Title: DONNE AND THE COURT OF WARDS ,  By: Hester, M. Thomas, ANQ, 0895769X, Jul94, Vol. 7, Issue 3
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In Satyre III, a sardonic attack on the failures of "true religion" in late Elizabethan England, John Donne describes the absence of clear thinking typical of (some) English Reform Protestants by reference to the powerful Court of Wards. Like the foolish adventurers who seek mere "gaine" in their suicidal treks across the globe, these English sectarian amorists do not commit their rational souls to "seek" the bride of Christ but "allow" political ideology to govern their search. Representative of such "idolatrie" are those like Graius:

Graius stayes still at home hem, and because
Some preachers, vile ambitious bauds, and lawes
Still new like fashions, bid him thinke that shee
Which dwels with us, is onely perfect, hee
Imbraceth her. whom his Godhthers will
Tender to him, being tender, as Wards still
Take such wives as their Guardians offer, or
Pay valewes. (Shawcross, 11.55-62)

One dimension of this ridicule, as conveyed by the triple-entendres on "still" as a deadly form of foolish consistency, is the suggestion that the bride of Christ has been replaced in English Reformed worship by a sort of self-serving cult of Elizabeth ("shee / Which dwels with us, is onely perfect"). And this implied critique of the politics of worship "at home here" is reiterated by the simile which punctuates the final satirical thrust of the portrait. As Shawcross points out, Donne's vitriolic portrait of such self-serving and self-destructive surrender of one's "will" to the local authorities later in the poem explicitly identified with "idolatrie" [102]) as a form of sectarian, political prostitution is based on an implied association between marital penal laws and religious penal laws: "Wards who refused to marry their guardians' choices paid a sum equal to the value of such a marriage; recusants likewise paid for not attending the church established in their parish" (397). The simile of the portrait, in other words, implies more than merely a witty analogy. In fact, typical of the topical allusions in Donne's "Roman" verse, the Protestantism/guardianship/prostitution comparison invites the reader to privilege both its vehicle and its tenor. The association of Protestant sectarianism (and its enforcement) with the practice of the English Court of Wards and the English penal laws against Catholic recusants, that is, shows the reader not just two similar forms of political repression but three manifestations of religious oppression. To appreciate Donne's Satyre III as a piece of literary resistance we need to recall Donne's own relationship to these three, a consideration encouraged and aided by the recent appearance of another piece of evidence which records that relationship.

First, the Court of Wards simile recalls a familiar English Catholic complaint. William Allen, for instance, contrasted the "heretical regiment, where politiques have all the government" to the "Catholic commonwealths [where] the chief respect is and ever was . . . of the honor of Ged, the good of the Holy Church, [and] the salvation of the soul of their people." In Elizabeth's realm--or more accurately, he and other Catholic apologists urged, in Lord Burghley's realm-"the spiritual is but accessory, dependent, and wholly upholden of the [political], error in faith is little accounted of, . . . or else they care not for [true religion] nor what we believe, no further than toucheth their prince and temporal weal" (True . . . Defence of English Catholics, 39). The penal fines for recusancy, the Recusants urged, were merely political, mere forms of taxation little concerned with devotion or loyalty or religion. Foremost and most oppressive in this "fashion," they decried, was the machinery of Cecil's Court of Wards, which he ran as the appointed "Godfather" of England. As Robert Parsons says in one of his treatises, "it would be a most glorious way for a new prince to solemnize his entry, if he were to abolish this evil tax or even commute it, and then make fresh dispositions for the education of wards, the improvement of their estates and the relinquishment of their marriages to their relatives and guardians" (Memoriall III, 3). In fact, the Court of Wards, Joel Hurstfield points out, has been described by its 1540 originary statute as a source of information for the government, and was openly acknowledged to rely heavily on the expertise of professional (and amateur) spies, penal fines, and other pressure exerted by Lord Burghley (in his image of himself as Matchmaker of England) to maintain its nearly feudal authority. And like the use of torture and spying to control and expose the activities of Recusants especially, the penal efforts of the Court of Wards were often viewed by Englishmen of all sects, especially the lawyers with whom Donne was educated, and who were his friends, as violations of the Magna Carta itself. When Donne chooses this vehicle for his metaphoric portrait of the idolatry possible in English Protestantism, he focuses attention on a frequently corrupted instrument of the "Establishment" ideology which English Catholics especially saw as a violation of their ancient rights.

