The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Attempting to censor John Donne

A guest post by Daniel Starza Smith

The Folger’s unique collection of manuscript letters by John Donne (1572-1631) is rightly recognized as being of international importance. Donne is regarded as one of the foremost intellectual figures of early modern England, a poet of remarkable erotic daring, a keen legal mind who poured his learning into complex tracts on contemporary controversies, and, in later years, the most renowned preacher of his day. His marriage letters at the Folger (L.b.526-536) have been digitized, edited, and pored over by scholars seeking information about Donne’s scandalous marriage in 1601, which cost him a promising career and earned him a spell in prison. But another John Donne document (V.b.201) lies neglected among the collections enjoying no such high profile. ((V.b.201 was acquired by the Folger on 30 April 1936 at an American Art Association sale of the collection of J. Percy Sabin (1872-1934). Sabin was the third of three Sabin bookdealers from Summit, NJ. Whereas his grandfather, Joseph Sabin (1821-81) had specialised in American printed books, Percy and his father, another Joseph (1846-1926), steered the family business towards rare prints and autograph letters. V.b.201 was transcribed by R. C. Bald in an appendix to his biography of the elder Donne, John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970), pp. 575-7.))

John Donne letter, recto and verso (V.b.201)
John Donne letter, recto and verso (V.b.201)

Why has this manuscript attracted so little attention? Because its author was John Donne, Junior (1604-62), the considerably less admired son of the famous divine. The younger Donne (henceforth simply “Donne”) has gained an unenviable reputation over the years—at best, a gadabout libertine who wasted his wit on fripperies; at worst, a drunk, a sexual predator, and a hot-head who caused the death of an eight-year-old boy. The historian Anthony Wood memorably said of Donne that his nature was vile, and that “he proved no better all his lifetime than an atheistical buffoon, a banterer, and a person of over free thoughts.” ((Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses . . . to which are added the Fasti, ed. by Philip Bliss, 4 vols (New York, 1967), vol. 1, p. 503.)) A later biographer, Augustus Jessopp, declared Donne’s surviving letters “full of the most shocking indecencies.” ((Augustus Jessopp, “John Donne, the younger,” in Leslie Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, 63 vols (London, 1885), vol. 15, p. 234.)) Jessopp had one in his possession, he admitted, so “incomparably filthy and obscene” that he kept it hidden from public view and was regularly tempted to destroy it, adding: “I am prepared to believe anything bad of John Donne the younger.” ((Jessopp, “Donne’s Epigrams,” The Athenaeum (19 July 1873), pp. 81–2.))

Nevertheless, more recent accounts of Donne have sought to balance these accusations against his significant role in the printing—and thus preservation—of his father’s works and to evaluate his political role during the English Civil War as a Royalist working for a Parliamentary officer. ((The most recent article on the younger Donne is Daniel Starza Smith, “Busy young fool, unruly son? New light on John Donne junior” Review of English Studies, n.s., 61 (2011), pp. 538-61. Donne’s ODNB biographer Joanne Woolway Grenfell also strives for evenhandedness in her judgement on his relative merits and demerits, and George Potter and Evelyn Simpson’s 10-volume edition of the elder Donne’s sermons begins by crediting his role in their preservation. Further work on him has been pursued by Peter McCullough and the editors of the forthcoming 16-volume Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.)) V.b.201 offers a good deal more information about these topics, offering interesting new details about religious censorship in the period, and it also opens up a mystery for sermons scholars. It constitutes an autobiographical fragment preserved in the form of a petition for favor and a personal note, which was presumably sent or intended to be sent. As such, the document may represent a kind of letter, although it is not addressed or sealed as such. The manuscript, which dates to 1648, petitions an unknown recipient for the position of Canon at Christ Church, Oxford. The majority of its text constitutes Donne’s petition, setting out the reasons why he should be awarded this employment. It is followed by a personal address, beginning “Sir” (line 61) and a bitter post-script (from line 72) (see the image below, as well as my transcription of the full document, along with notes).

