John Donne is remembered as a great Elizabethan love poet, some would say the greatest love poet in the English language. But he might easily, had things fallen out differently, have been remembered as a Catholic martyr. He was born, in 1572, into one of the foremost Catholic families in England. His mother was related to the martyr Sir Thomas More, and her brother, Donne’s uncle Jasper Heywood, was the head of the Jesuit mission in England. This was a time of anti-Catholic persecution. It was high treason for a Catholic priest to be found anywhere in Queen Elizabeth’s realm. Those who were captured were executed in a manner designed to strike terror into the beholders. They were hanged, then taken down while still alive, their genitals were chopped off and thrown into a brazier, and their bowels were torn out. Donne was educated by Catholic tutors “hungry,” as he recalled, to become martyrs themselves, and it seems that they took him to witness these exemplary penalties. He remembered seeing Catholic bystanders praying to the priest’s mangled body, in hope that the new martyr would take their petitions to heaven.
These scenes haunted him. “I have been ever kept awake,” he wrote, “in a meditation of martyrdom.” While still a child he was dragged into the very eye of the storm. In 1583 Jasper Heywood was hunted down and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Donne’s mother visited and nursed him, carrying messages from a fellow Jesuit, William Weston. She eventually took the risk of smuggling Weston into the Tower in disguise to consult with Heywood, and she made her twelve-year-old son an accomplice, taking him into the grim fortress with her, presumably hoping that the sight of a child would allay the guards’ suspicions, as perhaps it did.
Soon after this hazardous adventure, Donne and his brother Henry, who was a year younger, were sent to Hart Hall, Oxford, a favorite college of crypto-Catholics. Taking a university degree was impossible, because it involved subscribing to the Church of England’s articles of faith, so Donne left Oxford early, and may have traveled abroad, perhaps in Catholic Spain and Italy. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn—one of the Inns of Court, which were law colleges but also finishing schools for young men-about-town. A portrait painted at this time shows him wearing crucifix-shaped earrings, an abomination to earnest Protestants, and bears a Spanish motto, Antes muerto que mudado (Sooner dead than changed)—a defiant assertion of loyalty to the old religion. The very choice of language was provocative, much like an American citizen displaying a Soviet motto during the cold war.
He was soon able to judge whether he would really rather be dead than changed. In May 1593 Henry Donne was arrested for sheltering a young Catholic priest, William Harrington, in his rooms. Harrington was condemned and executed in the usual obscene manner. Henry, having knowingly harbored a priest, was guilty of a felony, but he did not come to…
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