Evelyn Simpson, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Healy (eds), Selected Prose

Find Location in text

Main Text


pg 42pg 43Pseudo-Martyr is the longest and, without doubt, the least interesting of Donne's early works. It was the first of his works to be published and was printed only once, in 1610. Walton says that it was written at the request of King James, and in the space of six weeks. This cannot be true. It is clear from the preface that the work was not written at the King's instigation, and it was certainly not written without long and careful study and thought. It won the King's approval, and gained for Donne an honorary M. A. from the University of Oxford and a reputation as a serious controversialist. Donne read the text carefully and supplied a long list of errata, to which he draws the reader's attention in the Advertisement. There are copious marginal references, which we have omitted.

After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot the Government attempted to impose an Oath of Allegiance on all recusants. This was resisted on the grounds that the Oath explicitly denied the Pope's power to depose a king and implicitly denied his authority to excommunicate one. The 'appellant' party among the Catholics blamed the Jesuits for provoking the recusant refusal to take the Oath: a charge which the Government were as willing to support as they had been to sponsor it. Pseudo-Martyr attacks the recusant position; but reserves its particular attention and vehemence for the Jesuits.

Amid the standard controversial barrages fired off by both sides, Donne's line of argument is novel. He attacks the recusant position as legally doubtful, and says that, since this is the case, any sufferings individuals undergo for refusing to take the Oath cannot properly be called martyrdom. For all its subtlety, the intricate argument has little interest for modern readers.

In its main lines the controversy was at least as much political as theological. Thus there is a certain interest in Donne's fulsome dedication of his work to James I. Our second selection illustrates the one quality which, generally, marks Donne as a controversialist, his reasonableness. He can hit hard; but the tone he prefers is irenic.


1. The Epistle Dedicatorie

Most mightie and sacred Soveraigne.

As Temporall armies consist of Press'd men, and voluntaries, so doe they also in this warfare, in which your Majestie hath appear'd by your Bookes. And not only your strong and full Garisons, which are your Cleargie, and your Universities, but also obscure Villages can minister Souldiours. For, the equall interest, which all your Subjects have in the cause (all being equally endanger'd in your dangers) gives every one of us a Title to the Dignitie of this warfare; And so makes those, whom the Civill Lawes made opposite, all one, Paganos, Milites. Besides, since in this Battaile, your Majestie, by your Bookes, is gone in Person out of the Kingdome, who can bee exempt from waiting upon you in such an expedition? For this Oath must worke upon us all; and as it must draw from the Papists a profession, so it must from us, a Confirmation of our Obedience; They must testifie an Alleageance by the Oath, we, an Alleageance to it. For, since in providing for your Majesties securitie, the Oath defends us, it is reason, that wee defend it. The strongest Castle that is, cannot defend the Inhabitants, if they sleepe, or neglect the defence of that, which defends them; No more can this Oath, though framed with all advantagious Christianly wisedome, secure your Majestie, and us in you, if by our negligence wee should open it, either to the adversaries Batteries, or to his underminings.

The influence of those your Majesties Bookes, as the Sunne, which penetrates all corners, hath wrought uppon me, and drawen up, and exhaled from my poore Meditations, these discourses: Which, with all reverence and devotion, I present to your Majestie, who in this also have the power and office of the Sunne, that those things which you exhale, you may at your pleasure dissipate, and annull; or suffer them to fall downe againe, as a wholesome and pg 45fruitfull dew, upon your Church & Commonwealth. Of my boldnesse in this addresse, I most humbly beseech your Majestie, to admit this excuse, that having observed, how much your Majestie had vouchsafed to descend to a conversation with your Subjects, by way of your Bookes, I also conceiv'd an ambition, of ascending to your presence, by the same way, and of participating, by this meanes, their happinesse, of whome, that saying of the Queene of Sheba, may bee usurp'd: Happie are thy men, and happie are those thy Servants, which stand before thee alwayes, and heare thy wisedome. For, in this, I make account, that I have performed a duetie, by expressing in an exterior, and (by your Majesties permission) a publieke Act, the same desire, which God heares in my daily prayers, That your Majestie may very long governe us in your Person, and ever, in your Race and Progenie.

2. An Advertisement to the Reader

Though I purposed not to speake any thing to the Reader, otherwise than by way of Epilogue in the end of the Booke, both because I esteemed that to be the fittest place, to give my Reasons, why I respited the handling of the two last Chapters,1 till another time, and also, because I thought not that any man might well and properly be called a Reader, till he were come to the end of the Booke: yet, because both he, and I, may suffer some disadvantages, if he should not be fore-possessed, and warned in some things, I have changed my purpose in that point.