detail showing Donne's petition and postscript
detail showing Donne’s address and postscript

What this document tells us about Donne Junior

The petition claims that King Charles I himself had promised Donne the canonry as suitable recompense for printing his father’s sermons, but that when the time came the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, passed him by for the role, essentially punishing Donne for having refused censorious edits to his text. Donne expresses surprise that this should be the case, since Laud had heard the same sermons without complaint when they were first preached. After the sermons were finally printed in 1640, the king was privately advised that Donne was now working for the Parliamentarian cause and decided to punish him for this apparent betrayal by giving the canonry to another candidate. Eventually Charles was convinced that Donne was on his side and granted him the reversion of the role… but by the time it next became free Charles was no longer in power and Parliamentary decision-makers were now punishing Donne for being a Royalist! He concludes that it is about time he was appointed, having been cheated out of his rightful place so many times.

It is not clear to whom this letter was sent, or whether the “House” means parliament or, more likely, Christ Church. Given the request in line 70 that the paper be returned, perhaps the lack of both address and specifics—his supporters are vaguely described as “most of the cheef men in the Kingdome” and “A great manie of the house”—meant that Donne could reuse the petition with a number of potential supporters. Whoever the recipient was, this letter is enormously revealing about the sender’s intellectual pretensions. Anticipating some of the reasons that might be offered for refusing him the canonry, Donne notes that the position may be reserved (“annext”) for Oxford’s Regius Professor of Hebrew (as it had been in 1605 and 1630). If so, Donne continues, then he is perfectly qualified to do that job, too!

This is a rather audacious claim but certainly fits with the tenor of Donne’s analysis of his own role as an editor. We know that Donne felt aggrieved that he should be criticized for his deficiencies as a preacher when he was editing his father’s works for posterity: in another letter written four years earlier, Donne complained to a friend about the “sad condition a Scholler is in, when at a publicke vestry, in this Parish, I was told by a pittifull ignorant Baker, I was an idle man and neuer preached” (Donne claimed to be too busy editing the sermons). ((Cited in Smith, “Busy young fool,”, p. 561.)) Here he goes even further, claiming (or repeating his supporters’ claim) that, by publishing his father’s sermons, “I should not only preach to the present adge, but to their childrens children as longe a the Christien Religion should last.”

The phraseology here is most notable, especially for a document held at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Ben Jonson’s famous words “not of an age, but for all time” did not, after all, refer to Shakespeare’s editors but to Shakespeare. Perhaps it is a little grandiose of Donne to apply a similar formulation to himself, even if he was only repeating the flattering encouragement of “the cheef men in the Kingdome.” But then, on the other hand, given how many of the elder Donne’s writings may not have survived without the younger Donne’s intercession, perhaps we ought not to begrudge him for recognizing his own efforts.

What this document tells us about the elder Donne’s sermons

title page of Donne's edition of his father's sermons
title page of Donne’s edition of his father’s sermons

For readers of the elder Donne’s sermons, this document witnesses some exceptionally interesting implications about their original conditions of publication. Foremost among these is Donne’s claim that the chaplains of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, demanded major excisions and revisions to the sermons, which he refused to make. Donne suggests that this editorial integrity—or perhaps the way the disputes were handled—led directly to him being passed over for the canonry promised by the king. If this claim is true, it constitutes important evidence about ecclesiastical censorship in the period.

Laud certainly possessed extensive powers of censorship. As Richard McCabe notes, his  authority stemmed from a much earlier Star Chamber decree of 1586, which stated that no “book, woork, coppye, matter, or any other thinge” could be printed without being “first seen and perused by the Archbishop of CANTERBURY and Bishop of LONDON” (this was the decree which was used to justify the famous prohibition on the publication of satires in 1599). ((Richard McCabe “‘Right Puisante and Terrible Priests’: The Role of the Anglican Church in Elizabethan State Censorship” in Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Basingstoke and New York, 2001), pp. 75-94, at p. 78.)) When William Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix was censured by the Star Chamber in 1633, the Archbishop of York clarified that the essential guideline on licensing was that “there should be nothing in the Booke dissonant from the doctrine of the Church of England, or against good manners.” ((Cited in Censorship and the Press, 1580-1720, gen. eds Geoff Kemp and Jason McElligott, 4 vols (London, 2009), 1.295.)) However, the wording allows for a range of interpretation regarding both the definition of “good manners” and “the doctrine of the Church of England.”

