Donne was born in London in 1571 or 1572, into a recusant Roman Catholic family when practice of that religion was illegal in England. Donne was the third of six children. His father, also named John Donne, married to one Elizabeth Heywood, was of Welsh descent and a warden of the Ironmongers Company in the City of London. However, he avoided unwelcome government attention out of fear of persecution.
His father died in 1576, when Donne was four years old, leaving his mother, Elizabeth, with the responsibility of raising the children alone. Heywood was also from a recusant Roman Catholic family, the daughter of John Heywood, the playwright, and sister of the Reverend Jasper Heywood, a Jesuit priest and translator. She was also a great-niece of Thomas More. A few months after her husband died, Donne's mother married Dr. John Syminges, a wealthy widower with three children of his own.
Donne was educated privately; however, there is no evidence to support the popular claim that he was taught by Jesuits. In 1583, at the age of 11, he began studies at Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford. After three years of studies there, Donne was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he studied for another three years. Donne, however, could not obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy required to graduate. In 1591 he was accepted as a student at the Thavies Inn legal school, one of the Inns of Chancery in London. On 6 May 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court.
In 1593, five years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and during the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), Queen Elizabeth issued the first English statute against sectarian dissent from the Church of England, titled "An Act for restraining Popish recusants". It defined "Popish recusants" as those "convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Service there, but forbearing the same contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf". Donne's brother Henry was also a university student prior to his arrest in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, and died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.
During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel. Although no record details precisely where Donne travelled, he did cross Europe and later fought alongside the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597), and witnessed the loss of the Spanish flagship, the San Felipe. According to his earliest biographer,
... he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.— Walton 1888, p. 20
By the age of 25 he was well prepared for the diplomatic career he appeared to be seeking. He was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, and was established at Egerton's London home, York House, Strand close to the Palace of Whitehall, then the most influential social centre in England.
Marriage to Anne More
During the next four years, Donne fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More, and they were secretly married just before Christmas in 1601, against the wishes of both Egerton and George More, who was Lieutenant of the Tower and Anne's father. Upon discovery, this wedding ruined Donne's career, getting him dismissed and put in Fleet Prison, along with the Church of England priest Samuel Brooke, who married them, and the man who acted as a witness to the wedding. Donne was released shortly thereafter when the marriage was proved to be valid, and he soon secured the release of the other two. Walton tells us that when Donne wrote to his wife to tell her about losing his post, he wrote after his name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife's dowry.
After his release, Donne had to accept a retired country life in a small house in Pyrford, Surrey, owned by Anne's cousin, Sir Francis Wooley, where they resided until the end of 1604. In spring 1605 they moved to another small house in Mitcham, London, where he scraped a meager living as a lawyer, while Anne Donne bore a new baby almost every year. Though he also worked as an assistant pamphleteer to Thomas Morton writing anti-Catholic pamphlets, Donne was in a constant state of financial insecurity.
Anne gave birth to 12 children in 16 years of marriage, (including two stillbirths—their eighth and then, in 1617, their last-child); indeed, she spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing. The 10 surviving children were Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (named after Donne's patron Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Three (Francis, Nicholas, and Mary) died before they were ten. In a state of despair that almost drove him to kill himself, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one mouth fewer to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time, Donne wrote but did not publish Biathanatos, his defense of suicide. His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.
Career and later life
In 1602 John Donne was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Brackley, but the post was not a paid position. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, being succeeded by King James VI of Scotland as King James I of England. The fashion for coterie poetry of the period gave Donne a means to seek patronage, and many of his poems were written for wealthy friends or patrons, especially for MP Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted (1575–1615), whom he met in 1610 and who became his chief patron, furnishing him and his family an apartment in his large house in Drury Lane.
In 1610 and 1611 Donne wrote two anti-Catholic polemics: Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave for Morton. He then wrote two Anniversaries, An Anatomy of the World (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soul (1612) for Drury.
Donne sat as an MP again, this time for Taunton, in the Addled Parliament of 1614 but though he attracted five appointments within its business he made no recorded speech. Although King James was pleased with Donne's work, he refused to reinstate him at court and instead urged him to take holy orders. At length, Donne acceded to the king's wishes, and in 1615 was ordained priest in the Church of England.
In 1615 Donne was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge University, and became a Royal Chaplain in the same year, and a reader of divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616, where he served in the chapel as minister until 1622. In 1618 he became chaplain to Viscount Doncaster, who was on an embassy to the princes of Germany. Donne did not return to England until 1620. In 1621 Donne was made Dean of St Paul's, a leading and well-paid position in the Church of England, which he held until his death in 1631.
At the same time he was granted the living as rector of a number of parishes, including Blunham, in Bedfordshire. Blunham Parish Church has an imposing stained glass window commemorating Donne, designed by Derek Hunt. During Donne's period as dean his daughter Lucy died, aged eighteen. In late November and early December 1623 he suffered a nearly fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by a period of fever.
During his convalescence he wrote a series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness that were published as a book in 1624 under the title of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One of these meditations, Meditation XVII, contains the well known phrases "No man is an Iland" (often modernised as "No man is an island") and "...for whom the bell tolls". In 1624 he became vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, and 1625 a prolocutor to Charles I. He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including Death's Duel, his famous sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631.
Donne died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in old St Paul's Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him by Nicholas Stone was erected with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. The memorial was one of the few to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is now in St Paul's Cathedral. The statue was said by Izaac Walton in his biography to have been modelled from the life by Donne in order to suggest his appearance at the resurrection; it was to start a vogue in such monuments during the course of the 17th century. In 2012 a bust of the poet by Nigel Boonham was unveiled outside in the cathedral churchyard.