For his owne good therefore (in which I am also interessed) I must first intreat him, that he will be pleased, before hee reade, to amend with his pen, some of the most important errors, which are hereafter noted to have passed in the printing. Because in the Reading, he will not perchance suspect nor spy them, and so he may runne a danger, of being either deceived, or scandalized.

And for my selfe, (because I have already received some light, that some of the Romane profession, having onely seene the Heads and pg 46Grounds handled in this Booke, have traduced me, as an impious and profane under-valewer of Martyrdome,) I most humbly beseech him, (till the reading of the Booke, may guide his Reason) to beleeve, that I have a just and Christianly estimation, and reverence, of that devout and acceptable Sacrifice of our lifes, for the glory of our blessed Saviour. For, as my fortune hath never beene so flattering nor abundant, as should make this present life sweet and precious to me, as I am a Moral man: so, as I am a Christian, I have beene ever kept awake in a meditation of Martyrdome, by being derived from such a stocke and race, as, I beleeve, no family, (which is not of farre larger extent, and greater branches,) hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the Teachers of Romane Doctrine, than it hath done. I did not therefore enter into this, as a carnall or over-indulgent favourer of this life, but out of such reasons, as may arise to his knowledge, who shall be pleased to read the whole worke.

In which, I have abstained from handling the two last Chapters upon divers reasons; whereof one is, that these Heads having beene caried about, many moneths, and thereby quarrelled by some, and desired by others, I was willing to give the Booke a hasty dispatch, that it might cost no man much time, either in expecting before it came, or in reading, when it was come.

But a more principall reason was, that since the two last Chapters depend upon one another, and have a mutual Relation, I was not willing to undertake one, till I might persevere through both. And from the last chapter it became me to abstaine, till I might understand their purposes, who were formerly engaged in the same businesse. For the first Discoverie gives some title to the place, and secludes others, without the Discoverers permission; And in men tender and jealous of their Honour, it is sometimes accounted as much injurie to assist, as to assault.

When therefore I considered, that the most Reverend and learned Sir Edward Coke, Lord chiefe Justice of the common Pleas (whom, they which are too narrow to comprehend him, may finde arguments enow to love, and admire, out of the measure and proportion of his malice who hath written against him, since wee ought to love him so much, as such men hate him) had in this point of Jurisdiction, pg 47laid so solid foundations, raised so strong walls, & perfited his house upon so sure a Rocke, as the lawes of this Kingdome are. And when I saw, that as the divell himselfe is busiest to attempt them, who abound in strength of Grace, (not forbearing our Saviour himselfe) so an ordinary Instrument of his, (whose continuall libels, and Incitatorie bookes, have occasioned more afflictions, and drawne more of that bloud, which they call Catholique, in this Kingdome than all our Acts of Parliament have done,) had oppugned his Lordships Booke, and iterated and inconculcated those his oppositions, I could not know whether his Lordship reserved any farther consideration of that matter to his owne leasures, or had honoured any other man, with his commandement, or allowance to pursue it. Till therefore I might know, whether any such were embarqued therein, as would either accept my Notes, and dignifie them with their stile, or submit their Notes to my method, and the poore apparell of my language, or undertake it entirely, or quit it absolutely, as a body perfit already, by that forme which his Lordship hath given it, I chose to forbeare the handling thereof at this time.

One thing more I was willing the Reader should be forewarned of; which is, that when he findes in the printing of this Booke oftentimes a change of the Character, hee must not thinke that all those words or sentences so distinguished, are cited from other Authors; for I have done it sometimes, onely to draw his eye, and understanding more intensly upon that place, and so make deeper impressions thereof.

And in those places which are cited from other Authors (which hee shall know by the Margine) I doe not alwayes precisely and superstitiously binde my selfe to the words of the Authors; which was impossible to me, both because sometimes I collect their sense, and expresse their Arguments or their opinions, and the Resultance of a whole leafe, in two or three lines, and some few times, I cite some of their Catholique Authors, out of their owne fellowes, who had used the same fashion of collecting their sense, without precise binding themselves to All, or onely their words. This is the comfort which my conscience hath, and the assurance which I can give the Reader, that I have no where made any Author, speake more or pg 48lesse, in sense, than hee intended, to that purpose, for which I cite him. If any of their owne fellowes from whom I cite them, have dealt otherwise, I cannot be wounded but through their sides. So that I hope either mine Innocence, or their own fellowes guiltinesse, shall defend me, from the curious malice of those men, who in this sickly decay, and declining of their cause, can spy out falsifyings in every citation: as in a jealous, and obnoxious state, a Decipherer can pick out Plots, and Treason, in any familiar letter which is intercepted.

