DONNE, John (1572-1631), of Drury Lane, Westminster; formerly of Mitcham, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. Jan./June 1572, 1st s. of John Donne, Ironmonger, of Bread Street, London and Elizabeth, da. of John Heywood† of London, North Mimms, Herts. and Hinxhill, Kent.1 educ. privately; Hart Hall, Oxf. 1584-7, MA 1610; Camb. ?1587-9, DD 1615; travelled abroad ?1589-91; Thavies Inn by 1591; L. Inn 1592-4.2 m. Dec. 1601,3 Anne (d. 15 Aug. 1617), da. of Sir George More* of Loseley, Surr., 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 6da. (2 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1576; ordained and priested 23 Jan. 1615. d. 31 Mar. 1631.4 sig. J[ohn] Donne.

Offices Held

Master of the revels, L. Inn 1593; bencher 1622-d.5

Vol. Cadiz 1596, Azores 1597.6

Sec. to Sir Thomas Egerton† by 1598-1602.7

Chaplain to James I 1615-25, ?Charles I 1625-d.;8 divinity reader, L. Inn 1616-22;9 rector of Keyston, Hunts. 1616-21, Sevenoaks, Kent 1616-d., Blunham, Beds. 1622-d.;10 chaplain, embassy to Germany 1619;11 dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1621-d.; prebendary of Chiswick, Mdx. 1622-d.; 12 commr. appeal, Millicent Conyers v. Abraham Sunderland, 1623;13 vicar of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, London 1624-d.;14 member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1625-d.;15 vice pres., Sion College, London 1625;16 prolocutor of Convocation, Canterbury prov. 1626.17

J.p. Beds. and Kent 1622-d.;18 commr. sewers, London 1621-d.;19 gov. Charterhouse hosp., London 1626-d.;20 commr. Forced Loan, Beds. 1627.21

Cttee. Virg. Co. 1622.22


Donne apparently believed that he was descended from the Dwns of Kidwelly, an ancient Carmarthenshire family. However, his paternal ancestry cannot be traced further back than his father, a prosperous London merchant who died when Donne was a child, leaving an estate worth more than £3,000. Donne’s family and early education were predominantly Catholic, and for that reason he initially failed to take a degree from either university. While studying subsequently at Lincoln’s Inn, he began to gravitate to the Church of England.23 His first significant poetical works probably date from that same period, although they remained unpublished in his lifetime. Despite never being called to the bar, he received sufficient legal training to become one of the secretaries to the lord keeper, Thomas Egerton. Donne was provided with a seat in the Commons in 1601 by his employer, but in the aftermath of that Parliament he secretly married the teenage daughter of Egerton’s brother-in-law Sir George More, a precipitous step which led to Donne’s disgrace and a brief period of imprisonment.24

Dependent on the help of friends and family following his dismissal by Egerton, Donne was in no position to stand for election in 1604. In the following year he travelled abroad with Sir Walter Chute*.25 On his return to England Donne was reconciled to More, who agreed to pay a portion of £800,26 and by 1607 he was again seeking public employment.27 However, despite securing the support of a prominent Scottish courtier, the 1st Lord Hay, and apparently receiving the backing of More and Egerton, now lord chancellor Ellesmere, Donne was unable to win over the king, who felt that his ‘intemperate and hasty’ marriage showed him to be unsuitable for a political career.28 It was probably to further his pursuit of office that he published Pseudo-Martyr, a defence of the oath of allegiance, in 1610, and Ignatius his Conclave, a satire on Roman Catholicism, the following year.29

Donne went abroad again in late 1611, this time with Sir Robert Drury*,30 and on his return he sought favour with James’ favourite, Robert Carr, 1st Viscount Rochester, to whom he was introduced by Hay.31 When Rochester, now earl of Somerset, married Frances Howard in 1613, Donne wrote an epithalamion to celebrate the wedding, and also offered to produce a treatise defending the annulment of the bride’s previous marriage to the 3rd earl of Essex.32 On first approaching Somerset, Donne had announced his intention ‘to make my profession divinity’, but he seems to have soon put thoughts of the Church aside and again set his sights on a political career. Hearing rumours in early 1614 that (Sir) Dudley Carleton* would be leaving the Venetian embassy, Donne wrote to Somerset asking to fill the vacancy, though in the event Carleton remained in post for another year.33

On 12 Feb. 1614 Donne reported to an unknown correspondent that James had left ‘the debatements of [summoning] the Parliament’ to the Privy Council, who were still undecided. He thought that the reports circulating of a scheme to manage the Commons on the king’s behalf were ‘mistaken’, but nevertheless damaging, and commented that ‘it is taken ill ... that certain men ... should presume either to understand the House before it sit, or to incline it then; ... this rumour beforehand ... must impeach, if it do not defeat their purposes at last’.34 Writing to Sir Henry Goodyer* on 14 Mar., he stated that he had been offered seats by the master of the Rolls, Sir Edward Phelips*, as well as Sir Edward Herbert* and a third unnamed electoral patron.35 He was returned for Taunton on the nomination of Phelips, with whom Donne was most likely acquainted via their mutual friend Thomas Coryate, though he may also have been recommended to Phelips by Ellesmere.36

