Was, then, the young Donne a great tumultuous lover: a conqueror of swathes of women? After so much time and so much entropy, we can only guess: but, almost certainly, not. Women of his class would have been hard to seduce—they were fiercely and carefully protected. Make a mistake, they knew, and you could be punished for life. For instance: when beautiful eighteen-year-old Mary Fitton was sent in 1595 to wait on Queen Elizabeth, she found herself captivated by William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. She was reported “proved with child, and the Earl of Pembroke being examined confesseth a fact but utterly renounceth all marriage.” Mary and the earl were both threatened with the Tower; in the end Herbert was thrown in the Fleet prison and Mary banished from court.
See also: John Donne’s Proto-Modernism. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)