Historic Hertfordians

There is no such thing as a ‘Hertford type’. The turbulent religious politics of the sixteenth century saw one former student martyred for his Protestantism (William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English) and another (Alexander Briant) for his Catholicism.

Over the centuries, Hertford students have achieved great renown. The political theorist and philosopher Thomas Hobbes prepared his great work on society, Leviathan, while at Magdalen Hall, and we have a copy inscribed by him as a gift to the college in the library’s collection. The poet John Donne was a student here, as was Jonathan Swift, author of satires including Gulliver’s Travels. The American writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke was the first African American Rhodes scholar and was admitted to Hertford in 1907. Evelyn Waugh was a student here, and based much of his novel Brideshead Revisited on his time at Oxford.

In these pages you'll find information about some historic Hertfordians. If there is someone you would like to see featured, please send a biography to development [dot] office [at] hertford [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.

William Tyndale (1494-1536)

William Tyndale, from the stained glass window in Hertford Chapel

Tyndale's translation of the New Testament was the first to be printed in the English language. His simple, clear style was a model for subsequent English translations of the bible - most notably the King James Bible, which is largely drawn from his work. He had a great effect upon the English language, coining words such as Passover and scapegoat.

In 2002, Tyndale was placed at number 26 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

William studied at Magdalen Hall (the predecessor of Hertford College) from 1506, and between 1517 and 1521 he also studied at the University of Cambridge. Over the years he became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish (in addition to English) and became convinced of the need for Church reform. He strongly believed that the way to God was through His word, and that scripture should be available even to 'a boy that driveth the plough'. This was in direct opposition to the Church, who believed they were the one true source of God's word.

Having become determined to translate the Bible into English he travelled to Europe to complete his translation of the New Testament, landing at Hamburg in 1524. The translation was completed in 1525, with printing work undertaken by William Roye, another reformist Cambridge man, at Cologne. But Roye was indiscreet and the work was soon being talked about. The city magistrates ordered the printing to stop. Only a few sheets were saved before Tyndale fled to Worms; among them was that containing his prologue, which was later enlarged and called A Pathway into the Holy Scripture.

The printing was successfully carried out at Worms. Copies of the New Testament in English arrived in England in 1526, and the work was given a very hostile reception by the Church. The reforming movement had insisted, since the time of John Wycliffe, that the scriptures should be available to everyone and not kept in the hands of the establishment so that they could make their own rules. But while the established Church could make no real case against a Bible in the vernacular, it could rest on its massive authority and mutter threateningly about tendentious comment - and Tyndale's New Testament carried a great deal of comment. Cuthbert Tunstall and Archbishop Warham denounced it; so did Thomas More, who was against every manifestation of Luther's Reformation. Wolsey demanded Tyndale's arrest as a heretic.

William Tyndale portrait, owned by Hertford College

Tyndale went into hiding - in Hamburg, it is believed, for a time - and went on working. He revised his New Testament and began the translation of the Old. He wrote A Prologue on the Epistle to the Romans (1526), Parable of the Wicked Mammon, and Obedience of a Christian Man (1528). He printed his translation of the Pentateuch (1530) and Jonah (1531). In 1530 he wrote The Practice of Prelates which, in its opposition to Henry VIII's divorce (he objected to the grounds for it), seemed to move him briefly to the opposing side. It brought down on his head the wrath of the king, who asked the emperor to have Tyndale seized and returned to England.

Eventually an English spy in the Netherlands, Henry Phillips, betrayed Tyndale to the imperial authorities. He was arrested in Antwerp in 1535 and confined in the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels. He was tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and condemned to the stake in spite of Thomas Cromwell's attempt to intercede on his behalf. He was mercifully strangled before the fires were lighted.

In the year of Tyndale's death his New Testament in English was actually printed in England, and before long other scholars were hurrying the great work to completion. Just three years later Henry VIII published his English “Great Bible” based on Tyndale’s work.


Alexander Briant (1556-1581)

Alexander Briant

Saint Alexander Briant was a Jesuit martyr.

Briant matriculated at Hart Hall in 1574. He soon came under the influence of Robert Persons, and Briant later moved from Hart Hall and joined Persons at Balliol. They both converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at university.

After leaving Oxford in 1577, Briant studied at the English College at Douai in August 1577 (which was mainly staffed by Oxford graduates). This college had been recently founded to train Roman Catholic priests for work in England - a dangerous task following England's break with Rome. Heavy penalties had been established for the practice of Roman Catholicism in England following the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I by Pope Pius V in 1570.

Briant was ordained at Cambrai in March 1578 and returned to England on 3 August 1579. For a time he ministered in his own part of the country, where he reconciled Persons' father to the Roman Catholic Church. Later Briant moved to London and lived in a house belonging to Persons, near Saint Bride's Church in the Strand.

During these years Persons was probably the priest 'most wanted' by the government. His capacity, energy and enthusiasm had set him at the heart of a series of schemes for bettering the lot of Roman Catholics in England. These schemes also involved him with interested parties in Rome, France, Spain and the Low Countries.

When, early in March 1581, government officers raided Person's house they failed to find Person. However, they caught Briant and put him in a gaol called 'The Counter'. He was clearly a man whose information would be vital concerning the activities of Persons; within a fortnight Briant was accorded the honour of transfer to the Tower, where he was tortured for the first time on 27 March. On 6 April he was consigned to 'The Pit', a deep subterranean dungeon, where he was in complete darkness for eight days.

The importance of Briant to the government is emphasized by a letter from the Council to the Lieutenant of the Tower dated 3 May 1581, more than a month after he was first tortured. Part of this letter runs as follows:

Whereas there hath been of late apprehended amongst others a certain secular Priest or Jesuit naming himself Briant about whom there was taken divers books and writings carrying matters of high treason and is (as may by good likelihood be conjectured) able to discover matters of good moment for H.M.'s service. It is therefore thought necessary that he be to that purpose substantially examined upon such interrogatories as may be framed and gathered of the said books and writing which we send you herewith. For the doing whereof especial choice is made of you three and hereby authority is given unto you to draw the interrogatories and examine the said Briant accordingly. And if he shall refuse by persuasion to confess such things as you shall find him able to reveal unto you, then shall you offer unto him the torture of the Tower, and in case upon the sight thereof he shall obstinately refuse to confess the truth, then shall you put him unto the torture and by the pain and terror of the same, wring from him the knowledge of things as shall appertain

Briant was stretched on the rack on two successive days, and Norton the rackmaster boasted that he would make Briant a foot longer than God had made him, unless he would give the required information about Persons. Briant replied 'Is this all that you can do? If the rack is no more than this, let me have a hundred more for this cause'. During his torture he promised God he would ask to be made a member of the Society of Jesus: this he did by a letter written in prison before the execution. He is now ranked as a member of the Society.

He was tried with Saint Edmund Campion. During the trial Briant carried in his hand a small cross of wood which later found its way, so it is said, to the Venerable English College in Rome.

Briant of Hart Hall and Balliol was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December 1581 with Edmund Campion of John's College and Ralph Sherwin of Exeter College. When the moment came for the noose to be looped round his neck, Briant made a brief act of faith as a Roman Catholic and declared he was innocent of any offence against the Queen, not only in deed but even in thought.

Persons had many narrow escapes but was never apprehended, while the friend who shielded him is now a canonized Saint.


John Donne (1572-1631)

John Donne was an English poet. He matriculated to study at Hart Hall in 1584 at the age of eleven, leaving after three years study without a degree - having refused to take the Oath of Allegiance, as it's recognition of Queen Elizabeth I as head of the Church of England was in opposition to his Catholic faith.

He was appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Thomas Egerton, at the age of 25. During the next four years, he fell in love with Egerton's niece Anne More; they married in 1601, an unpopular act which put an end to Donne's career with Egerton. The couple settled in Pyrford, Surrey where Donne took up work as a lawyer. Anne bore John twelve children in sixteen years of marriage; she died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child.

