William Davys

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Sir William Davys (born before 1633 – died 1687) was an Irish judge who held the offices of Recorder of Dublin, Prime Serjeant and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He was accused of Roman Catholic sympathies and was threatened with removal from the bench as a result, but he succeeded in retaining high office until his death, due in part to his influential family connections.


He was the eldest son of Sir Paul Davys (died 1672), Clerk to the Privy Council of Ireland, by his first wife Margaret Ussher (died 1633), daughter of Arthur Ussher, and granddaughter of Sir William Ussher of Donnybrook.[1] Sir John Davys, Principal Secretary for Ireland was his half-brother. His father has been described as a remarkable man who through a long career was able to work amicably with Viceroys as different as the Earl of Strafford, Henry Cromwell, and James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde. It was his father's long friendship with Ormonde which gave William his own start in life, since Ormonde prided himself on being loyal to his friends and their families.[2] William entered Lincoln's Inn in 1649, was called to the English bar in 1657, and entered King's Inn in 1661.[3]

Early career[edit]

William obtained a reversion of his father's office as Clerk to the Privy Council in 1660. In 1661 he was made Recorder of Dublin; in the same year he was elected to the Irish House of Commons as member for Dublin City.[3] On Ormonde's formal entry as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland into Dublin in 1662, William organised the civic reception in his honour and was knighted. Ormonde always showed William great kindness, obtaining for him sinecures such as Clerk of the Tholsel and Chief Justice (or Seneschal) of the Duke's own private Court, the Palatine Court of Tipperary. His marriage to Martha Boyle, daughter of Michael Boyle, Archbishop of Armagh in 1664 also assisted his career, especially when his father-in-law became Lord Chancellor of Ireland the following year.[3]

His career suffered a check when Ormonde was replaced as Lord Lieutenant by Arthur Capell, 1st Earl of Essex. Whether for supporting the wrong political faction, or because of his alleged Catholic leanings, he was suspended from office in 1672. However he was quickly restored to favour, and on his father-in-law's urging he was made Prime Serjeant in 1675. He was recommended for a seat on the Bench in 1673, and again in 1679, but by then his future career was caught up in the turmoil caused by the Popish Plot.[4]

Popish Plot[edit]

On the outbreak of the Popish Plot, William and his brother John were both accused of Roman Catholic sympathies and summoned to London to give an account of themselves.[5] What basis there was for the accusation is hard to say: the son-in-law of an Anglican Archbishop in the 1670s was most unlikely to be a Roman Catholic, nor could any Irish Catholic at a time of such extreme anti-Catholic hysteria have hoped to achieve high office. Although William later remarried the widow of one of the premier Catholic noblemen, the 3rd Earl of Clancarty, his wife Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald was herself described as a "fierce Protestant isolated in a Catholic family."[6] In the event, with his father-in-law and Ormonde vouching for his Protestant character, he was cleared of any suspicion of being a Catholic sympathiser.[4]

Lord Chief Justice[edit]

Sir John Povey, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, died in 1679, and his successor Sir Robert Booth died only a year later. Despite Ormonde's great influence, Davys was passed over for this crucial office the first time, presumably due to doubts about his true religious beliefs, but he was able to obtain the office on the second occasion.[2]

Having now reached the height of his career, Davys seriously damaged his standing by his second marriage to the widowed Lady Clancarty, Elizabeth FitzGerald, who was the daughter of George FitzGerald, 16th Earl of Kildare and Lady Joan Boyle. Whether it was for love or for social advancement, the marriage offended both Archbishop Boyle and the FitzGeralds, who were engaged in a lawsuit with the Ormonde family, which came before Davys as Chief Justice. The FitzGeralds accused Davys of bias and threatened to have him removed from the Bench: Davys replied that he feared to do wrong, but did not fear the consequences of doing justice.[7]

Possibly Davys was attracted by the great wealth of his teenage stepson Donough MacCarthy, 4th Earl of Clancarty, while Donough's uncle Justin MacCarthy, later Viscount Mountcashel, was very close to the future James II.[8] Unfortunately Justin quarrelled irrevocably with Lady Davys when, in an episode that caused a notable scandal, he virtually kidnapped the young earl and forced him into an underage marriage with Elizabeth Spencer, daughter of Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland.[6] The marriage, which turned out badly, caused Davys' wife much grief in her last years, and suggests that the couple had little influence at Court.[7]

On the accession of James II, it was widely rumoured that Davys would be removed from office; he was ageing, and "much impaired by the gout"[7] and had quarrelled with many of his influential connections. In the event James seems to have approved of Davys, perhaps because of his alleged Catholic sympathies, and he duly kissed the King's hand.[9] Despite further rumours of his impending removal he remained in office until his death in 1687.

His widow Elizabeth survived until 1698, much troubled in her last years by her son's turbulent career, which saw him imprisoned in the Tower of London as a traitor, then escape to find his long estranged wife Elizabeth Spencer, and at last consummate their marriage, only to be arrested by her outraged family. The affair caused a furore, but fortunately King William III took the matter lightly, and granted Lady Davys' request that her son and daughter-in-law be allowed to go into exile in Germany. [10]


Davys's only child, a daughter by Martha Boyle, died young; having no surviving children, he naturally wished to provide for his step-daughter, Lady Catherine MacCarthy. At the same time he wished his house, St. Catherine's Park, Leixlip, which he had bought and improved, to remain in the Davys family. His will contained the curious condition that whichever son of his brother John married Catherine should inherit. His nephew Paul married her, duly inherited St. Catherine's, and after Justin MacCarthy's death had the title Viscount Mount Cashell revived in his own favour.[9]


Elrington Ball believed that whatever Davys' good qualities may have been, he owed his advancement largely to his father's high reputation and to the friendship of Ormonde.[2] On the other hand, his refusal to give in to threats from the FitzGerald family suggests that he was a man of integrity, and, whatever his personal beliefs, he seems to have been genuinely in favour of religious tolerance.[7]


  1. ^ Montgomery-Massingberd 1976, p. 1158.
  2. ^ a b c Ball 1926, p. 292.
  3. ^ a b c Ball 1926, p. 357.
  4. ^ a b Ball 1906, p. 30.
  5. ^ Ball 1926, p. 380.
  6. ^ a b Kenyon 1958, p. 102.
  7. ^ a b c d Ball 1906, p. 32.
  8. ^ Kenyon 2000, p. 38.
  9. ^ a b Ball 1926, p. 358.
  10. ^ Kenyon 1958, p. 302.


  • Ball, F. Elrington (1906). History of Dublin (4th ed.). Dublin: Alexander Thom and Co. 
  • Ball, F. Elrington (1926). The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 (1st ed.). London: John Murray. 
  • Kenyon, J.P. (1958). Robert Spencer 2nd Earl of Sunderland 1641–1702. Longmans Green. 
  • Kenyon, J.P. (2000). The Popish Plot (2nd ed.). Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-84212-168-9. 
  • Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh, ed. (1976). Burke's Irish Family Records. London: Burke's Peerage. ISBN 978-0-85011-018-0. 
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Robert Booth
Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
Succeeded by
Thomas Nugent