And thus much it seemed necessary to mee, to let the Reader know, to whose charitable and favourable opinion I commit the booke, and my selfe to his Christianly and devout Prayers.

3. From the Preface1


And if they will be content to impute to me all humane infirmities, they shall neede to faine nothing: I am, I confesse, obnoxious enough. My naturall impatience not to digge painefully in deepe, and stony, and sullen learnings: My Indulgence to my freedome and libertie, as in all other indifferent things, so in my studies also, not to betroth or enthral my selfe, to any one science, which should possesse or denominate me: My easines, to affoord a sweete and gentle Interpretation, to all professors of Christian Religion, if they shake not the Foundation, wherein I have in my ordinary Communication and familiar writings, often expressed and declared my selfe: hath opened me enough to their malice, and put me into their danger, and given them advantage to impute to me, whatsoever such degrees of lazines, of liberty, of irresolution, can produce.

But if either they will transferre my personall weakenesses upon the cause, or extend the faults of my person to my minde, or to her purest part, my conscience: If they will calumniate this poore and innocent worke of mine, as if it were written, either for Ostentation of any ability or faculty in my selfe; or for Provocation, to draw pg 49them to an aunswere, and so continue a Bookewarre; or for Flattery to the present State; which, thogh my services be by many just titles due to it, needs it not; or for exasperation, to draw out the civill sword in causes, which have some pretence and colour of being spirituall; or to get Occasion hereby to uncover the nakednes, and lay open the incommodious and undefensible sentences and opinions, of divers severall Authors in that Church; or to maintaine and further a scisme and division amongst you, in this point of the Popes pretence to temporall jurisdiction: I have no other shelter against these imputations, but an appeale to our blessed Saviour, and a protestation before his face, that my principall and direct scope and purpose herein, is the unity and peace of his Church. For as when the roofe of the Temple rent asunder, not long after followed the ruine of the foundation it selfe: So if these two principall beames and Toppe-rafters, the Prince and the Priest, rent asunder, the whole frame and Foundation of Christian Religion will be shaked. And if we distinguish not between Articles of faith & jurisdiction, but account all those super-edifications and furnitures, and ornaments which God hath affoorded to his Church, for exteriour government, to be equally the Foundation it selfe, there can bee no Church; as there could be no body of a man, if it were all eye.

They who have descended so lowe, as to take knowledge of me, and to admit me into their consideration, know well that I used no inordinate hast, nor precipitation in binding my conscience to any locall Religion. I had a longer worke to doe than many other men; for I was first to blot out, certaine impressions of the Romane religion, and to wrastle both against the examples and against the reasons, by which some hold was taken; and some anticipations early layde upon my conscience, both by Persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will, and others who by their learning and good life, seem'd to me justly to claime an interest for the guiding, and rectifying of mine understanding in these matters. And although I apprehended well enough, that this irresolution not onely retarded my fortune, but also bred some scandall, and endangered my spirituall reputation, by laying me open to many mis-interpretations; yet all these respects did not transport me to pg 50any violent and sudden determination, till I had, to the measure of my poore wit and judgement, survayed and digested the whole body of Divinity, controverted betweene ours and the Romane Church. In which search and disquisition, that God, which awakened me then, and hath never forsaken me in that industry, as he is the Authour of that purpose, so is he a witnes of this protestation; that I behaved my selfe, and proceeded therin with humility, and diffidence in my selfe; and by that, which by his grace, I tooke to be the ordinary meanes, which is frequent praier, and equall and indifferent affections.

And this course held in rectifying and reducing mine understanding and judgment, might justifie & excuse my forwardnes; if I shold seeme to any to have intruded and usurped the office of others, in writing of Divinity and spirituall points, having no ordinary calling to that function. For, to have alwaies abstained from this declaration of my selfe, had beene to betray, and to abandon, and prostitute my good name to their misconceivings and imputations; who thinke presently, that hee hath no Religion, which dares not call his Religion by some newer name than Christian. And then, for my writing in Divinity, though no professed Divine; all Ages, all Nations, all Religions, even yours, which is the most covetous and lothest to divide, or communicate with the Layety, any of the honours reserved to the Clergie, affoord me abundantly examples, and authorities for such an undertaking.


