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Covel [Colvill], John (1638–1722), college head, was born at Horningsheath, also known as Horringer, Suffolk, on 2 April 1638, the third and youngest son of William Covel (d. 1661) and Alice, née Cook, of Pakenham. He was educated at Bury St Edmunds grammar school before proceeding to Cambridge, where he was admitted as a sizar to Christ's College on 31 March 1654. He graduated BA in 1658, was elected a fellow of the college in 1659, and proceeded MA in 1661. Three of his Latin orations as an MA are preserved among his papers (BL, Add. MS 22910). According to William Cole, he studied medicine and was then ordained. On 17 March 1670 Sir Eliab Harvey wrote to him that he had ‘gott [him] chosen to goe Chapline to Constantinople’ (BL, Add. MS 22910, fol. 29), although it appears that what Covel had been hoping and negotiating for in the previous months was the post of secretary to the ambassador, Sir Daniel Harvey. He is described as BD in a letter from Thomas Leader to Dr Parker on 29 October 1669, but there is no record of this degree, and his ordination, albeit certain, cannot be traced.

Covel was careful to take legal advice and to secure a royal letter ensuring that his absence from Cambridge would not entail the lapse of his fellowship, and it appears that he did not leave for Constantinople until late in 1670. In 1672 Sir Daniel Harvey died, leaving Covel in sole charge of the embassy until the arrival of Harvey's successor, Sir John Finch, in 1674. In the course of his term of office at Constantinople, which lasted until 1677, Covel travelled widely in Asia Minor, compiling a series of diaries replete with illustrations of buildings, inscriptions, and plants (BL, Add. MSS 22912–22914). He was an avid collector of paintings, coins and medals, printed books, curiosities, and especially of manuscripts, and—at the prompting of Peter Gunning, bishop of Ely, John Pearson, bishop of Chester, and William Sancroft, soon to be archbishop of Canterbury—he made a particular study of the Greek church and of its stand on transubstantiation. He corresponded, in vernacular Greek, with numerous patriarchs and with other Western travellers in French and Italian. Towards the end of his time in the Levant he made the journey to Nicomedia and Nicaea. He was the first Westerner to leave a written account of Athos (Hasluck), and is credited with being among the first Englishmen to be admitted there.

On his leisurely return to England, via Italy, Savoy, and France, in 1679 Covel was appointed Lady Margaret preacher, and created DD by royal mandate, but he was disappointed in his hopes of the oratorship. He was presented by Bishop Gunning to the living of Littlebury, Essex, and in 1681 by Christ's College to Kegworth, Leicestershire. It is likely that neither of these livings saw much of him as, in 1681, he was appointed chaplain to the princess of Orange, and left for The Hague. However, his employment was very abruptly terminated in October 1685 when the prince of Orange intercepted a letter from Covel to the English ambassador criticizing the princess's treatment by her husband. Covel returned to England and, in November 1687, was instituted chancellor of York by James II. The following year Ralph Cudworth, master of Christ's, died, and the fellows, under the threat of having a new master intruded by the crown, elected Covel instead, perhaps without positive enthusiasm. Covel in fact proved a conscientious master, although the fellows grumbled at his income from renting rooms in the lodge to fellow-commoners.

Within two years Covel was elected vice-chancellor and it fell to his lot to present the university's loyal address to the new king, lately the prince of Orange. Covel was overwhelmed with embarrassment at the prospect and wrote furiously to his connections at the court, among them Isaac Newton, then MP for the university, to ascertain whether the king would countenance his appearance, finally receiving an assurance from Sir Owen Wynne that the king was reported to have said:
‘That if Dr Covel came with the body of the University he would be admitted to kiss their Majesties hand’—though my Lord sayes he did at the same time discover by the King that he spoke it so, as if he would have been content the complement were made by another. (BL, Add. MS 22910, fol. 275)
Covel was duly admitted, but realized that he could entertain no hopes of promotion in William's reign. Under Anne he had better hopes, but he indicated that they were thwarted by Archbishop Thomas Tenison.

The remainder of Covel's long life was spent at Christ's, where he continued to correspond not only with a wide range of English scholars, including Isaac Newton, John Locke, and John Mill, but also (in modern Greek, French, Italian, and Latin) with Greek and other European scholars, whom he delighted to entertain in Cambridge. In the last year of his life, long after the subject had ceased to attract interest, there finally appeared his Some account of the 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 Euchologion. An earlier work composed in Holland, under the title Synodus Bethlemitica, was suppressed.

From 1719 Covel was in sometimes acrimonious correspondence with Humfrey Wanley concerning the sale of his manuscripts to Lord Harley, a sale finally concluded for £300. Some 43 of his manuscripts, ranging from the twelfth to the seventeenth century remain in the Harleian collection. Covel died in Cambridge on 19 December 1722 at Christ's College and was buried in the chapel, where there is an inscription to him (currently obscured). His printed books, numbering some 3000, were catalogued by Humfrey Wanley but were, in the event, sold publicly by his nephew and executor Henry Sorel in 1724. Land in Suffolk and small sums of money were divided among several beneficiaries, including other nephews.

Elisabeth Leedham-Green


commonplace book, Yale U., b. 140 · Covel's journals and corresp., BL, Add. MSS 22910–22914 · natural history notebook and commonplace book, BL, Add. MS 57495 · Christ's College, Cambridge, MS 143 · Christ's College, Cambridge, Cole MS xx. 72 · A catalogue of the entire library of that reverend and learned antiquary Dr John Covel (1724) [sale catalogue, Christopher Cock, London, 9 March 1724] · J. T. Bent, ed., Early voyages and travels to the Levant, 2: Extracts from the diaries of Dr John Covel, 1670–79, Hakluyt Society, 87 (1893) · J. Covel, Voyages en Turquie, 1675–77: texte établi, annoté et traduit par Jean-Pierre Grélot, avec une préface de Cyril Mango (1998) · F. W. Hasluck, ‘Notes on manuscripts in the British Museum relating to Levant geography and travel’, British School at Athens Annual, 12 (1905–6), 210–11 · F. W. Hasluck, ‘The first English traveller's account of Athos’, British School at Athens Annual, 17 (1910–11), 103–31 [printing sels. from Covel's journal] · Horringer parish registers: baptisms, marriages and burials … 1558–1850 (1900) · M. W. Hervey, Annals of a Suffolk village (1930) · J. Raby, ‘A seventeenth-century description of Iznic-Nicaea’, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Abteilung: Istanbul, Mitteilungen, 28 (1976), 149–88 · The correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and of his brother, Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, ed. S. W. Singer, 1 (1828), 163–7 · Z. C. von Uffenbach, ‘Diary of a visit to Cambridge in 1710’, Cambridge under Queen Anne, ed. J. E. B. Mayor (1911) · The diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715–1726, ed. C. E. Wright and R. C. Wright, 2 vols. (1966) · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/589, sig. 23


BL, catalogue of library, Add. MS 70485 · BL, corresp., journals, and papers, Add. MSS 22909–22914, 57495; Lansdowne MS 355 · Yale U., commonplace book |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with John Locke and Lady Masham


C. Guynier, portrait, 1716, Christ's College, Cambridge · V. Ritz, portrait (in later life), Christ's College, Cambridge · oils, Christ's College, Cambridge

Wealth at death  

£300 in cash bequests; plus remittance of £100 debt from Christ's: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/589, sig. 23