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 role in the 1587 execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and was made the scapegoat for this event in British history.


Court official[edit]

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 the idea of taking any responsibility upon herself for the death of her rival. Meanwhile the privy council, having been summoned by Lord Burghley, decided to carry out the sentence at once, and Mary was beheaded on the 8th of February, 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. 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 December 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.

Many state papers written by him, and many of his letters, are extant in various collections of manuscripts.

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