After writing two anti-Catholic polemics in 1610 and 1611, James I urged him to take holy orders. Donne was ordained in the Church of England in 1615, and was later made Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

In 1624, he published a series of meditations under the title Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. One of these meditations, Meditation XVII, later became well known for its phrases 'no man is an island' and 'for whom the bell tolls':

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

An essay on John Donne by Hertford student Leah S. Veronese (English, 2011)

John Donne

John Donne appears to be a paradox.

The defining assertion of constancy which reads above his head, ‘Antes muerto que mudado’ (‘Sooner dead than changed’), on William Marshall’s engraving on the frontispiece of the 1633 Poems, sits unhappily with our knowledge of his life: Catholic and converted Anglican; priest and lawyer; diplomat and soldier. Similarly, his poetry blazes with a firmament of colliding voices. The ambiguity of his paradoxes and problems, whether they stand as genuine arguments or as displays of wit, further this sense of the mutability of truth. Donne’s distribution of manuscripts amongst friends, as a general rule, as opposed to publication, makes it more difficult to pin his changing allegiance and subject matter down, historically. Yet, as Donne himself claims in ‘A Defence of Women’s Inconstancy’:  ‘So in Men, they that have the most reason are the most alterable in their designes, and the darkest and most ignorant do seldomest change.’  Beneath the personae of his poems, and throughout his prose, we find a constancy from which the contradictory nature of his work derives: intellectual alacrity. Donne roves ‘before, behind, above, between, below’ language, as both geocentric and heliocentric visions of the universe, astronomy, alchemy, conquest, Platonism and many other complex concepts and imagery are intricately interwoven to propose any argument, to turn any conceit.              

Born in 1572, Donne, son of Elizabeth Heywood and John Donne, entered a blood-line of intellectualism and Catholicism. His well-educated mother was the daughter of the playwright John Heywood. Donne’s father died in 1576. Elizabeth’s second husband, the Catholic physician John Syminges, had been highly trained in Oxford and Bologna and was president of the Royal College of Physicians. Donne’s uncle, Jasper Heywood, was a translator of Seneca, and would become head of the Jesuit mission in England from 1581-1583. Through his maternal great-grand father, John Rastell’s marriage to Elizabeth More, the family was linked to Sir Thomas More. 

In 1584 John and his brother Henry matriculated at the ages of twelve and eleven respectively at Hart Hall, the college known as an unofficial shelter for Catholic recusants. Donne would not finish his degree, having matriculated early to avoid taking the Oath of Allegiance. This recognition of the ex-communicated Queen Elizabeth as head of the Protestant Church of England was required of all sixteen year olds studying at Oxford. Yet, in 1610 Donne would be awarded an Honorary Masters from Oxford in the same year his prose work Pseudo Martyr was published. The work justified to Catholics why they should take an amended form of the same oath which he and his brother had sought to escape. Following the Gunpowder Plot the oath was changed to require that Catholics accept the priority of the sovereign over papal authority. At what point Donne turned from Catholicism is uncertain. However, in 1597 he volunteered to join the Earl of Essex and Lord Howard Effingham’s expedition against Catholic Spain. Donne became ordained as an Anglican priest in 1615 following a series of unsuccessful attempts to gain civil employment. This created a new intellectual outlet for him in his sermons. In 1621 he became the Dean of St Paul’s.

Catholic imagery remains an important part of Donne’s work. Ben Jonson identified fundamental Marian imagery in The Anatomie of the World, written in 1610 upon the death of Elizabeth Drury, the daughter of Donne’s patron Robert, claiming ‘if it had been written of the Virgin Marie it had been something.’ In ‘The First Anniversary’ Drury is transformed into the ‘intrisque balme’, the soul of the world. As her soul departs, the world left behind becomes a corpse, which must be dissected in an autopsy to reveal man’s corruption. However, as well as the world’s soul, the poem undeniably venerates her virginity, set in contrast to Eve whose ‘first marriage was our funeral:/One woman at one blow, then kill’d us all,/And singly one by one they kill us now. We doe delightfully ourselves allow to that consumption; and profusely blinde,/Wee kill ourselves to propagate our kinde.’ Virginity upheld over marriage, leans far more towards Catholicism, than the Protestant focus upon the importance of marriage. Not only is Drury virginal, but seems to be represented both as the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Queen Elizabeth: ‘that Queene ended here her progresse time,/ And as, t’her standing house to heaven did climbe,/ Where loathe to make the Saints attend her long’. However, Donne arguably also uses Catholic imagery both more playfully and perhaps dangerously in poems such as ‘The Canonisation’ and ‘The Relic’. These unequivocally play upon the most controversial Catholic practices of the veneration of relics and of saints, as a means of exploring the Platonic shift from physical, to spiritual and transcendent love: ‘So to one neutral thing both sexes fit/ We die and rise the same, and prove/ Mysterious by this love.’ However, in an age of the persecution of Catholics, such an overt exploration of Catholic doctrine may be seen as a deliberately subversive display of wit.