Second, it is important to recall that Donne himself would have found the machinations of the Court of Wards personally relevant. John and Henry Donne had twice barely escaped (in 1576 and 1590) its "vast reach." And although there is no extant proof that, in hasty remarriages to two Catholics after being widowed, their mother aimed to escape the grasp of England's "Godfather"-and his influence on the character of her children's instruction in the "valewes" of education in the Protestant view of Christ's bride--it does seem likely, given her life-long recusancy.

Third, one recently noted piece of evidence does endorse such a view: a letter, extant in the Hatfield House papers, from Anne Brooke to Robert Cecil on May 30, 1599, in which she asks him to support the marriage between her daughter and Walter Philippa:

Good Sir. May it please you to understand that there is a marriage intended between my daughter Phillipe and Mr Coverley of Coverley and for that I am loath to deale in so waightie a cause without my Lord Cobhams advise and yours therein I have thaught good to sende Mr Lyly unto you who can particularley declare all his whole estate unto you. Likewise I have sent an other Gentleman unto my Lord Cobham to desire his Lordship to imparm it unto you. Now I beseeche you good Sir (whom hath bene allways a father to my children) That you will in this so deale with Mr Lyly that if you shall finde it fitt it may be brought to passe (which gentleman is kynne to Mr Lyly's wife who is the firste welwisher of this matche towardes my Daughter). I understand by Mr Lyly that he is in wardeshipp till April next to the Ladie Gargrave of Yorke Shiere who hath tendered unto him her daughter and his wylinge to give XV CII in marriage with her. But it hath pleased God that he hath taken some likinge of my daughter that he is content to take her with a lesser portion. Thus Refertinge this cause to my Lord Cobham and your wise consideration I humbley take my leave beseechinge god to increase you with much Honor.

As the Edward De Vere Newsletter (No. 22 [December 1990])points out, Robert Cecil was married to Lord Cobham's daughter and "Mr Lyly" was married to Donne's older sister, Anne. For the editor, these data suggest possible connections between the poet and the Drury family and between the marriage and the anonymous A Yorkshire Tragedy.1 But equally significant, overlooked by this appraisal, is that the "other Gentleman. . . . sent . . . unto my Lord Cobham . . . which gentleman is kynne to Mr Lyly's wife who is the first welwisher of this matche towardes my Daughter" was John Donne. Such a recognition also would suggest that, as Dennis Flynn has recently urged, Donne did in fact move freely and with some effect among the aristocracy of the realm. But equally significant is that this evidence shows that the association of English sectarian "idolatrie" and the machinations of the Court of Wards was not just an "idle" conceit for him. The efforts of Donne and his sister to shield Philippa Brooke, pregnant daughter of Lord Cobham (this is, her mother admits, "so waightie a cause"), who was "in wardship . . . to the Ladie Gargrave of York," from the Court's jurisdiction suggests that he and his family took an active role in resisting the use of politics to control the future of English "Soules?' Satyre III, as the details and context of the Graius conceit show, is part of that "indeavour."


1. Dennis Flynn points out that Ann Lyly "may have had a hand in writing the pamphlet on which The Yorkshire Tragedy is based, and perhaps even the play itself' ("Donne and a Female Coterie," L/T 1 [1989], 135 n4). I am indebted (again) to him for his help with the present note, as well as to John T. Shawcross.


Allen, William. A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics. Ed. Robert M. Kingdon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1965.

Edward De Vere Newsletter No 22 (December, 1990), n.p.

Flynn, Dennis. "Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility." ELR 19 (1989): 305-23.

Hurstfield, Joel. The Queen's Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.

Parsons, Robert. A Memorial of the Reformation of England. 1596 [Printed in 1690 by Edward Gee, London 1690].

Shawcross, John T., ed. The Complete Poetn., of John Donne. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1967.