John Donne (1572-1631), Poet and Churchman

Portrait of John Donne aged 40. Engraving by Pierre Lombart (c.1612), from the album of Robert Barclay of Dorking SHC ref 4348/3/72/3

Portrait of John Donne aged 40. Engraving by Pierre Lombart (c.1612), from the album of Robert Barclay of Dorking
SHC ref 4348/3/72/3

In December 1601, Ann More, aged about 17, daughter of Sir George More of Loseley, was secretly married to John Donne, secretary to Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Egerton, Ann’s uncle. Donne is now acknowledged as one of the greatest poets in English, his poems a striking fusion of sexual, passionate and religious, but in his lifetime he struggled long for material recognition. Donne later admitted to Ann’s father that he was well aware that he was ‘unfit’ as a match for her (Folger MSS Lb.526), and that they could not hope for parental consent: the clandestine marriage was a true one, but the beginning of much adversity for the couple.

By the time of Ann’s marriage, her father Sir George More MP of Loseley near Guildford was a man of considerable substance and ambition. Now in middle age, he had inherited Loseley and its estates on the death of his father Sir William More in 1600. In 1601 he was granted the extensive manor and hundred of Godalming by the Crown, and built a new west wing to the Loseley mansion. Of Ann very little evidence survives among the archive of her family. In 1587 Sir George had made his father a trustee to estates in Hampshire which were to provide for his four daughters, Mary, Ann, Margaret and Elizabeth, while ‘leaving the bringing up of them to my wife’, Ann, nee Poynings (SHC ref LM/348/178). However, the girls’ mother died in 1590. Sir George married a widow, Constance Knight, in 1593, but perhaps Ann also had a close bond to her aunt Elizabeth, who lost her husband Sir John Wolley during Ann’s teenage years and married Sir Thomas Egerton. Lady Egerton too died in 1600, however.

Donne, now in his late 20s, had a legal training and had been working in Egerton’s household at York House in London for a few years, where he met Ann. His mother’s family had a long past of Roman Catholic recusancy, which continued to haunt Donne as he sought a public career in Protestant England (and examined the identity of his own faith). He would insist to Sir George that the false accusation of ‘loving a corrupt religion’ was dispelled by its very weakness. Donne was in debt, although, he would plead to More, for only half the sum rumoured, and would also be obliged to deny the suspicion that he had ‘deceived some gentlewomen before’ (Folger Mss Lb.529).

Friends of Donne helped him to accomplish the marriage, including Christopher Brooke and his brother Samuel, an ordained clergyman. Clandestine marriage, outside a church and without banns or licence, was legal in the early 17th century (legislation in the 1690s was the first step to outlawing it, completed by Hardwick’s Act of 1753), and was common in London. To a wealthy man like Sir George, however, for a daughter – on whom he might expect to settle a large dowry – to marry without his approval a man whom he disapproved, was ‘immeasurably unwelcome’ (quoted in the article on More in https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/more-george-1553-1632).

It was probably an easy matter, with Egerton’s assistance, to have Donne and his friends arrested and imprisoned. More and Egerton were clearly close in their handling of the episode, as Donne’s letters to both men addressed from the Fleet prison in February 1602 survive together, originally from among the Loseley Manuscripts (now in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, USA). Donne’s hopes for reconcilation with both men were disappointed, but he had undertaken his own action in the ecclesiastical Court of Audiences and by April had obtained a decree confirming the validity of the marriage (Folger Ms. Lb.536).

Interior of Pyrford Place, dining room, SHC ref CC1101/3/121/3

Interior of Pyrford Place, dining room, (SHC ref CC1101/3/121/3).

Egerton refused to reinstate Donne in his position after his release from prison, while More would not provide for the couple (by contrast Ann’s sister Mary had brought £1200 to her marriage with Nicholas Throckmorton Carew, SHC ref LM/2185). However Sir Francis Wolley offered to accommodate his cousin and her husband at Pyrford Place, beside the River Wey. It was at Pyrford that the couple spent their earliest years of marriage and where the eldest children were probably born.

"Donne's Tower", Pyrford

“Donne’s Tower”, Pyrford

Between Pyrford Lock and Walsham Gates near the village of Ripley is an attractive and unusual small brick tower, fourteen feet square, two storeys high with a first floor entrance and a distinctive ogee-pitched roof. Known as the ‘Summer House’, it bears a blue plaque inscribed: ‘John Donne, Poet and Dean of St.Pauls, lived here 1600-1604’.

