1541-1608
  8. Nicolas, p.211
  9. Prerogative Court of Canterbury 29 Dorset
  10. English Historical Review, xlvi, pp.104-6