DAVENANT, Charles (1656-1714), of Red Lion Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1685 - 1687
1698 - Nov. 1701

Family and Education

b. 17 Nov. 1656, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir William Davenant of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Mdx., being 1st s. by his 3rd w. Henriette Marie du Tremblay, wid. of St. Germain Beaupré of Anjou, France.  educ. Cheam g.s. 1665; Balliol, Oxf. 1673–5; travelled abroad (Holland) c.1673–5; LL.D. Camb. 1675; Doctors’ Commons 1675.  m. ?(1) 1678, da. of Lionel Walden† of Huntingdon, s.p.; (2) c.1679, Frances, da. and h. of James Molins, MD, of Shoe Lane, London 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 6da.  suc. fa. 1668.

Offices Held

Commr. excise 1678–89, hearth tax 1684–Jan. 1685, July 1685–9; sec. to commrs. for union with Scotland 1702–3; inspector-gen. of imports and exports 1703–d.1


The dominant theme in Davenant’s life after the Revolution was a constant lack of money. Out of office in 1689, and ‘very poor’, he put aside his earlier allegiance to James II, swallowed his pride, and began almost immediately to apply to the Williamite government for a revenue post suitable to his talents and experience. ‘I must own’, he wrote to one leading Whig, ‘the hard usage I met with might at first perhaps draw some little anger from me, but I . . . quieted those resentments and satisfied myself for my private loss with the good I saw the commonwealth was to receive by the Revolution.’ His most important contact in the new administration was Lord Godolphin (Sidney†), who was recommending him to the King as early as 1689. As Godolphin’s influence waned and that of the Whig Junto waxed his chances of employment diminished. Failure rankled with him. He suspected some prejudice in the ministry, and this in due course sharpened his satires on the Junto. His early writings, on trade and economic policy, were intended to impress those in power: the Essay upon the Ways and Means of Supplying the War in December 1694, its unpublished ‘supplement’ in November 1695, and the privately circulated ‘memorials’ on the coinage, public credit and the council of trade in 1696. He argued against heavy taxation, long-term government borrowing (‘the new funds for interest’) and a recoinage, and in favour of a retrenchment of war expenditure, the ‘enlargement of public credit’, the establishment of a council of trade, and the replacement of the land and poll taxes by a general excise. A number of central themes of his later political pamphleteering were already present: his support for ‘the landed interest’ against merely moneyed wealth, his belief that too great a commitment by England to land campaigns in Europe would harm the domestic economy, his preference for the navy over land forces as the principal arm of national defence, and the necessity to pursue competition for trade and colonies. When developed, these would form the basis of the Tory critique of William’s and Marlborough’s wars. They were never really to the taste of the Whig ministry, and Davenant’s cause was not assisted by a style that was long-winded and abstruse, and on occasion too obviously pedagogic. Three times he came close to success in his quest for office: in 1694, when he nearly secured the surveyor-generalship of the salt duty; in May 1696, when John Locke pipped him to a seat on the Board of Trade; and later in the summer of 1696, when he obtained Treasury backing for the post of surveyor-general of the excise but was blackballed by the excise commissioners.2

