Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Danvers, John
DANVERS, Sir JOHN (1588?–1655), regicide, was third and youngest son of Sir John Danvers of Dauntsey, Wiltshire, by Elizabeth, fourth daughter and coheiress of John Nevill, last lord Latimer. His elder brothers, Charles and Henry, are separately noticed. According to the gossip of his kinsman, John Aubrey, whose grandmother was Rachel Danvers, Danvers as a young man 'travelled France and Italy and made good observations. He had in a fair body an harmonicall mind. In his youth his complexion was so exceeding beautiful and fine, that Thomas Bond, esq., of Ogbourne ... in Wiltshire, who was his companion in his travells, did say that the people would come after him in the street to admire him. He had a very fine fancy, which lay chiefly for gardens and architecture' (Aubrey, Nat. Hist. of Wiltshire, ed. Britton, p. 93). In 1608, when little more than twenty years old, he married Magdalen Herbert, widow of Richard Herbert, and mother of ten children, including George Herbert the poet, and Edward, lord Herbert of Cherbury. This lady, the daughter of Sir Richard Newport, was fully twice Danvers's age. Her friend, Dr. Donne, wrote of him at the time that 'his birth and youth and interest in great favours at court, and legal proximity to great possessions in the world, might justly have promised him acceptance in what family soever, or upon what person soever he had directed and placed his affections.' But Donne saw much of their married life, and insists that the inequality of their years was reduced to an evenness by the staid sobriety of their temperaments, and that they lived happily together till the lady's death in 1627. At an equally youthful age Danvers acquired a fine garden and house at Chelsea: the former he furnished sumptuously and curiously, and the latter he laid out after the Italian manner. ' 'Twas Sir John Danvers of Chelsey,' Aubrey writes,' who first taught us the way of Italian gardens.' His house, called Danvers House, adjoined the mansion, once the home of Sir Thomas More, which was known in the seventeenth century as Buckingham and also as Beaufort House. It is sometimes stated that Danvers occupied Beaufort House, but there can be no doubt that this is an error. Danvers House was pulled down in 1696 to make room for Danvers Street.
Danvers was knighted by James I, and under Charles I became a gentleman of the privy chamber. He was engaged in mercantile transactions, and showed as early as 1624 jealousy of the growing pretensions of the crown. In that year he learned that the government were contemplating a seizure of the papers of the Virginia Company. With the aid of Edward Collingwood, the secretary, he had the whole of the records copied out and entrusted them to the care of Lord Southampton, a family friend, who deposited them at his house at Titchfield, Hampshire. On 10 July 1628, a year after the death of his first wife, Danvers, then aged 40, married Elizabeth (b. 1604), daughter of the late Ambrose Dauntsey, and granddaughter of Sir John Dauntsey (Chester, Marriage Licenses, ed. Foster). Through this marriage he came into possession of the estate of Lavington, Wiltshire, where he laid out gardens even more elaborately than at Chelsea. Freely indulging his extravagant tastes, Danvers soon fell into debt, and from 1630 to 1640 was apparently struggling with creditors. He lost his second wife, by whom he had several children, on 9 July 1636, and about 1640, when he was not less than fifty-two years old, began a political career. He refused to contribute to the expenses of the king's expedition to Scotland in 1639, and was returned to the Short parliament by Oxford University. In 1642 he took up arms for the parliament, and was granted a colonel's commission, but played no prominent part in military affairs. He gives an interesting account of the opening incidents of the war in letters written to friends from Chelsea in July and August 1642, four of which are in the Record Office. His brother Henry, lord Danby, an enthusiastic royalist, died early in 1644, and left his property to his sister Lady Gargrave. Still in pecuniary difficulties, Danvers resisted this disposition of his brother's property, and his influence with the parliamentary majority led the House of Commons to pass a resolution declaring that he was deprived of his brother's estate 'for his affection and adhering to the parliament' (14 June 1644), and that Danvers's eldest son Henry was entitled to the property. He was ordered by the parliament to receive the Dutch ambassadors late in 1644, and on 10 Oct. 1645 was returned to the house as member for Malmesbury in the place of 'Anthony Hungerford, esq., disabled to sit.' He took little part in the proceedings of the house, but was appointed a member of the commission nominated to try the king in January 1649. He was only twice absent from the meetings of the commission, and signed the death-warrant. In February of the same year Danvers was given a seat on the council of state, which he retained till the council's dissolution in 1653. He died at his house at Chelsea in April 1655, and was buried at Dauntsey (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 322). His name was in the Act of Attainder passed at the Restoration.
Danvers married a third time at Chelsea, on 6 Jan. 1648-9, his wife being Grace Hewett, and he had by her a son, John (b. 10 Aug. 1650). His family by his second wife consisted of Henry (b. 5 Dec. 1633), who inherited much of his uncle Henry's property, and died before his father in November 1654, when Thomas Fuller is stated to have preached the funeral sermon; Charles, who died in infancy; Elizabeth (b. 1 May 1629), who married Robert Wright, alias Villiers, alias Danvers, Viscount Purbeck [see Danvers, Robert]; and Mary, who died in infancy. The son Henry bequeathed 'the whole of the great estate in his power' to his niece Ann (his sister Elizabeth's daughter), who married Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley in 1655, and had a daughter, Eleanor, wife of the first Earl of Abingdon (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 88-9). Lord Abingdon thus ultimately came into possession of the property at Chelsea.
Echard makes the remarkable statement (p. 647), not elsewhere confirmed, that Danvers 'was a professed papist, and so continued to the day of his death, as his own daughter has sufficiently attested.' Clarendon, who describes Danvers as a 'proud, formal man,' writes of his career thus: 'Between being seduced and a seducer, he became so far involved in their [i.e. the parliamentarian] councils that he suffered himself to be applied to their worst offices, taking it to be a high honour to sit upon the same bench with Cromwell, who employed and contemned him at once. Nor did that party of miscreants look upon any two men in the kingdom with that scorn and detestation as they did upon Danvers and Mildmay.' Aubrey's gossip about Danvers gives the impression that he was a man of refinement and geneality. Bate, the royalist biographer of the regicides, was of opinion that Danvers's intimacy with Fuller, who frequently preached in his presence at Chelsea church, led him to repent of his political action before his death.[Noble's Regicides, i. 163-70; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 495, viii. 309, 3rd ser. vi. 148, 318, 334, 4th ser. iii. 225; Clarendon's Hist., iv. 536 (ed. 1849); Bate's Lives (1661); Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Persons; Faulkner's Chelsea, i. 171-4; J. E. Bailey's Life of Thomas Fuller; Aubrey's Natural Hist. of Wiltshire, ed. Britton, p. 93, where Danvers's garden at Lavington is fully described. In Aubrey's manuscript of this volume at the Bodleian is also a long account of the Chelsea garden which has never been printed.]