Work remains to be done in a number of facets of Donne’s career as a priest of the Church of England. Here are four examples:

1. Donne’s relationship with the church of St John the Baptist, Keyston


Church of St John the Baptist, Keyston. Photo by John N. Wall

In 1616, the year after John Donne was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England, he was appointed to the livings of two parish churches, the Church of St John the Baptist in Keyston, Huntingdon, and the Church of St Nicholas in Sevenoaks, Kent. Donne’s appointment at Keyston was made by King James I, dated 16 January 1616; presumably James was here following up on his promise to Donne to advance Donne’s career if Donne took Holy Orders.

RC Bald, in his biography of Donne (John Donne: A Life (Oxford 1970) details, on pp. 386 – 388, some complexities of this appointment, including the fact that the appointment had also been given to a priest named John Scott. Donne ultimately got the post at Keyston, but promised he would support Scott’s candidacy when the time came for Donne to resign the position.

When Donne resigned from his post at Keyston in October of 1621, just prior to his becoming Dean of St Paul’s later that November, he helped Scott obtain the post, which had also been promised to a priest named Henry Seylard.

In the midst of all this, we find that Donne felt he had not been appropriately paid his salary by the good folks at St Nicholas, so he brought suit to obtain his due.


This document is described in the Catalogue of the Archive as Personal responses to articles of libel against Thomas Hills of Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire, in a cause of substraction of tithes due to John Donne DD, Rector of Keyston, who had been Parson in 1620. Responses given in court before Thomas Morrison.


It reads as follows:

The answers of Thomas Hills of Sharnebrooke in the county of Bedfordshire in the diocese of Lincoln…assignor John Dunne, Master in sacred theology… recently Rector of Keyston, Huntingdonshire, in the diocese of Lincoln…

[To the first article the respondent believes that] one of the yeares…vizt [that is to say] the yeare 1620 the assignor John Donne doctor in Divinitie was commonly accompted and reputed to be parson of Keyston…

[To the second article, as in the first and second, he believes that it is true…]

[And to the fourth and fifth articles…] the respondent believes that the sayd yeare 1620 he this respondent held and occupied wthin the parish of Keyston aforesayd nine hundred and twelve acres of meadowe and pasture ground and noe more (vt credit ffiftie acres of the sayd meadowe and pasture vizt that wch he thisrespondent did mowe and conuert to haye being worth the sayd yeare every acre one wth another xxs legalis &c (vt credit) and noe more And the other eight hundred threescore and twoo acres of the sayd meadowe and pasture vizt that wch  he did feede and eate downe wth cattell being worth the sayd yeare every acre one wth another vjlegalis &c (vt credit) and noe more.  The tythe of wch sayd fiftie acres mowed and conuerted to hay as aforesayd he this respondent did duely pay vnto the ffarmor or deputie of the sayd Mr Doctor Dunne.  And for the tythe of the sayd eight hundred threescore and twoo acres fed and eaten downe wth cattell as aforesayd this respondent doth believe that he ought not to pay or be troubled for any tythe thereof in regard that the Lady Wingfeild and Sir James Wingfeild her sonne did demise and let all the sayd nyne hundred and twelve acres vnto the respondent tythe free and did vndertake to satisfie the sayd Mr Doctor Dunne for the tythe of the sayd eight hundred threescore and twoo acres

[To the sixth statement, the respondent believes that it is true.]

[To the seventh statement, the respondent doesn’t believe that it is true.]

[To the eighth statement, the respondent believes that it is true.]

[To the ninth statement, the respondent believe that in the former case, it is true, and denies what is denied; and as for the other, he doesn’t believe that it is true.]

Repeated 8 August 1625 in our court                                 Signed Thomas Hills



Thomas Morison

The following account — “Parishes: Keyston,” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, ed. William Page, Granville Proby and S Inskip Ladds (London, 1936), pp. 69-75. <>  points toward approaches to filling out the background and alerts us to the fact that this court case deals with matters of land valuation and revaluation and the history of land enclosures.

Of St Nicholas , we are told that 

The church at Keyston was valued in 1291 at £18 13s. 4d. and in 1535 at £30 1s. 6d. In 1428 it was assessed at twenty-three marks, and paid 37s. 4d. to the subsidy. The advowson was attached to the manor and followed the same descent. It was acquired before 1764 by Charles, Marquess of Rockingham; it descended to Mr. G. C. Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, whose executors are now patrons. The tithes in Keyston seem to have been of considerable value, for about 1620, when Sir James Wingfield proposed the inclosure of over 1,700 acres of land, the rector, John Donne [the History says it was Scott, but Scott did not become the vicar of Keyston until after Donne resigned in 1621], ‘perceiving the great inconvenience which was to arise to the church,’ resisted the proposal and refused to receive tithes in kind out of the inclosure, declaring that the rectory was thereby disinherited almost to the value of one-half yearly. Upon this complaint, ‘to prevent the disherison of the said church and to make the said parsonage of as good, or neere as good, value as it was before,’ Sir James and his tenants agreed that arbitrators ‘of qualitie and conscience’ should be chosen by common consent ‘for establishing such a yearly rate upon the new inclosed grounds as they in their consciences and discretions should think to be equall ratably and respectively for the proportion of the said lands.’ Sir Robert Payne and Sir Lewis Pemberton, the chosen arbitrators, decided that the inclosure should pay 1s. 8d. an acre yearly to the rector and his successors in lieu of tithes. Notwithstanding their agreement, Edward Bate and Thomas Hilles, ‘two substantiall tenants’ and owners respectively of 120 and 850 acres of the inclosure, neglected to pay their share. The rector brought an action against them in chancery; whereupon Edward Bate declared that the rate was exorbitant, and begged ‘not to be compelled to pay as sett down by the referees’; while Thomas Hilles pleaded that, having consulted Edward Maria Wingfield and learned that ‘Dame Mary,’ probably the widow of Sir Edward Wingfield, ‘was not willing to encumber the inheritance with this perpetual rent charge,’ he did not absolutely agree to it, but ‘did pay at times to stay suits until there might be some friendly agreement.’ “

2. The silversmith who made the chalice

3. The baptism at Sevenoaks


His relationship with the parish in Sevenoaks continued
through his tenure as dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Parish records help us identify this
as the possible site for one of his baptismal sermons, likely preached at the baptism
of a child of the Sackville family, in residence at Knowle.

4. the furniture at Blunham