DONNE, John (1572-1631), of London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 1572, 1st s. of John Donne (d.1576), citizen and ironmonger of London, by Elizabeth, da. of John Heywood. educ. Hart Hall, Oxf. 1584; ?Camb. 1587; ?travelled abroad c.1590; L. Inn 1592 from Thavie’s Inn. m. 1601, Ann (d.1617), da. of Sir George More of Loseley, 12 ch. suc.fa. Jan. or Feb. 1576.

Offices Held

Master of revels, L. Inn 1592-3, preacher 1616-22; sec. to Sir Thomas Egerton I by 1598-1602; chaplain to James I 1615; rector of Keyston, Hunts. 1616, of Sevenoaks, Kent from 1617, of Blunham, Beds. 1627; dean of St. Paul’s from 1621; vicar of St. Dunstan-in-the-West from 1624.


Donne was born in the parish of St. Nicholas Olave’s, Bread Street, London. Until he was 11 years of age, he was educated at home by private tutors, ‘persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will, and others who, by their learning and good life, seemed to me justly to claim an interest for the guiding and rectifying of mine understanding’. The instruction of these austere personages and the tutelage of his mother conspired to one end: that the boy should not waver from the Catholic faith. He went up to Oxford at an early age, a child prodigy, sage as ‘another Pico de la Mirandola’. Donne took no degree since, of course, he could not take the oath. Philip Randall had made Hart Hall a backwater of the old religion, and at Oxford his friends included Richard Baker, later to be known for his religious and historical writings, Henry Wotton, and Henry Fitzsimon, none of whom took a degree. Whereas at Oxford the judgment made on him was ‘that he was rather born wise than made so by study’, at Lincoln’s Inn he seems to have applied himself. His legal training was later evident in his sermons, and his library contained several works with marginal notes, probably in his own hand, including Ellesmere’s speech touching the post-nati.

His leaving the Catholic faith must have been a gradual process. By his own account, ‘I used no inordinate haste, nor precipitation in binding my conscience to any local religion’. In 1593 the seminarist, William Harrington, was arrested in Donne’s brother’s chambers at Thavie’s Inn. Henry Donne was committed to prison, where he died, John being admitted to a share of his father’s estates on 23 June of that year. The tragedy left a deep impression. Donne was now a wealthy young man, blessed with influential friends, but his future could be ruined by adherence to the old faith. Before his appointment as Egerton’s secretary he had conformed.

After leaving Lincoln’s Inn, Donne may have travelled in Spain and Italy. The dates of these journeys are matters of dispute, and it has been suggested that they took place in the years before 1591. Support for this argument is deduced from the portrait, executed by William Marshal in 1591, which depicts the poet in martial dress and carries the Spanish tag as motto, ante muerto que mudado(‘sooner dead than altered’). However, if it is accepted that he went to Cambridge (the evidence rests upon Walton), the only available period is that between his leaving Lincoln’s Inn and joining the Cadiz expedition of 1596. He was appointed steward of Christmas for his inn in November 1594, but was later fined for not performing the duties; hence there is a gap of well over a year which he may have employed in travel. Certainly a knowledge of Spanish might in part account for his selection for the expedition.

His associates in the fleet of 1596 included Egerton’s son and stepson. In 1597, at the funeral of Sir Thomas Egerton junior, Donne carried the deceased’s sword before the corpse. Presumably it was this connexion, possibly coupled with recommendations from persons of note, that secured his appointment as secretary to the lord keeper. He took up his duties and was installed at York House in the Strand at the end of 1597 or early in 1598.1 It was Egerton who secured Donne his parliamentary seat at Brackley in 1601. He is not known to have contributed to the business of the House. Evidently Donne put great faith in his patron and through him hoped to rise and prosper in the world, which makes his clandestine marriage all the more remarkable. Not only was Ann More (then aged 16) the grand-daughter of Sir William More, but she was the niece of Egerton’s wife, and had been living in his house. The date of the marriage can be determined from a letter of February 1602 in which Donne says, ‘At her lying in town this last Parliament, I found means to see her twice or thrice and ... about three weeks before Christmas we married’.2 The ceremony was conducted by his friend the Rev. Samuel Brooke, whose brother Christopher gave away the bride and witnessed the ceremony. Sir George More was informed, possibly by Henry Earl of Northumberland, and Donne was immediately in disgrace. His dismissal by the lord keeper, which is said to have inspired the epigram ‘John Donne — Ann Donne — undone’, was followed by imprisonment. His ineffectual efforts to conciliate More in a series of abject letters show him in an unfavourable light.3 Eventually the archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage legal, Donne was released from prison and became reconciled with his father-in-law who went so far as to attempt to secure his reinstatement. Egerton, however, was adamant. Although, in dismissing him, the lord keeper had declared that he was parting from ‘a friend and such a secretary as was fitter to serve a king than a subject’, and ‘though [Donne] was unfeignedly sorry for what he had done’, it was, Egerton declared, ‘inconsistent with his place and credit to discharge and re-admit servants at the request of passionate petitioners’. This stand effectively barred Donne from any other advancement. As he himself said, it was pointless to seek preferment from others who would only ask, ‘would my lord keeper so disgraciously have imprisoned him and flung him away if he had not done some other great fault of which we hear not?’.

A new reign offered fresh prospects and favours. From 1605 onwards he was constantly at court, where he attracted the interest of James I. He received honorary MA degrees from Oxford and Cambridge in 1610, was ordained into the ministry in 1614, and received a Cambridge doctorate in 1615. This period of his life does not concern us, but a sermon on Queen Elizabeth and King James which he preached at Paul’s Cross on 24 Mar. 1617 may be noted. Explaining the remarkable fact that ‘a woman and a maid should have all the wars of Christendom in her contemplation and govern and balance them all’, he declared that ‘she knew the world would talk of her after her death, and therefore she did such things all her life which were worthy to be talked of’.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: W.J.J.


The principal authorities are: R. C. Bald, John Donne, A Life (1970); E Gosse, Life and Letters of John Donne (1899); C. M. Coffin, John Donne and the New Philosophy (1937); H. Fausset, John Donne; K. Grandsden, John Donne (1954); S. Dark, Five Deans (1927); John Donne, Poetry and Prose, ed. H. W. Garrod; Anderson, Lives of the Poets, iv. (1793); J. E. kempe, The Classic Preachers of the English Church (1877); G. Keynes, A Bibliography of Donne (1932); Works of John Donne, ed. H. Alford (1839); DNB; Walton, Life of John Donne, printed in Garrod, op. cit. xvii-xliv; Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems, ed. H. J. C. Grierson (1950); E. K. Chambers 'John Donne, diplomatist and soldier' in Mod. Language Rev. (1910), v. 492-3; J Sparrow 'The date of Donne's travels' in A Garland for John Donne, ed. T Spencer (1931), pp. 123-51; A. L. Shapiro, 'John Donne and Lincoln's Inn 1591-4' in Times Lit Supp. 16, 23 Oct. 1930; N. and Q. cxcvii. 310-13.

  • 1. The exact date is not certain, but on 1 Mar. 1602 he claimed to have served Egerton for four years. The unlikely suggestion has been made that he was the John Donne who carried letters between France and England early in 1598 and who appears to have been in the employ of Robert Cecil: Sparrow, 125-7.
  • 2. Kempe, Loseley Mss, 330.
  • 3. HMC 7th Rep. 659.