To let blood in some diseases, saith the eloquentest Physitian, is no new thing; but that there should scarce be any disease, in which we should not let blood, is (saith he) a strange and new fashion: So to offer our lives for defence of the Catholique faith, hath ever beene a religious custome; but to cal every pretence of the Pope, Catholique faith, and to bleede to death for it, is a sickenesse and a medicine, which the Primitive Church never understood. For the implicite faith, and blinde assent, which you were used heretofore to give to the spirituall supremacy, was put upon you, as pg 51Annibal, to entrappe and surprise his enemies, mingled their wine with Mandrake, whose operation is betwixt sleepe and poyson: for though it brought you into a drowsie and stupid adoration of the Pope, & some dull lethargies & forgetfulnesses of your temporall dueties, yet it was not so pestilent and contagious, but that a civill state might consist with it, though in a continual languishing and consumption. But this doctrine of temporall Jurisdiction is not onely a violent and dispatching poyson, but it is of the nature of those poysons, which destroy not by heat nor cold, nor corrosion, nor any other discerneable quality, but (as physitians say) out of the specifique forme, and secret malignity, and out of the whole substance. For as no Artist can finde out, how this malignant strength growes in that poyson, nor how it workes, So can none of your Writers tell, how this temporall Jurisdiction got into the Pope, or how he executes it, but are anguished and tortured, when they come to talke of it, as Physitians and Naturalists are, when they speake of these specifique poysons, or of the cause and origen thereof, which is, Antipathie.

And yet we finde it reported of one woman, that she had so long accustomed her body to these poysons, by making them her ordinary foode, that shee had brought herself, and her whole complexion and constitution, to be of the same power as the poyson was, and yet retaind so much beauty, as shee allurd Kings to her embracement, and kild and poisond them by that meanes: So hath the Romane faith beene for many yeares, so fedde and pampred with this venemous doctrine of temporall jurisdiction, that it is growne to some few of them to bee matter of faith it selfe; and shee is able to drawe and hold some Princes to her love, because for all this infection, she retaines some colour and probability of being the same shee was. And as that Fish which Ælianus speakes of, lies neere to the rocke, and because it is of the colour of the rocke, surprises many fishes which come to refresh themselves at the rocke: so doth the Romane doctrine, because it can pretend by a locall and personall succession (though both interrupted) that it is so much of the colour of the rocke, and so neare it, as Petrus and Petra, envegle and entrappe many credulous persons, who have a zealous desire to build upon the rocke it selfe.

pg 52(iii)

I call to witnesse against you, those whose testimonie God himselfe hath accepted. Speake then and testifie, O you glorious and triumphant Army of Martyrs, who enjoy now a permanent triumph in heaven, which knew the voice of your Shepheard, and staid till he cald, and went then with all alacritie: Is there any man received into your blessed Legion, by title of such a Death, as sedition, scandall, or any humane respect occasioned? O no, for they which are in possession of that Laurell, are such as have washed their garments, not in their owne blood onely (for so they might still remaine redde and staind) but in the blood of the Lambe which changes them to white. …

Thus much I was willing to premit, to awaken you, if it please you to heare it, to a just love of your owne safetie, of the peace of your Countrey, of the honour and reputation of your Countreymen, and of the integritie of that, which you call the Catholicke cause; and to acquaint you so farre, with my disposition and temper, as that you neede not be afraid to reade my poore writings, who joyne you with mine owne Soule in my Prayers, that your Obedience here, may prepare your admission into the heavenly Hierusalem, and that by the same Obedience, Your dayes may bee long in the land, which the Lord your God hath given you. Amen.

4. ['This rich Carbuncle our soule']

As a Depositarie to whose trust some pretious thing were committed, is not onely encombred and anxious, to defend it from the violencies and subtleties of outward attempters, but feeles within himselfe some interruptions of his peace, and some invasions upon his honesty, by a corrupt desire, and temptation to possesse it, and to employ upon his owne pleasure or profit, that of which he is no Proprietary: and never returnes to his security, out of these watchfulnesses against other, and reluctations with himselfe; till he who delivered this Jewell resume it againe: So, till it please the Lord, and owner of our life to take home into his treasurie, this rich pg 53Carbuncle our soule, which gives us light in our night of ignorance, and our darke body of earth, we are still anguished and travelled, as well with a continuall defensive warre, to preserve our life from sickenesses, and other offensive violences; as with a divers and contrary covetousnes, sometimes to enlarge our State and terme therein, somtimes to make it so much our owne, that we may unthriftily spend it upon surfets, or licentiousnes, or reputation.

