Sir John Davis Elizabethan Traitor and Pangbourne Church

Pangbourne, on the river Thames, is a gorgeous place to take a walk and explore the many old buildings and local shops. Of course, I'm always drawn to pop in and explore the local church. 

The church, St James the Less, was originally built in the early Medieval period, standing by the end of the thirteenth century, when it is mentioned in a charter. Its registers begin from 1556, during the reign of Mary I. The church that we see today was rebuilt in 1868 during the Victorian era. The tower dates to 1718. 

Pangbourne Church of St James the Less

For me, the most fascinating of the monuments inside the church is that of Sir John Davis, a knight during the reign of Elizabeth I, who had a personal brush with treason. Davis entered the court of the queen in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada invasion and the death of the influential courtier and Elizabeth's favourite Sir Robert Dudley. Davis was a follower of the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, who knighted him at Cadiz in Spain in 1596. When the earl mounted an unsuccessful rebellion against the queen, Davis was among those implicated. It was said that his role at the Tower of London was to be used to secure London on behalf of the rebels, specifically the old Tudor palace of Whitehall. He was sentenced to death, but later pardoned. In 1613 he bought the manor of Pangbourne from Francis Weldon, whose father Thomas had received it from Elizabeth I in 1563. Davis married twice and died in 1625, leaving his son, a minor, to inherit his lands. This son, also called John, went on to fight for the Royalist cause during the English Civil War.

The Elizabethan John Davis rests at Pangbourne with his two wives, all represented by effigies in the north wall. The monument also includes the kneeling figures of a son and daughter. It bears the inscription (spelling modernised): 'Under part of this Monument lieth ye bodie of Sir John Davis Knight who received ye honour of knighthood and Bannerett at ye taking of [Cadiz] in Spain in ye reign of Queen Elizabeth. He died May ye 14 1625 in ye 63 year of his Age'. 

Effigy of Sir John Davis d.1625

John seems to have been a proud, belligerent figure who could be drawn easily to temper. On 4 April 1600 a complaint was made about him by a G. Harvey to Robert Cecil, the queen's secretary. Harvey maintained that he visited the Tower as deputy of the lieutenant of the Ordnance, having been sent instead of the absent Sir George Carew. On 13 March he and other officers were sorting out some paperwork when Davis called one of them a 'saucy companion' over a dispute as to who had the greater authority. When Harvey returned, he tried to conduct business with a man named Mr Paulfreyman. Davis said 'that he [Paulfreyman] was no officer and therefore he should not stay, and so commanded him out'. Others in the room objected. Davis, 'growing in choler threatened to thrust him out, and so rising from his stool took him by the shoulders, and, not being able of himself to do it, he called his servants, William Scott, and another ruffianly fellow... into the office, with whose help he violently carried him out'. Harvey further complained that Davis had earlier called him 'insolent, and but a deputy'.

Sir John Davis and his two wives

The monument at Pangbourne is made, unusually, from chalk mined from Shooter's Hill in Berkshire. Because of the nature of chalk, the sculpture no longer contains the detailed features it once would have had. Parts of it have worn down and broken off over the centuries. His two wives are also not named, as far as I can see, on the monument. If you're ever in Pangbourne do go and have a look at the monument, it's very unusual for the time and is also a reminder of one of the few men who managed to be condemned to death during the Tudor era and still survive. 


'Parishes: Pangbourne', in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 3, (London, 1923) pp. 303-306. British History Online [accessed 26 April 2024]

'Cecil Papers: April 1600, 1-15', in Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House: Volume 10, 1600, ed. R A Roberts (London, 1904), pp. 92-110. British History Online [accessed 27 April 2024].

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