John Donne's early life

John Donne was born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1572. He was 31 when Elizabeth died, by which time he had written much of his poetry. So it is as true to see him as an Elizabethan poet as a seventeenth-century one.

John Donne’s family

  • His father was an ironmonger in London
  • His mother was the daughter of a dramatist, Thomas Heywood
  • They were Roman Catholic, when the country as a whole had become Protestant. Many Catholics had a difficult time, as they were suspected of being in league with England's enemy, Spain. Donne was 12 when the Spanish Armada was defeated.
  • An uncle of Donne was condemned to death for being a Catholic Jesuit priest.
  • Donne’s brother Henry was imprisoned for hiding a Catholic. Whilst in prison awaiting trial, Henry died of jail fever in 1593.

John Donne at university

Bridge of Sighs, Hertford CollegeThe young John Donne was sent to Hart Hall (later Hertford College) at Oxford University when he was only 11. If he had waited till he was 16 or older, he would have had to take the oath of allegiance to Elizabeth as Head of the Church of England, something which Catholics were forbidden to do. So his astute parents wanted him to enter university before he needed to take the oath. He may have gone on to Cambridge afterwards for further study.

John Donne as a law student

Many young men of the time received their higher education at one of London's Inns of Court. Today, Inns of Court are where London barristers have their chambers (offices). In Donne's day, young men studied for the law there, under instruction from senior lawyers. They also seem to have had a good time. By all accounts, Donne was something of a dashing young man, very witty, quite a ladies’ man. He wrote poetry, witty and sometimes quite risqué, which was circulated in manuscript. None of this poetry (nowadays gathered together as Songs and Sonnets, Epigrams and some of the Elegies and Satires) was published till after his death, but the handwritten collection was certainly known about.