This third disappointment, and Godolphin’s resignation in October 1696, appears to have been decisive. Davenant swiftly signalled a radical change of attitude with his ‘Essay on Public Virtue’, dedicated to Godolphin and the Duke of Shrewsbury, which was an almost hysterical attack on the ‘corruption’ of the Junto ministers, ‘persons weak, ambitious, light, designing, rash, unskilful in the arts of wise administration, versed in nothing but craft and tricks’. He became a kind of unofficial adviser to the ‘new Country party’ opposition, at first chiefly on economic matters, which were still the main preoccupation of his writing. For remunerative employment he had to look in other directions. One pamphlet, the Essay on the East India Trade (1696), which was a defence of the East India trade in general and the Old Company in particular, was useful in forwarding his efforts to enter that company’s service. From November 1698 he was paid a retainer of £1 a day in advance of a promised appointment as unofficial ‘ambassador’ to India for the company (to counteract the embassy of William Norris* for the New Company). In an analysis of the House in early 1700 into interests he was classed with the supporters of the Old Company, and during the session he assisted in the passage of the East India Act. When this measure became law and his travels could begin, he excused himself from the commitment, presumably because he had now, after a long interval, resumed a parliamentary career, and prospects of advancement seemed bright. He had been returned at the 1698 election on the Bruce interest at Great Bedwyn. A frequenter of the Grecian tavern, along with Anthony Hammond*, Walter Moyle* and other ‘Country party’ stalwarts, he was classed as a supporter of the Country party in a comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments, and was forecast as likely to oppose a standing army. The first of his pamphlets to make a significant political impact was the Discourse of Grants and Resumptions, written in the summer of 1699 and published late in the year, on the subject of the grants of Irish forfeited estates, then under investigation by parliamentary commissioners. He was in close touch with these commissioners, especially Francis Annesley*, and his aim was to ‘endeavour to prepare the town’ to give their report ‘a kind reception’. In putting the case for resumption on the grounds of financial necessity, Davenant recited historical precedents and also pre-empted the arguments of the ‘poor Protestant purchasers’ in Ireland by reminding his audience that Ireland had been reconquered at the expense of the English taxpayer and that Parliament had given fair warning of its intentions, thus disposing in advance of the two main props of the Junto Whig case. But his most important service to the Country party was to shift the focus on the subject of the grievance from the King himself to his ‘favourites’ and to the Junto, and thereby to integrate this issue into the wider campaign against the ministry. There were attacks on Portland, Lady Orkney and Charles Montagu*, and he summarized his position by observing of the forfeitures that ‘it would be very hard if all this should be intercepted from the public, and that we should waste our blood and treasure only to enrich a few private persons’. The Discourse, selling in great numbers, effectively paved the way for the resumption bill, a measure Davenant himself helped to draft. He was not, however, a candidate for the board of trustees elected under the bill. Indeed, it is likely that he had publicly disavowed any interest, since he received not one vote in the ballot.3

Davenant had established himself as the Tories’ leading propagandist, writing at the behest of Tory politicians and with the close co-operation of Robert Harley* in particular. It was Harley who made available to him various documents to facilitate his Essays upon . . . the Balance of Power, composed in 1700 and printed in February 1701, which was an attack on the Partition Treaty and a warning against any return of the Junto ministers with their self-interested and damaging war policies. This was another tour de force, though in the long run it was to leave him open to accusations of favouring the French, and therefore the Pretender, and in the short run it aroused the anger of Convocation, from which he was fortunate to escape lightly, on account of his wild denunciations of Whig bishops as persons that ‘almost from their cradles’ had professed ‘enmity . . . to the divinity of Christ’. Later in the year came his most successful piece of political journalism, The True Picture of a Modern Whig, an incisive satire that, in synthesizing his own and other criticisms of the Junto Whig administration, was to have a seminal effect on the development of Tory ideology. His principal character, ‘Tom Double’, the self-seeking, unprincipled ‘modern Whig’, was set against ‘Whiglove’, the embodiment of the old Whig tradition, to emphasize that the Junto represented a mushroom-like political interest, lacking any foundation but corruption. Having been appointed to the abortive commission of accounts on 17 June, he was struck off by a Lords’ amendment as a reprisal for his earlier disparagement of the episcopate. He was listed as likely to support the Court in continuing the ‘Great Mortgage’ in February 1701. Opposed to the idea of a war with France (at least until the death of James II and Louis XIV’s recognition of the Pretender) he was well acquainted with the French ambassador, Tallard, and after Tallard’s departure stayed in touch with the chargé d’affaires, Poussin, who reported that Davenant claimed to be well disposed towards the Pretender. This friendship with Poussin proved his downfall, as Davenant was one of three Tory Members discovered in September 1701 supping with the Frenchman and the Spanish consul Navarra, another long-standing acquaintance, at the Blue Posts tavern. For all his protests that the presence of Poussin was ‘a mere accident’ for which he was in no way responsible, Davenant, like the other ‘Poussineers’, became the victim of a Whig smear campaign. He was blacklisted as having voted against the preparations for war; was taunted in public by Whigs ‘mimicking in gibberish speech Monsieur Poussin’; and his Essays upon . . . the Balance of Power were declared to have been commissioned by French gold. This last canard was already well established: Navarra related how ‘Dr Davenant said at the Blue Posts if it were known he was with them people would swear he had the 7,000 pistoles they had talked of’. However, while the French were well aware of his vulnerability – ‘il a une grosse famille avec peu de bien’, observed Poussin – they did not take advantage of it. Ironically, the incident had occurred at a time when even Davenant had come round to the feeling that war was inevitable. He attempted a piece ‘to make men lay aside their animosities for the good of the public’, and ‘to show the necessity of a war against France’, but abandoned it in the face of a strenuously and bitterly fought election, in which he was a prime sufferer on the Tory side. Rejected at Bedwyn, he was still hopeful that ‘I have done my country so much service that some friend or other will bring me into this Parliament’, but such was the effect of the discovery at the Blue Posts, and his inability to explain himself adequately, that no one did.4