Donne presumably sought election to the Addled Parliament to further his quest for office, but although he attracted five appointments, he made no recorded speeches. Nominated on 5 May to prepare for a conference with the Lords on impositions, he was also among those instructed on 25 May to consider Bishop Neile’s inflammatory speech implying that the Commons’ views on this issue were seditious. Five days later he was appointed to help draft a complaint to the Upper House about Neile, and when this message was rejected by the Lords, Donne was named to another committee to consider further steps. His only legislative committee was that for the bill to abolish the ex officio oath in High Commission (31 May).37

In the aftermath of this Parliament, Donne made a final push for secular advancement, encouraged by Ellesmere, and with the apparent promise by Somerset of an unspecified post. However, he once again received a discouraging response from the king, who urged him to enter the Church instead.38 Early in 1615 he was ordained and made a royal chaplain. In addition to holding a number of parochial livings, he was appointed preacher at his old Inn and, in 1621, dean of St. Paul’s. Having established a considerable reputation with his sermons, he continued to preach at Court under Charles I, and was even considered suitable for a bishopric, though his increasingly poor health ultimately ruled out this option. In his will, dated 13 Dec. 1630, Donne named his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Crymes* as overseer. From his extensive art collection he bequeathed pictures to Hay (now 1st earl of Carlisle), the 4th earl of Dorset (Sir Edward Sackville*), Sir John Danvers*, his ‘kind friend’ George Garrard*, and his ‘honourable and faithful friend’ Sir Robert Kerr*. He left £20 each to the three parishes of which he held the livings, and hoped to provide a portion of £750 for each of his surviving children. Donne died on 31 Mar. 1631, and was buried in his cathedral on 3 April. The publication in 1633 of his collected poetry, which soon went through numerous editions, established his reputation as one of England’s greatest writers. None of his descendants sat in Parliament.39

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. R.C. Bald, John Donne, 35, 360; HP Commons, 1509-58, ii. 355-6.
  • 2. I. Walton, Life of John Donne (1658), pp. 6-8; Al. Ox.; Bald, 52-3; LI Admiss.
  • 3. Loseley Mss ed. A.J. Kempe, 328.
  • 4. Bald, 36, 128, 302, 324, 530, 547-56.
  • 5. LI Black Bks. ii. 28, 230.
  • 6. Walton, 12.
  • 7. Loseley Mss, 341.
  • 8. Carew Letters ed. J. Maclean (Cam. Soc. lxxvi), 2; Bald, 469, 522.
  • 9. LI Black Bks. ii. 187, 234.
  • 10. Bald, 317, 387-8, 516.
  • 11. Letters and other Docs. Illustrating the Relations between Eng. and Germany at the Commencement of the Thirty Years’ War ed. S.R. Gardiner (Cam. Soc. xcviii), 5.
  • 12. J. Le Neve, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, i comp. J.M. Horn, 5, 28.
  • 13. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 4, p. 83.
  • 14. Bald, 14, 530.
  • 15. R.G. Usher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 350.
  • 16. Rymer, viii. pt. 1, p. 225.
  • 17. Bald, 481.
  • 18. C213/4, f. 140v; C66/2527; Cal. Assize Recs. Kent Indictments, Chas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 127.
  • 19. C181/3, ff. 27, 256.
  • 20. Bald, 423, 528.
  • 21. C193/12/2, f. 1v.
  • 22. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, ii. 76.
  • 23. Bald, 20, 23, 37, 68; Walton, 7-11; J. Donne, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), sigs. B2v.
  • 24. Oxford DNB; HP Commons, 1558-1603, ii. 46-7.
  • 25. Bald, 148.
  • 26. Walton, 33.
  • 27. Letters to Several Persons of Honour Written by John Donne ed. J. Donne (1651), pp. 81-2, 145; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 87.
  • 28. Collection of Letters, Made by Sir Tobie Mathews Kt. ed. J. Donne (1660), pp. 330-1.
  • 29. Bald. 201.
  • 30. Ibid. 244.
  • 31. Collection of Letters, Made by Sir Tobie Mathews Kt. 319-20.
  • 32. Letters to Several Persons of Honour Written by John Donne, 180-1.
  • 33. Collection of Letters, Made by Sir Tobie Mathews Kt. 311-12, 320; Bald, 291.
  • 34. E. Gosse, Life and Letters of John Donne, ii. 34
  • 35. Letters to Several Persons of Honour Written by John Donne, 170-1.
  • 36. Bald, 193.
  • 37. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 152, 346, 381, 394, 405.
  • 38. Collection of Letters, Made by Sir Tobie Mathews Kt. 315, 335; Gosse, ii. 46-8; Letters to Several Persons of Honour Written by John Donne, 172-3; Bald, 291-3.
  • 39. Bald, 315, 323, 340, 408, 435, 515, 530. Donne’s will is printed in ibid. 563-7; Oxford DNB.