These two remarkable letters were hand-written by John Donne (1572–1631) in a desperate attempt to save himself from the scandal caused by his secret marriage to Ann More (1584–1617), the 17-year old niece of his employer’s wife.
In the first letter, Donne tries to explain himself to his father-in-law, Sir George More. In response, More had Donne sacked from his job and thrown into jail for conspiracy to marry without consent. In the second letter, Donne writes from the Fleet Prison to his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton, pleading for relief from punishment.
How did the couple meet?
When he met Ann, Donne was working as secretary to Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England. Their romance started at York House, Egerton’s London mansion, where Ann had been living in the care of her aunt. After hushed ‘promises and contracts’, they were married in December 1601, and, without confessing their secret, Ann returned to her father’s house, Loseley Park in Surrey. Donne found lodgings by the Savoy, where he became gloomy and ill.
Signed letter from John Donne to Sir George More, 2 February 1602
Weeks after the wedding, Donne asked his friend, the Earl of Northumberland, to deliver this awkward letter breaking the news to Sir George at Loseley. Donne says that they kept the wedding a secret, knowing that More had a ‘poor opinion’ of him and would ‘impossibilitate’ their plans. More might well have felt that Donne, an ex-Catholic and known womaniser, was not a fit match for his daughter. Donne knows his letter will infuriate More, but suggests that, since the wedding ‘is irremediably donne’, Sir George might as well accept it.
Signed letter from John Donne to Sir Thomas Egerton, 12 February 1602
In this letter, sent from the Fleet Prison, Donne pleads with Sir Thomas Egerton to ‘excuse’ his ‘Offence’, and save him from ‘Destruction’. Soon afterwards, Sir George More was forced to accept that John and Ann’s marriage was valid, but Egerton never gave Donne his job back.
John and Ann remained together until Ann’s death in 1617, days after she gave birth to their twelfth child.
If a very respective feare of yor displeasure, and a
doubt, that my L: whom I know, owt of yor worthines to love yow much,
would be so compassionate wth yow as to add his anger to yors did not
so much increase my sicknes as that I cannot stir I had taken the
boldness to have donne the office of this letter by wayting upon you
my self: To have given yow truthe and clearnes of this matter
between yor daughter and me; and to show to yow plainly the limits
of or fault, by wch I know your wisdome wyll proportion the punishment.
So long since as her being at York House, this had foundation: and so
much then of promise and Contract built upon yt as, wthowt violence
to conscience, might not be shaken. At her lyeng in town this last
Parliament, I found meanes to see her twice or thrice: We both knew
the obligations that lay upon us, and wee adventured equally, and about
three weeks before Christmas we married. And as at the doinge, there
were not usd above fyve persons, of wch I protest to yow by my salvation
there was not one that ^had any dependence or relation to yow, so in all the
passage of it, did I forbear to use any such person, who by furtheringe
of yt, might violate any trust or duty towards yow. The reasons why
I did not foreacquaint yow wth it (to deale wth the same plainnes that I
have usd) were these. I knew my prsent estate lesse than fitt for her; I
knew, (yet I knew not why) that I stood not right in yor opinion; I
knew that to have given any intimacion of yt had been to impossibilitate
the whole mattr. And then having these ^honest purposes in or harts and those
fetters in or consciences, me thinks we should be pardoned, if or fault be but
this, that wee did not, by fore-revealinge of yt, consent to or hindrance
and torment. Sr, I acknowledge my fault to be so grat, as dare scarse
offer any other prayer to yow in myne own behalf, than this, to beleeve this
truthe, that I neythr had dishonest end nor meanes. But for her
whom I tender much more, than my fortunes, or lyfe (els I would I might
neythr ioy in this lyfe, nor enioy the next) I humbly beg of yow, that she
may not, to her danger, feele the terror of yor sudaine anger. I know
this letter shall find yow full of passion: but I know no passion can
alter yor reason and wisdom; to wch I adventure to commend these
particulars; That yt ys irremediably donne; That if you incense
my L, yow destroy her and me; That yt is ˄easye to give us happiness; And
that my endeavours and industrie, if it please you to prosper them, may
soone make me somewhat worthyer of her. If any take the
advantage of yor displeasure against me, and fill yow wth ill
thoughts of me, my Comfort is that you know that fayth and
thanks are due to them onely that speak when theyr informa-
cins might do good: wch now yt cannot work towards any party.
For my Excuse I can say nothing except I knew what were
sayd to yow. Sr, I have truly told yow this mattr, and
I humbly beseeche you so to deale in yt, as the persuasions of
nature, reason, wisdome and Christianity shall informe yow;
And to accept the vowes of one whom you may now rayse or
scatter, wch are, that as my Love ys directed unchange-
ably upon her, so all my labors shall concur to her co-
tentment, and ˄to show my humble obedience to yorselfe.
From my lodginge by ye
Savoy. 2 o Februae: 1601
To excuse my Offence, or so much to resist the iust punishment
for ytt, as to move yor Lp to wthdraw ytt, I thought till now,
were to aggravate my fault. But since yt hath pleased God, to
ioyne wth yow in punishing thereof, wth increasing my sicknes, and
that he gives me now Audience by prayer, yt emboldneth me
also to address my humble request to yr Lp: that yow would
admit into yor favourable Consideracion, how farr my intenti-
ons were from doing dishonor to yor Lps house; and how
unable I ame to escape utter and present Destruction if
yor Lp iudge only the Effect and Deede. My services never
had so much worthe in them, as to deserve the favors,
wherwth they were payd: But they had alwayes so much
honesty, as that onely this hath staynd them. Yor Justice
hath been Mercifulle, in making me know my offence, and yt
hath much profited me, that I ame deiected. Since then
I ame so intirely yors, that even yor disfavors have wrought
good upon me, I humbly beseeche yow that all my good
may proceed from yor Lp. And that, since Sr George
More, whom leave no humble way unsought to regaine,
referrs all to yor Lp, yow would be pleased to lessen that
Correction, wch yor iust wisdome hath destined for me; and
so to pitty my sicknes, and other Misery, as shall best
agree wth yor honorable disposition. Allmighty god
accompany all yor Lps purposes, and bless yow and yors wth
many good dayes. Fleet. 22o Febr: 1601
most deiected and poorest
To the right honourable
My very good L: and
Master, Sr Thomas
Egerton knight; L: keeper
Of the great Seale of
- Full title:
- Autograph letter from John Donne, London, to Sir George More, 1601/1602 February 2' and 'Autograph letter from John Donne, Fleet Prison, to Sir Thomas Egerton, 1601/1602 February 12'
- 1602, London
- Manuscript / Letter
- John Donne
- Usage terms
Folger Source call numbers: L.b.526 & L.b.528. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
- Held by
- Folger Shakespeare Library
- L.b.526; L.b.528
- Article by:
- Toby Litt
- Poetry, Renaissance writers
Toby Litt shows how Donne creates a mischievous relationship with his readers, as the poem builds energy and plays around with time and space.
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
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Michael Donkor explains what makes John Donne a metaphysical poet, and looks at the creative and distinctive ways in which Donne used metaphysical techniques.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Poetry, Renaissance writers, Power, politics and religion, Language, word play and text
Andrew Dickson explores John Donne's fascination with death as a literary, philosophical and emotional subject, and examines its presence in his poetry and treatises.