After the debacle of the Poussin affair and the disappointments of the election, Davenant remained on the defensive for a spell, keeping out of the limelight as far as he could. A sequel to The True Picture, entitled Tom Double Returned out of the Country, was published anonymously in January 1702, and although the Lords were provoked to inquire into the authorship by an allusion in the pamphlet to a Whig scheme to exclude Anne from the succession, Davenant was not exposed. On behalf of Jane Lavallin he undertook the parliamentary management of a private bill arising from the Resumption Act, running into more trouble with the Lords in the process, when his client’s clumsy endeavours to solicit her cause left him open to possible charges of bribery. He stood unsuccessfully at New Shoreham in 1702, and two other efforts to re-enter Parliament also came to grief. He returned to the possibility of an official salary as a means of staving off his creditors. He looked for assistance from Godolphin, Harley and Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), who were all bombarded with offers and schemes. He obtained a diplomatic posting for his son, and for himself the place of secretary to the short-lived union commission, ‘a present entertainment’ that would suffice until ‘something better’ and more permanent should ‘fall’. Prior to the commission’s first meeting it was reported that Davenant was busy ‘consulting papers about what was transacted in King James I’s and King Charles’s reign’. He also declined two offers of an excise commissionership, which was proof to Godolphin that ‘vanity and folly well rooted are not to be cured even by necessity itself’. When he missed the vacancy for auditor of the imprest his discontent reached the ears of the newswriters and it was reported that he charged ‘a great man [Godolphin] . . . with breach of promise’. Eventually in June 1703 an appropriate niche was found for him as inspector-general of imports and exports, where his self-proclaimed expertise in fiscal matters could be put to good use. He marked his satisfaction with the Essays upon Peace at Home and War Abroad (1703) ‘the design’ of which was ‘to recommend moderation’ and in particular to oppose the second occasional conformity bill. It was said that Marlborough and Godolphin had personally encouraged him to write it, and that a former victim of his pen, Lord Halifax (Montagu), had read the proofs. For this ‘shaking hands with his old friends’ and enlistment ‘with a new party’ he was savaged by Tories in Parliament and in the press, who accused him of emulating his own creation, ‘Tom Double’. Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, referred to him as ‘a profligate scribbler’, while a Tory pamphleteer wrote of

a certain doctor, who after having scribbled himself, and that simple wretch his son, into preferment, has lately appeared in his proper colours, and unsaid what he had formerly urged with so much vehemence and pretended zeal for his country’s good.

