John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility

By Dennis Flynn | Go to book overview
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A LONG-STANDING policy of Heywood and the missionary priests had been to encourage young Catholic gentry to get an early university education, so that they might complete their basic studies without running afoul of repressive Elizabethan laws and regulations that attempted to curb the Catholic education of children. The Oxford matriculation statute, for example, required from the outset of Queen Elizabeth's reign that students subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles and swear the Oath of Supremacy at the age of sixteen. In order to avoid having to comply, Catholic students were to enroll at Oxford colleges before the age of twelve in order to gain the rudiments before going on to complete their education at one of the continental seminaries. 1

Accordingly, John Donne and his brother Henry, aged twelve and eleven, had enrolled at Oxford in October 1584. However, as we have seen, Heywood's missionary success at the universities had brought a reaction from the government, which forced selected students as young as twelve to swear the Oath of Supremacy. 2 John and Henry lied about their ages at matriculation, each of them subtracting a year. Success of the deception would mean that John Donne would have a slight period of grace before his vulnerability became acute. In any case, he could not spend more than one term at Oxford before he would likely be required, as a member of a noted Catholic family and nephew of a by now imprisoned Jesuit missionary, to swear the Oath.

Probably at Heywood's suggestion, the brothers went to study at Hart Hall, whose principal, Philip Rondell, had long been known to Heywood as a supporter of the old religion. Rondell himself had been

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