Friday, August 14, 2009

Lucky to have got there in one piece: Sir John Davies, Pangbourne

‘Under part of this monument lyeth the body of Sir John Davis K who received ye hon. of Knighthood & Banneret at the taking of Cales in Spain in the reigne of Q. Eliz.’

A grey monument, carved in chalk quarried at Shooter’s Hill, rubbed by time. Sir John Davies (1560-1625) and his two wives: the first, a widow whose married name was Rowse, and Elizabeth White, his second wife (m.1609). The church is St James the Less, Pangbourne, where the River Pang flows into the Thames.

A sober monument to a remarkable and hazardous life – Davies is in the ODNB, and from there I get most of this information. Considered by William Camden ‘an excellent mathematician’, Davis apparently wrote much on mathematics and astrology, and compiled with John Dee and Matthew Gwinne a volume of letters ‘concernyng chymical and magical secrets’. In London, he picked up more about astrology from Simon Forman.

Finally arrived at court, he joined the entourage of the Earl of Essex, and served under him at the siege of Rouen, at the taking of Cadiz, and on the Azores voyage. As the monument boasts, at Cadiz, Essex knighted the man who had become his surveyor of ordnance – Davies had turned those mathematical skills into military ones. Perhaps he continued to do a quiet bit of astrology for the Earl. Lots of Renaissance nobility seem to have had a kind of occult advisor.

He was in Ireland with Essex, returned when the Earl made his precipitate departure from his Lord Lieutenantship. As Essex fell apart, it was Davis who drew up a serious set of plans that might have made Essex’s rebellion work as a coup: take the Tower of London at the onset, and then use its weaponry to capture the whole court, then the city: “the Tower was alleged, the giving a reputation to the Action, by getting into their hand the principal Fort of the Realm, with the stores and provisions thereunto appertaining, the bridling of the City by that piece, and commodity of entrance in and possessing it, by the means of Sir John Davis. (Francis Bacon’s A declaration of the practises & treasons attempted and committed by Robert late Earle of Essex and his complices.)

When the conspirators opted to go through the city to the Court, again Davies was prompt with detailed planning: “Sir John Davis took Pen, Ink, and Paper, and set down, That some should keep the Hall, some the Court-Gates, some the Guard-Chamber, and some the Presence-Chamber; saying, many of the Guard had been the Earl of Essex his Servants, and were preferred to the Queen by him, and will be more indifferent to deal with than others, and so my Lord shall have a way through his own Guards to come to the Privie-Chamber, and the Presence of the Queen.” (The arraignment, tryal and condemnation of Robert Earl of Essex and Henry Earl of Southampton, at Westminster the 19th of February, 1600)

Essex did not heed any of this, believing too much in his own popularity. He then professed at his trial that Davies’ Catholicism was a complete surprise to him:

“Attorn. Gen. Well, my Lord, what can you devise to say for Sir John Davis, another of your Adherents? that Papist, for he hath confessed that he is a Papist and a Catholic, and drawn in by Sir Christopher Blunt, one of your chiefest Council, and that he called for a Seminary Priest upon his convertment to absolve him.
Essex. If Sir John Davis were such a man, it cannot be but strange to me to hear it; although I cannot search into the Secrets of his Heart to accuse him inwardly, yet I have seen him dutifully come to Prayers, and to the Service of God in my own House with me, and behaved himself very Godlily.”

This was Sir John Davies, then, a man capable of keeping a personal secret by continued dissembling, one of the chief conspirators in Essex’s rebellion. When he came to stand trial, all his doubtful past was remembered: Cecil referred to ‘that traitor knave Sir J. Davies, a conjuror and Catholic, who at Oxford occupied himself in the idle art of figure casting’, and the official ‘Directions for the preachers’ (who were to reduce Essex’s standing in the eyes of the citizens), Davis is described as ‘a traitor now in hold, brought up in Oxford, and by profession a setter of figures’.

Report of what he said under examination is brief:

Sir John Davis's Examination. He saith, that the Earl’s Purpose was, to possess himself of the Court, and to take the Tower of London; and that they had several Meetings of Consultation together with the Earl of Southampton, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Jo. Littleton, Sir Christopher Blunt, Sir Charles Danvers, and this Deponent. And these Matters (he confesseth) the Earl of Essex set down all with his own Hand, viz. Sir Christopher Blunt to keep the outward Gate of the Court himself, this Deponent the Hall and Water-gate, and Sir Charles Danvers the Presence and Guard-Chamber; then my Lord of Essex and his Forces would have come by Land, and so have possessed the presence of the Queen. The question was asked the Earl of Essex (as this Deponent saith) how he would deal with Offenders, and such as resisted him after he should be possessed of these things. He resolved them by way of Answer, that he meant to admit them all to an Honourable Trial.”

Davies has Essex writing down the plans, rather than making this his own initiative, but does, for what it was worth, try to absolve Essex of planning a bloody coup. By the standards of the time, he was quite rightly convicted and sentenced to death. But after six months imprisonment, he had (probably) ‘saved his life by telling first who was in the deepest’, as the historian R. Ashley puts it. But a covert Catholic and astrologer getting away with being a main instigator in a rebellion? Lucky indeed!

Davis must have continued to go through the motions of Anglican faith: he’s buried in an English parish church after all. He took the Oath of Allegiance. And he had, from somewhere, enough money to buy Bere Court near Pangbourne in 1613. From the quarrels he got into about the trust which was establishing Wadham College, it seems that Davies did profit personally when it was possible to do so, in the manner of his time.

Davies’s son (another Sir John) married Anne, one of the sisters of the poet Sir John Suckling. All three sisters are commemorated with a plaque on the south wall, and a large slab near the entrance to the vestry: ‘Martha was first Maryed unto Sir George Sowthcott of Shillingford in the County of Devon Knight & dyed the Wife of Wm. Clagett of Isleworth in the County of Midlesex Esq shee dyed at the Bath the 29 of June 1661. Anne was Maryed unto Sr. John Davis, sonne of Sr. John Davis both Lords of this Mannor, & dyed ye 24 of July 1659. Mary Suckling dyed a virgine the 17 of October 1658.’


Jennifer said...

Interesting! The part where Davies is a surviving conspirator of the Essex rebellion reminds me somewhat of the way the then-Catholic Ben Jonson kept surviving all of the accusations against him, including the Gunpowder Plot allegations.

Regarding the question of Davies' religion, I'm always a little torn on how much to believe in confessions (I want to say "confessions" with ironic quotation marks), even when there are corroborting reports as there are here of Davies' Catholicism. It seems to me that in that climate accusing him of Catholicism would be roughly comparable to accusing a woman of witchcraft, with similar odds of obtaining a confession, and the fact that he didn't by some other evidence appear to be Catholic before or after supports that.

(I'm also reminded of the Roderigo Lopez case, where Lopez apparently never confessed but many people still consider the fact that he was tried and condemned as proof that he was secretly Jewish.)

On the other hand, ignoring the evidence we do have is so arbitrary....

DrRoy said...

Thank you for this (I have been away this last week). I guess it was normal for the age to have inner allegiances in faith which you kept quiet about. They cannot have been that strong in Davis: he would not have worked with Essex, militantly Protestant, and I suppose a devout Catholic would never have been happy with astrology. On the other point, 'confessing' witches did get away with their imaginary crime, and that's perhaps another part of the analogy with our man here.