Arguably one of England’s greatest poets, John Donne had a varied career that included diplomacy, the military and the church. He also served as an MP in two brief early 17th century Parliaments.
After studying at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn and participating in military expeditions against Spain, he became, in late 1597, chief secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and a very senior state official.
On 1 October, 1601, this post produced a welcome bonus, when Donne was returned as an MP for Brackley in Northamptonshire. Egerton was closely related to the family who controlled the borough, and so could influence the nominations for election. As Lord Keeper, it was advantageous to have his confidants in the Commons.
Donne, however, does not appear to have participated actively in the short and fractious 1601 Parliament, the last of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, the most notable event of that period in London was his courtship of the 16-year-old Ann More, and their clandestine marriage in December 1601, shortly before the dissolution of Parliament.
This was a disastrous move. His new bride was the niece of the Lord Keeper’s wife, and when her father, Sir George More MP, was eventually informed, he furiously demanded that Donne be dismissed from the Lord Keeper’s retinue.
Not only did Donne lose his job, he was also briefly imprisoned. As he ruefully wrote to Ann, “John Donne – Ann Donne – Undone.” Egerton refused to reinstate Donne, even when More mellowed a little and intervened on Donne’s behalf.
Needless to say, Donne did not participate in the elections to the next Parliament in 1604. With no regular employment, he had to rely on friends and patrons, for some of whom he later wrote poetry in return. Though James I’s accession to the throne in 1603 provided a more sympathetic environment for Donne, it did not significantly improve his situation.
By 1614, Donne was seriously considering a career in the church, though he had not given up on more secular employment, unsuccessfully chasing a diplomatic post as Ambassador to Venice. But, once again, his social connections came to his aid.
Having finally dissolved the unhelpful 1604 Parliament in 1611, James was forced to call another three years later. In a letter at that time, Donne demonstrated that he was well up on these political developments, when he discussed the summoning of a new Parliament and the rumours that the king was planning to pack the Commons with more amenable members, which Donne thought improbable, or, if true, likely to backfire.
Donne revealed in another letter that he had received several offers of a parliamentary seat from well-placed patrons, including Sir Edward Herbert. He eventually accepted a nomination for Taunton in Somerset, through the patronage of Sir Edward Phelips, Master of the Rolls, an important figure in the county.
He was duly returned unopposed for Taunton in the spring of 1614, and so sat in what became known as the ‘Addled Parliament’, which lasted a mere two months from April to June, and did not pass any legislation.
There are no records of Donne having spoken in this short Parliament, but he was otherwise more obviously active than in 1601. He was appointed to five committees, most of which arose from the tussle between the Commons and the king over ‘impositions’, the rights to impose taxation, which was the main cause of the political gridlock of the period.
Once his second Commons stint ended, Donne reluctantly accepted at last that his best chance of meaningful employment was by entering the church. He served in a number of senior clerical posts for the remainder of his life.
On 5 November 1622, as Dean of St Paul’s, he delivered a sermon in the cathedral on the anniversary of the infamous 1605 Gunpowder Plot, then still fresh in the public memory. When recounting the plot, he described Parliament rather poetically as “that house, which is the hive of the Kingdome, from whence all her honey comes; that house where ‘Justice herself is conceived, in their preparing of Laws’…”
Whatever his fame as a poet, as a parliamentarian John Donne could not be described as one for whom the division bell tolled.
Next month: William Cobbett