5. ['This matter of Exemption']

As Christ asked of the Jewes, for which of his good workes they would stone him: Princes may aske of the Romane Church, for which of their benefites they are so injurious to them? Is it for having established a Primacy upon that Bishoppe, above his fellow Patriarches, which was so long litigious? Or for withdrawing him from the jawes of the Barbarous devourers of Italy? Or for enriching him with a Patrimony, and Priviledges almost equall to their owne? Is it for any of these, that you say, A Clergy man cannot be a traytor, though he rebell; because he is no subject? By which you cut off so great and so good a part, as in your opinion the state without it, is but a meere Carcasse, for the Clergie is the soule.

And you extend those immunities, not onely to your boyes which light your Candles, and locke the Church doores, but to every sullen fellow, that will retire himselfe into a wood, without either assuming Orders, or subjecting himself to any Religious Rule, or despoiling himselfe of his temporall possessions, as you say of your Ermits: Yea to Nunnes, who though they be not of the Clergie, yet are Ecclesiastique persons, and yet they are so prophane, as they may not be admitted to touch any thing which belongs to the Altar. And not onely the Nunnes within profession, have these priviledges, but also their Novices, who are under no vow: yea they enjoy them, whom you call Canonicas Saeculares, which may travell, traffique, marry, and do any civill, or uncivil function: (for of the continency of Regular Nunnes I am of a better perswasion, for this reason especially; that the Jesuites by a Constitution, are forbid to have the care of them): and those secular women, which I mentioned, pg 54are Ecclesiastici fori (by a late Decision in the Rota) because though they be not Ecclesiasticae, yet they are Personæ Miserabiles, and weare an uniforme habite: and to raise the number, you say, If an injury be done to any kinsman of an Ecclesiastique person, it is done to him. And that if any offence bee committed by divers persons, amongst whome there is one Clergie man, none of the offenders can bee subject to Temporall Jurisdiction.

And not onely all these persons, but all which appertaines to them, becomes spirituall: and by a new Alchimy, they doe not onely extract spirit out of every thing, but transmute it all into spirit, and by their possessing them, Houses, Horses, and Concubines are spirituall. But as every thing returnes to his first state, and being; and so Rome which was at first built, and governed by Shepheards, is returned to the same forme after the decay of the Empire: and as the name of Bishopp, which was at first given to Clerkes of the Market, and Overseers of things to be bought and solde, agrees still with these Symoniaque Bishoppes of Rome: so many of these pretious Jewels, which are employed about the Images and Reliques, which were at first temporall, and then by this tincture growne to be spirituall, returne againe to their temporall nature, when any of the Popes take ocasion to serve their pleasure, or foment dissensions amongst other Princes, and schisme amongst themselves, by coyning the Images, as Urbanus did, in such a case.

But the greatest injury that is done to Princes in this matter of Exemption, is, that they will not be beholden to Princes for it: but plead their Jus Divinum, not onely the positive Divine Law, by which, they say, that the Popes if they had not found these men naturally exempted, and if Princes had not granted these exemptions, might by their Constitutions, have exempted them, without asking leave of Princes, but they pretend text of Scripture, though detorted and misus'd, to prove this Exemption. And for the Persons they pretend many; but with no more directnes, than that by which they prove exemption of their goods, from secular charges and burdens, which is, Domini est terra, et plenitudo eius, and since it is the Lords, it is theirs.

pg 556. [The Pope's power over wind and sea]

All which they quarrell at in the oath, is that anything should be pronounced, or any limits set, to which the Popes power might not extend: but they might as well say that his spirituall power were limited or shortned, and so the Catholique faith impugned, if one should denie him to have power over the winde and sea; since to tame and commaund these, in ordine ad spiritualia, would advance the conversion of the Indies, and impaire the Turks greatnesse, and have furthered his fatherly and spirituall care of this Kingdome in 88.1pg 56

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 The 'Table of Chapters' contains the headings for fourteen chapters, but only twelve of these are found in the book.
Editor’s Note
1 The preface is addressed 'to the Priests, and Jesuits, and to their Disciples in this Kingdom.'
Editor’s Note
1 Cf. the inscription on one of the Armada medals: 'God blew with his winds and they were scattered.'
logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out