Davenant regarded himself as having suffered in a good cause: ‘I may venture to say, for this last age there has not been so persecuted a martyr to truth, and right sense, as I have been.’5

Until the fall of the Godolphin ministry Davenant seems to have been happy to collect his salary and espouse moderation only in his correspondence. The ‘changes at court’ in 1708 did not affect him, as he still possessed ‘some interest with those above’, though his creditors were frightened enough to ‘come at’ him in droves for their money, ‘with the utmost rage and violence’. Much of his energy was spent in this way, coping with the ‘torments’ of debt, dodging the duns and avoiding arrest, a struggle in which he was greatly helped by his friend Hon. James Brydges*. In return he counselled and assisted Brydges in the paymaster’s efforts to curry favour with the ‘duumvirs’, especially Marlborough, to whom Davenant was accustomed to write toadying letters. The essence of Davenant’s advice to Brydges was that ‘at court they who undervalue themselves, will soon be undervalued by others’. He survived the transition to a Tory ministry in 1710 by virtue of his previous friendship with Harley, and his opportunism in resurrecting the characters of ‘Tom Double’ and ‘Whiglove’ to satirize the old ministry and extol the new. In Sir Thomas Double at Court (1710) and New Dialogues upon the Present Posture of Affairs (1710) his story was brought up to date, with an even stronger emphasis on the clash between the ‘landed’ and ‘moneyed’ interests. ‘Whiglove’ had by now transmuted into a Tory, having supposedly succeeded to the family baronetcy of ‘Comeover’. It is worth pointing out, however, that in private Davenant had always been opposed to ‘this tedious war’ and sceptical of the role of ‘the confederates’, especially the Dutch. He was soon outpaced as a ministerial polemicist by his ‘cousin’ Jonathan Swift, who took up many of Davenant’s themes and ideas in his own writings. Indeed, Davenant was suspected in some quarters of being the author of The Conduct of the Allies, and lost a dinner with the Dutch envoy as a result. His last years saw him in miserable health and even deeper in debt, living mainly off the hospitality of Brydges, to whom he owed at his death several thousand pounds. Davenant died on 6 Nov, 1714 and was buried in the church of St. Bride’s, Fleet Street.6

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on D. A. G. Waddell, ‘The Career and Writings of Charles Davenant (Oxf. Univ. D. Phil. thesis, 1954), summarized in an article by the same author in Econ. Hist. Rev. n.s. xi. 279-88.

  • 1. HMC 7th Rep. 680; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 1055; vii. 1074; viii. 247; ix. 190.
  • 2. Macky Mems. (1733), 132–3; Add. 7121, f. 19; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 93.
  • 3. W. Moyle, Works ed. Hammond (1727), 21; Univ. Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Moore mss 143 Cz.3, Annesley to [Arthur Moore*], 5 Aug. 1699; J. G. Simms, Williamite Confiscation in Ire. 111, 124–7; Add. 17677 TT, f. 311; 70036, f. 98.
  • 4. Horwitz, 268; Add. 30000 D, f. 225; 17677 UU, ff. 276, 302, 313; 40775, ff. 110–12, 215, 220–1; 17677 WW, ff. 271, 345; 70075–6, newsletter 27 Nov. 1701; HMC Portland, iv. 5, 30; HMC Cowper, ii. 410, 436; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 149–50; J. P. Kenyon, Revol. Principles, 177; Clarendon Corresp. ed. Singer, ii. 398; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 100, 116; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(1), p. 26; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss, Davenant to Ld. Bruce (Charles*), 20 Nov. 1701; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 29 Nov. 1701.
  • 5. Add. 29588, ff. 70, 177–8; 70225, Nottingham to Harley, 9 July 1702; 70075–6, newsletters 21 Jan., 20 Nov. 1703; 17677 YYY, f. 161; 61459, f. 138; 4291, f. 14; Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 70, folder 2, bdle. 2, newsletter 17 Oct. 1702; HMC Lords, n.s. v. 46–48; Luttrell, v. 175; HMC Portland, iv. 48, 50, 52; HLRO, Hist. C/5, BRA 833, Abel Boyer to [–], 22 Dec. 1703; Calamy, Life, ii. 16; Lansd. 773, f. 8.
  • 6. Lansd. 773, ff. 27, 32–33, 49, 57, 66–67; Huntington Lib. Q. iv. 313–16, 318–19, 328–31; Stowe mss 58(6), pp. 65–66; Add. 4291, ff. 3, 64–65; 70222, Davenant to Oxford, 19 Oct., 10 Dec. 1713; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, i. 13; Swift Stella ed. Davis, ii. 429.