Page from the St Peter and St Paul Church, Mitcham baptism register, 1610-1612. Courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

Page from the St Peter and St Paul Church, Mitcham baptism register, 1610-1612. Courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk. Click on the image to see a larger copy.

In 1606 the Donnes moved to Mitcham. During this period Sir George appears to have relented, to provide some support. The location of the house they occupied is not known for certain, but it appears from a 19th cent sketch to have been a small dwelling for a gentleman and lady and their growing family (‘Merton Historical Society Bulletin 138’ EN Montague, ‘John Donne in Mitcham’, Jun 2001). A poem addressed to Donne’s friend Sir Henry Goodyer celebrates mentally conversing with of him while riding home, thereby ‘you came with me to Mitcham’. It is believed that Donne wrote some of his best known poems while at Mitcham (few can be certainly dated), although most remained unpublished until shortly after his death; his relatively few published poems were largely addressed to patrons such as Magdalen Herbert.

Detail from the St Peter and St Paul Church, Mitcham baptism register, 1610-1612. Showing the baptism of Mary Dunne on 31st of January 1610/1611. "Mary ye daughter of Mr John Dunne was baptised ye last day of Januarye". Courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

Detail from the St Peter and St Paul Church, Mitcham baptism register, 1610-1612. Showing the baptism of Mary Dunne on 31st of January 1610/1611. “Mary ye daughter of Mr John Dunne was baptised ye last day of Januarye”. Courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk. Click on the image to see a larger copy.

Donne continued to seek advancement to secular positions around the Court and on foreign commissions, but he eventually and reluctantly succumbed to advice to take holy orders in 1615, and progressed through the hierarchy of the Church of England. The family had moved to the estate of his patron Sir Robert Drury on Drury Lane, London in 1612 and did not return to Surrey.

Ann Donne had spent much of her 15 years of marriage in pregnancy when she died following the stillbirth of her 12th child in August 1617, aged 33, ‘her soul early into heaven ravished’ (‘Divine Meditations’: ‘Since she whom I loved’). Donne himself preached the funeral sermon at his parish of St Clement Danes, and commissioned a wall memorial stone (no longer surviving). A draft or copy of the Latin epitaph he composed sent to her family recalls Ann’s More lineage from her great grandfather, as well as her own qualities, and expresses his desire that in the future their ashes will be mingled in a new marriage (Folger MSS Lb.541).

In these later years Donne achieved success in his career, with acclaim for his sermons, some of which were published, and ended his life as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Donne remained in contact with Ann’s family, including her brother Sir Robert More, and Sir George (to whom he was eventually in the position to lend money: see LM/1087/12/65, illustrated below). Donne had faced sickness and death in life, and confronted them as a poet and writer throughout his work. His religious poetry notably rebuffs a fear of death (‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful’); he curiously chose his final portrait to depict him in his shroud, during his final weeks, which was the base for his memorial. He died on 31 March 1631 and was buried at St Paul’s, rather than beside Ann as he had once intended.

Receipt acknowledging repayment of £100 owed by Sir George More to John Donne, 20 Oct 1629, signed J Donne LM/1087/12/65

Receipt acknowledging repayment of £100 owed by Sir George More to John Donne, 20 October 1629, signed J Donne SHC ref LM/1087/12/65

The above receipt reads:

“20 Octobris 1629
Received the day and yeere above Written of my Lady
More one hundred Pounds, for a debt of Sir
George Mores due unto me on the tenth day
of July last past before the date above Written, by bill
of his hand———————————C libris (£100)
J Donne”

Illustration of John Donne's shroud statue propped up in the crypt of St Paul's subsequent to the Great Fire. SHC ref 4348/3/72/1.

Illustration of John Donne’s shroud statue propped up in the crypt of St Paul’s subsequent to the Great Fire. SHC ref 4348/3/72/1.

Written by Isabel Sullivan

Reference works

References to “Folger MSS” refer to items held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, USA

Izaac Walton, ‘Life of Dr John Donne’, first published in 1640
E Gosse, ‘Life and Letters of Dr John Donne’ (1899)
Shami, Jeanne, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, eds. The Oxford Handbook of John Donne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011

Further sources:

For archive material relating to John Donne see https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/london-metropolitan-archives/the-collections/Pages/john-donne.aspx

The John Donne Society http://johndonnesociety.org/index.html

The Poetry Archive https://poetryarchive.org/poet/john-donne/

The Merton and Dowden Manuscripts of Donne’s sermons at The Bodleian Archives https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/495

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *