A short tally might be taken of English poets who witnessed with their own eyes a hanging, drawing and quartering. Among them would certainly be John Donne, a Roman Catholic by upbringing, closely related to some of the leading Catholic families in England. In his Pseudo-Martyr of 1610, Donne remarks that he has observed devout bystanders at the execution of a certain foreign Jesuit priest: “pray to him whose body lay there dead; as if hee had more respect, and better accession to heaven because he was a stranger, than those which were familiar had”. Five years after the book’s publication, Donne was ordained priest of the Church of England and almost immediately made a Royal Chaplain, rising in 1621 to the Deanship of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which capacities he delivered some of the most eloquent sermons ever to grace an Anglican pulpit. The most quoted is the Lenten address of 1630/31 known as “Deaths Duell”, preached before Charles I at Whitehall. In it he waxes amorous about the worm, through whose ecumenical digestion one is incestuously joined with one’s mother, sister or brother. London vermin had already feasted on Donne’s brother Henry, who in 1593 had expired in Newgate gaol after harbouring a Jesuit priest; they had just got to work on his mother – an industrious go-between for the Jesuits in her time – who had recently died in the deanery, a recusant to the very end. Her brothers Ellis and Jasper, Jesuits and exiles, fattened Continental worms.
more from Robert Fraser at the TLS here.