John Davies was born in 1569, just five years after William Shakespeare and two years before John Donne. His life belongs as much to the Jacobean as to the Elizabethan period. He probably became interested in writing epigrams while he was attending Winchester School. This preparatory school produced a large number of important writers of epigrams, including John Owen, Thomas Bastard, and John Hoskins, as well as Davies. After spending some time at Oxford, Davies attended New Inn, an Inn of Chancery associated with the Inns of Court, before entering the Middle Temple and formally beginning his study of the law. Located near the theaters, the Inns of Court, the four important law schools in London, attracted many young men with literary as well as legal interests. Sir Francis Bacon studied at Gray’s Inn, Donne at Lincoln’s Inn, and Sir Walter Ralegh and John Marston at the Middle Temple.
In the fall of 1592, Davies visited the University of Leiden, arriving a week after William Fleetwood and Richard Martin, his fellow students at the Middle Temple. William Camden, one of the leading English antiquarians, wrote a letter introducing Davies to Paul Merula, a distinguished Dutch jurist. The trip may have been partially motivated by the need to improve Fleetwood’s image with the Middle Temple Benchers. He and Martin had been expelled on February 11, 1592, for their “misdemeanours and abuses to the Masters and Benchers.” Davies was probably involved in the Candlemas disturbances, but he and Robert Jacob, a lifelong friend, were given the milder penalty of merely being excluded from commons.
By 1594, Davies had apparently been presented at court by Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who, along with Sir Thomas Egerton, is described as Davies’ patron in all the manuscript sources for his biography. Queen Elizabeth had Davies sworn her servant-in-ordinary and encouraged him in his studies at the Middle Temple. He then served as part of the embassy to Scotland for the christening of Prince Henry at Stirling Castle on October 30, 1594.
On July 4, 1595, Davies was “called to the degree of the Utter Bar with the assent of all the Masters of the Bench.” Since his admission to the Bar came after the minimum seven years of residence and since he was called with the permission of all the Masters of the Bench, not merely by a particular reader, he must have distinguished himself as a particularly brilliant student. Much of his best poetry was written during this period. By 1595, he had probably written Nosce Teipsum, which he did not publish until 1599, and most of his epigrams. In 1596, he published the first printed version of Orchestra, an encomium of dancing, to which he attached a dedicatory sonnet to Martin, addressing him as his dearest friend.
On February 9, 1598, Davies entered the Middle Temple Dining Hall while the Benchers were seated decorously at the table, preparing for the practice court and other exercises which followed dinner. Davies walked immediately to the table where Martin was seated and broke a bastinado over his head. Before leaving, he drew his rapier and brandished it above his head. For this flagrant violation of legal decorum, he was expelled on February 10 “never to...
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