Hear John Donne’s sermon of November 5th, 1622

John Donne, lawyer, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, died on March 31st, 1631. He had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a decade at the time of his death, a prestigious leadership position in the Church of England to which he was appointed by King James I despite only having taking orders six years earlier. Donne was born and raised Catholic but had converted to the Church of England in the late 1590s. Indeed, he caught the eye of the king in 1610 by publishing the tract Pseudo-Martyr which argued that Catholics could in good conscience swear the Oath of Allegiance to King James, a law promulgated in 1606 in reaction to the Gunpowder Plot the year before requiring all Catholics in public service to affirm their loyalty to the King even if the Pope excommunicated him. (This was a significant stance on a personal level because Donne had refused to take the previous iteration, the Oath of Supremacy, a requirement for graduation from English universities, and thus never receive his degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Also, his mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More who was executed for treason after his refusal to take the first version of this oath under Henry VIII.)

Donne had been exiled from court in 1601 after his secret marriage to Anne More (no relation to Sir Thomas), daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower, and niece of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Donne’s employer and patron. His struggles to support his ever-growing family (Anne had 12 children in 16 years; she died birthing the last one) were significant. Even with a kindly relative putting a roof over their heads and legal skills earning them a few ducats, John was always on the hunt for a stable position and income.

He wanted a job at court, the kind of posting he would surely had received had he not pissed off Egerton and derailed his youthful promise, but that wasn’t going to happen. His friends told him to take orders, but he was reluctant to become an ordained minister. When Thomas Morton, then Dean of Gloucester and future Bishop of Durham, asked him to consider a career in the church in 1606, Donne explained his reluctance:

[M]y refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that my education and learning, though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God’s grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it; but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections, yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour.

Translation: John was way too into the wine, women and song in his youth, so much so that his reputation could bring the holy office into disrepute. And this before his erotic poetry was published, although the elegies had circulated among friends in manuscript form when he first wrote them, probably in the 1590s. He wasn’t wrong, incidentally. Long after his ordination some people would still throw his youthful indiscretions in his face when they had a dispute with him.

Finally Donne gave in to the pressure of his friends, King and wallet and took orders in 1615. His first appointment was as Royal Chaplain. The next year he was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. This is where he began to deliver regular sermons and to be recognized as a skilled orator. He gave 50 sermons the first year, at a time when any self-respecting sermon would be at least one hour long and more often double that. Donne became very much in demand as a preacher, getting invitations to preach everyone from Queen Anne’s private residence to Whitehall to St. Paul’s Cross, the courtyard adjacent to the Cathedral where large audiences gathered to listen to sermons on the great controversies of the day.

When he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1621, St. Paul’s Cross became the home base for his sermons. Although in theory sermons were not subject to censorship, in fact the King was deeply involved in who preached about what, and a sermon that didn’t sit right with His Majesty could easily result in its preacher spending a night or two in the Tower. Sermons increasingly failed to sit right with the King as the question of the proposed marriage between Prince Charles and the Catholic Princes Maria Anna of Spain raged across pulpits.

In 1622, King James I made it explicit by issuing Directions for Preachers which instructed all clergy to stick to the liturgy and refrain from comment on affairs of state. James directed Donne to make a sermon in favor of the new rules, which he did on the grounds that subjects should obey the monarch and trust in his wisdom.

Two months later, the King told Donne to go for another round in a sermon on November 5th, 1622, the 17th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Again the focus of this sermon was obedience to the monarch, comparing James to the “good king” Josiah and emphasizing his Anglican orthodoxy to deflect suspicions that his desire for a Spanish match for his son was the result of a secret tendency towards Papism.

We know what he said in this sermon because Donne wrote it down at the King’s request a couple of days after having delivered it. Now we can know what it sounded like, thanks to the brilliant multi-disciplinary efforts of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.

The St. Paul’s Cathedral of Donne’s time burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In order to create an accurate architectural model of the St. Paul’s Cross courtyard, the VPCP used contemporary artistic depictions of the site and measurements taken by archaeologists of all that survived the fire: the foundations of the buildings surrounding it. They calculated the acoustics of the space from the architectural data and from likely ambient noise like crowd buzz, church bells, seagulls and horse carts passing by. They also adjusted the acoustic model depending on where the listener is standing and how many people were in the courtyard.

To resurrect the preaching style of a man who died almost 400 years ago, researchers sought out descriptions of Donne’s sermons from contemporary witnesses and enlisted the expertise of historical linguists to pin down a proper period accent and pronunciation. The project took three years to complete and more than 50 experts in many fields from history to architecture to acoustical engineers.

The website is replete with information about every aspect of the project including of course the star of the show, John Donne’s November 5th, 1622, sermon, available from two listening spots.

Here’s a quick flyover of the visual model of St. Paul’s Cross:


Here’s John Donne’s full sermon as heard from the Sermon House box where the dignitaries sat (because you guys are totally my dignitaries):

How about that echo, huh? No wonder he had to speak so slowly. 

4 thoughts on “Hear John Donne’s sermon of November 5th, 1622

  1. This post was SO interesting on a variety of levels. Thank you so much for sharing it with your devoted readers.

  2. What a fascinating reconstruction, on so many levels. I was particularly interested in the acoustics. If the reconstruction is reasonably accurate, the aristocrats had the better view, but the acoustics were abominable. The courtyard, on the other hand, could hear the sermon clearly. I am also interested in the info about dialects and inflections (picked up some interesting cadences and vowel formations)– now want to pursue that. Very interesting post!

  3. I’m surprised to see people sitting rather than standing, having never imagined benches in the courtyard of St Paul’s.

  4. The benches we know from John Gipklin’s painting. They were kept in the north transept of the cathedral and brought out for sermons. People paid fees to sit there, a wise move if one had the money, since the sermons were 2 hours long.

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