Sir William Davenant was born in Oxford, the son of a vintner and tavern owner who became Lord Mayor of Oxford in 1621. His mother was a friend of William Shakespeare and it is believed that Shakespeare was his godfather, some say, natural father but there is no evidence of this. William certainly had a high regard for Shakespeare and at the age of twelve wrote an ode In Remembrance of Master Shakespeare. He spent a brief period at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1620 and 1621 but left at the age of sixteen on the death of his father to become a page at court, spurning an apprenticeship provided for in his father’s will. He served the Duchess of Richmond and later Fulke Greville until his murder by a servant and through his talents and charm came to the attention of King Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.
He wrote his first play, Albovine, King of the Lombards, in 1627, followed by a tragedy, The Cruel Brother, shortly afterwards. He went on to supply Inigo Jones, the court architect, with several more over the next few years after Jones fell out with his previous supplier, Ben Jonson. He was rewarded with the honour of being made England’s unofficial poet laureate in 1637, succeeding Jonson who had died the previous year.
Davenant was a strong supporter of the Royalist cause during the Civil War and was declared guilty of treason by Parliament before the war broke out. He fled to France, returning to fight for the king and was knighted for his courage after the siege of Gloucester. He retired to Paris after the Royalist defeat in 1645, joining the exiled Stuart court. In 1650 he was sent by the widowed Queen Henrietta Maria on a mission to America but his ship was captured in the Channel and he was sentenced to death. This was commuted to imprisonment in the Tower, possibly thanks to the intervention of the poet John Milton, Cromwell’s secretary. He was released in 1652 and pardoned two years later.
On his release he published the epic poem Gondibert which he had been working on for some years. In 1656 he made the first attempt to revive English drama with plays put on in his own house, as all theatres were closed during the interregnum. The second of these, The Siege of Rhodes was groundbreaking in that it was the first opera, used painted scenery and employed a female performer. In 1659 he was imprisoned again for his part in an uprising. On his release he went to France but returned to England the following year after the Restoration. As a reward for his loyalty to the monarchy he was given royal patents to start a theatre company and founded the Duke of York’s Playhouse in Lincoln’s Inns Fields where as the manager he continued to write plays, his final one The Man’s the Master, in the year his eventful life ended.
Sir William Davenant was married three times, latterly to a Frenchwoman, Henrietta Maria du Tremblay, who bore him nine sons. His remarkable career spanned both sides of the interregnum and although better known as a playwright, in addition to Godibert, he published a number of volumes of poetry including Madagascar with Other Poems (1938), Wit and Drollery: Jovial Poems (1656) and Poems on Several Occasions (1657). He was a talented wordsmith and his description of London in his comedy The Wits as a place of “smoke, diseases, law and noise” is no less valid today.