Even before his ordination, Donne had a detailed understanding of Canon Law as demonstrated in the Pseudo Martyr, and indeed trained as a lawyer after University at the Thavies Inn for at least a year, and at Lincoln Inn beginning in 1592, before embarking upon the military expedition to Cadiz. Donne never practised vernacular law professionally. However, when Secretary to Thomas Egerton in 1590s he would have assisted with Egerton’s projects to reform the legal system, and initiated a suit in Canterbury to judge the validity of Donne’s secret marriage to Lady Egerton’s niece Ann.  This legal training is arguably demonstrated in Donne’s carefully structured arguments, whether seduction poems or paradoxes. ‘The Flea’ sees the insect’s habits as parasite turn it into a marriage temple. In ‘The Ecstasy’ a transcendental experience is carefully twisted into a praise of sexuality which allows such experience to occur, ‘Love’s mysteries in the soul do grow,/ But the body is his book’.  

Perhaps another testament to Donne’s legal career is his mastery of poetic voice. Advocate and priest alike require a powerful emotive delivery of their arguments. Isaac Walton, Donne’s first biographer, reports that when Donne delivered a sermon at Ann Donne’s funeral in 1617 ‘indeed his very looks and words testified’ his afflictions and that ‘with the addition of his sighs and tears, exprest in his Sermon, did so work upon the affections of his hearers, as melted and moulded them into a companionable sadness.’ With this same emotive power Donne creates speakers in bold opening declarations which instantly form a voice, often shaped by their relation to another party.  ‘The Sun Rises’ sets two lovers in unity against the sun itself, ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun,/ Why dost thou thus,/through windows, and through curtains call on us?’ As the poem develops they are not only isolated from the sun, but become the world at the centre of a geocentric universe. In a more complicated fashion, in the sonnet ‘Spit in my face ye Jews and pierce my side’ an original anti-Semitic portrait of Christ killed by the Jews, as an entire race held responsible, is inverted as the speaker turns out to be a self-hating sinner rather than Christ. Donne partially shifts the re-crimination of the Jews onto the speaker, as the blunt violence ‘buffet, and scoffe, scourge and crucife’ becomes the speaker’sown sin: ‘but I/ crucifie him daily, being now glorified’. The opening tone of defiance in retrospect is rendered the speaker’s furious entreaty fuelled by their own guilt.

In the year his of his death, 1631, Donne’s appreciation of drama climaxed in his final paradoxical incarnation: the living dead. He seemed to turn his fear of prolonged decline which he had expressed to his sister, into a final intellectual experiment: ‘My noble sister, I am afraid that Death will play with me so long, as he will forget to kill me, and suffer me to live in an languishing and useless age, a life, that is a forgetting that I am dead, then of living’; rather than to forget death, he sought to embrace mortality in the most extreme final display. Donne created his final image, standing on a wooden urn and dressed in a winding sheet, as Walton describes: ‘so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their grave or coffin. Upon this urn he stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and deathlike face, which was purposely turned toward the east, from whence he expected the second coming of the Saviour’.

Ultimately, Donne’s final dramatic voice, as many were to claim afterwards, was that of his own eulogiser, in the sermon ‘Death’s Duell, or, a Consolation to the Soule, Against the Dying Life, and Living Death of the Body’. Even in his very last months, Donne never ceased to exploit to the utmost his incredible linguistic versatility.