William Prynne—himself brutally punished by the censors—recorded an anecdote about one of Laud’s censorious chaplains, William Bray which, while obviously biased, is nevertheless suggestive:

having read over his [Daniel Featley’s 1636] Sermons, [Bray] gelt [i.e. gelded, castrated] them exceedingly, and purged out all the smart and masculine passages against both the Papists, Jesuits and Arminians, to his [Featley’s] great griefe; Whereupon he [Featley] expostulated the matter with him [Bray] why these passages of his, which passed currently without exceptions at White. hal before King James, King Charles, the University, and other pubicke Auditories when they were preached, and were highly approved of in former times, might not passe the presse without an Index expurgatorius now … But all this would not prevaile, these passages could not suit with the present times & therefore they must stand purged, or the book be totally suppressed[.] ((William Prynne, ‘Practices of Archbishop William Laud’s Press Licensers’, in Canterburies Doome (London, 1646), p. 254. Cited in Kemp et al, 1.307.))

It is interesting to hear the echo in Prynne’s words of Donne’s complaint. Since these sermons had once been highly respected by the highest authorities, why should they suddenly be deemed offensive? What was it about Featley’s or the elder Donne’s sermons that “could not suit with the present times”?

When Laud himself was eventually brought to trial on allegations of treason, an objection raised against him was that “the press licensing establishment he oversaw exhibited prejudice in favour of Arminian authors and against respected church Calvinists.” ((Kemp and McElligott, 1.304. The ODNB biographies of Laud’s chaplains, including Bray, William Haywood and Edward Baker, seem to confirm this allegation.)) Since Arminianism vigorously challenged Calvinist thinking on predestination, this distinction may help scholars consider which parts of Donne’s moderately Calvinist sermons were considered potentially offensive. By the end of the 1630s, Laud and Charles saw distinct political benefits in Arminianism, which imposed more order on the church liturgy, and order became particularly important in the late 1630s when Laud attempted to impose the new English Book of Common Prayer on the Scottish kirk.

However, Arminianism eventually proved Laud’s downfall, as it prompted accusations that he was attempting to smuggle Roman Catholicism back into the English liturgy. He was sent to the Tower on charges of treason in 1641 and executed in 1645. At the time Donne was attempting to publish his father’s sermons, though, Laud’s censors were at the height of their power, and we might consider it a credit to Donne—if we believe his claims of editorial integrity—that he argued his case so insistently. When he came to publish the final volume, Donne credited Laud in the dedicatory epistle, calling him “the Person most intrusted by your Majestie in the government of the Church, and most highly dignified in it.” The Folger’s Donne letter presents fascinating evidence about the fractious relationships and debates obscured by such conventional public praise.


DANIEL STARZA SMITH is British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and Oakeshott Junior Research Fellow at Lincoln College. Daniel was awarded a one-month residential fellowship at the Folger in 2013. His research focuses on John Donne’s friends, patrons, and early scribes, and his first monograph, John Donne and the Conway Papers, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014.


  • Very interesting! My article on the censorship of Daniel Featley’s sermons (in the Hadfield collection which you cite in n.7) sheds some light on the passages that the licensers objected to.

  • Dear Daniel Starza Smith,

    I have just read with interest the account of your work on the Folger MS of Donne’s son.
    I wonder if you have seen my monograph on Donne’s monument in John Donne Journal 2001,
    “New Evidence” etc., with many illustrations of my archival discoveries? I have it not digitally, but can send hardcopy pronto if I have your snail address.

    With best wishes,

    Richard S. Peterson
    Professor of English and Comparative Literature
    Oxford ’61 St Cat’s
    and charter board member, John Donne Journal

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)