Covel, John (DNB00)

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COVEL, COVELL, or COLVILL, JOHN (1638–1722), master of Christ's College, Cambridge, son of William Covel, was born at Horningsheath, Suffolk, on 2 April 1638 (Add. MS. 22914, ff. 27, 68). After receiving his early education at the grammar school, Bury St. Edmunds, he was admitted a member of Christ's College, Cambridge, on 31 March 1654, being then in his sixteenth year. He graduated B.A. in 1658, and M.A. in 1661, and was elected a fellow of his college. Cole, on the authority of H. Wanley, says that before he took orders he studied physic, and throughout his life he retained a strong taste for natural science, and especially for botany. On 17 March 1669–70 he was elected chaplain to the Levant Company, and in that capacity served Sir Daniel Harvey and his successor Sir John Finch, ambassadors to the Porte. He went to Deal, intending to start on 3 Sept. 1670, but, being delayed by contrary winds, did not leave until the 21st, and reached Constantinople before the end of the year. He resigned his engagement with the company on 23 May 1676 (Pearson). On 16 Feb. 1676–7 he took a journey to Nicomedia and Nicæa. He finally left Constantinople on 2 April 1677, and, having gone by water to Venice, made a tour through the Italian cities, and appears to have reached London on 20 Jan. 1679. His manuscript journals of his travels are illustrated with representations of buildings and various natural objects, drawn with considerable spirit, with maps, plans, and inscriptions. During his stay at Constantinople much interest was taken both in England and in France in the doctrines and practices of the Eastern church, and before he left he was requested by Gunning, Pearson, and Sancroft, all three afterwards bishops, to investigate the question then in debate between Dr. Arnauld of the Sorbonne, and M. Claude, minister of Charenton, as to whether the Greeks held transubstantiation. Covel accordingly turned his attention to that subject, as well as to scientific pursuits, which seemed to be more natural to him, and had many discussions on it with the French ambassador. He collected several books and some few manuscripts, and intended to write a treatise on the Eastern church shortly after he came back, but it was long before he did so. He also took great interest in botany, and sent home some rare plants. His manuscripts contain a few attempts at poetry; one in praise of Mistress Hester H., written in 1666, has a tune written to it. On his return to England he resided at his college. His travels brought him some fame (Evelyn, Diary, ii. 338), and in 1679 he was the Lady Margaret preacher at the university. The same year also he was made D.D. by royal warrant. On 5 March of the next year he was instituted to the sinecure rectory of Littlebury, Essex, on the presentation of Gunning, bishop of Ely, and on 31 Oct. 1681 to the rectory of Kegworth, Leicestershire, a living in the gift of his college (Nichols, Leicestershire, iii. 856). In this year also he was appointed to succeed Ken as chaplain to the Princess of Orange, and accordingly left England to reside at the Hague. In October 1685 the Prince of Orange intercepted a letter Covel wrote to Skelton, the English ambassador, giving an account of William's tyrannical behaviour towards his wife, and he was dismissed and sent back to England at three hours' notice (Strickland; Sidney, Diary). Covel would never speak of the cause of his dismissal, and for a long time it remained a mystery (Cole).

On 9 Nov. 1687 Covel was instituted chancellor of York on the presentation of the king during the vacancy of the see. On the death of Dr. Cudworth, master of Christ's, in 1688, the fellows had reason to fear that James was about to send them a mandate to elect a certain member of their society named Smithson, rector of Toft; they therefore proceeded in some haste to an election, and on 7 July chose Covel as master, a choice they probably would not have made had they had more time (Cole MSS. xx). James, although his scheme was defeated, approved of the election, and Covel appears to have been a popular master. He was vice-chancellor when William III visited Cambridge on 4 Oct. 1689, and it is said that, when he expressed some doubt as to how the king would receive him, William sent him word that he could distinguish between Dr. Covel and the vice-chancellor of the university. The king accordingly received him courteously, but the old quarrel at the Hague is supposed to have stood in the way of his preferment (ib.) He was again vice-chancellor in 1708. The book for which he had collected materials during his stay in the East appeared in 1722 under the title ‘Some Account of the present Greek Church, with Reflections on their present Doctrine and Discipline, particularly on the Eucharist and the rest of their Seven Pretended Sacraments, compared with Jac. Goar's Notes on the Greek Ritual or Eὐχολόγιον,’ fol. Cambridge. It was little read, for men had ceased to care for the questions it handled. Covel in his preface says that the delay was caused first by his ‘itinerant’ life, and then by his engagements at Cambridge, where he describes himself as ‘chained to a perpetual college bursar's place.’ He died on 19 Dec. of the same year, and was buried in the chapel of Christ's, where there is an inscription to him. He left by will 3l. a year to the poor of Littlebury. Cole, the writer of the ‘Athenæ Cantabrigienses,’ lighted by chance, he says, on Covel's picture in his congregation robes, and presented it to Christ's. It was painted by a certain Valentine Ritz, a German who lived some seven years at Cambridge, and died there. Covel's journals and correspondence are in the British Museum Additional MSS. 22910–14; they consist of two large folios of autograph letters, some of considerable interest, from Newton, Locke, Wanley, and others—the Newton letters, however, are not autographs, the originals are at Trinity College, Cambridge. There is a correspondence with Wanley on the subject of the sale of Covel's manuscripts and books to the Earl of Oxford. The sale was finally made on 27 Feb. 1715–16, the price paid by the earl being 300l. Some of the books which were missing were to be delivered when they were found. Part, at least, of the collection of New Testament MSS. is now in the British Museum. Besides these, there are three volumes, chiefly of travels; the largest, containing an account of Covel's voyage in 1670, is divided into chapters, and written as if for publication; the smallest (22913) contains a journal of the tour in Italy. MS. 22914 has a few autobiographical notes. It is probable that Hearne's entry of ‘Dr. John Cowell's (Head of Bennet Coll. Camb.) Itinerary thro' Greece’ as a book which would be ‘of great advantage to the Republick of Letters’ refers to Covel's journals, and not to the work he published in 1722. Covel died unmarried.

[Davy's Athenæ Suffolc. Add. MS. 19166, ii. 95; Cole's Manuscript Collections, xx. fol. 72; Covel's Journals and Correspondence, Add. MSS. 22910–14; Pearson's Chaplains of the Levant Co. 16; G. Williams's The Orthodox … and the Nonjurors, xii., Nichols's Leicestershire, iii. 856, 859; Strickland's Queens of England, vii. 100–3; Sidney's Diary of Time of Charles II (ed. Blencowe); Biog. Brit. iii. 1488; Hearne's Collections (Doble), i. 86.]

W. H.