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Most accounts of John Donne’s life begin with a sentence saying that he was brought up either a Roman Catholic or a Recusant Catholic. I argue that we need to revisit that assertion, and in so doing we need to rethink the way that we use biographies of Donne to inform our interpretation of his works.  Modern biographers have assumed that an understanding of Donne’s religious identity as a youth can be gathered from the surviving records concerning his family, and particularly the records of his mother’s religious politics. Their conclusions lead them to dismiss the assessment of Donne’s religious identity offered by his earliest biography, Izaak Walton, who knew Donne as Dean of St. Paul’s. This paper will suggest that John Donne is a good example of the need for a more nuanced approach to biography when dealing with the confessionalisation process in early modern England.

Dr Mary Morrissey is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Reading.

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