John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility

By Dennis Flynn | Go to book overview
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5
HENRY PERCY, EIGHTH EARL
OF NORTHUMBERLAND

JOHN DONNE and his family were thrust into the center of the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics by the arrival of his Jesuit uncle as an underground missionary. The fact that Heywood arrived at Tynemouth, evidently under the auspices of Henry Percy, eighth Earl of Northumberland, implies there was some earlier relation between Donne's family and the house of Percy. Probably the connection began as early as the time of John Heywood's participation in educational activities at Court, when Jasper was studying with Princess Elizabeth. In any case, Donne's own affiliation with the Percy family began with his uncle's arrival, lasted all his life, and included his friendship with Lord Henry Percy, who became ninth Earl. Involvement with the Percys underscored Donne's experience of religious persecution, which represented a constant threat in his life as in the life of the Percy family. It was a factor that determined Donne's outlook.

No family in sixteenth-century England suffered more for its Catholicism than the house of Percy. Sir Thomas Percy, father of the seventh and eighth Earls of Northumberland, was attainted and executed for treason after taking part (within a year of Sir Thomas More's execution) in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the first rebellion against Tudor religious reform. With his execution and attainder, the line of Earls of Northumberland was extinguished. The children of Sir Thomas Percy were consigned to that vague netherworld of the Court of Henry VIII with the bastardized Princess Mary and other figures more or less out of the King's favor during and after Cromwell's time in power. For a period of twenty years, through the reign of Edward VI, the Northumberland title was withheld from the Percy family; it was eventually

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