John Overall

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John Overall (1559—1619), the 38th bishop of the see of Norwich from 1618 until his death one year later. He had previously served as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (from 1614), as Dean of St Pauls Cathedral from 1601, as Master of Catharine Hall (under protest) from 1598, and as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University from 1596. He also served on the Court of High Commission and as a Translator (in the First Westminster Company) of the King James Version of the Bible.

Overall was born in Hadleigh, Essex and studied at St John's College and Trinity College, Cambridge. He is buried within Norwich Cathedral.


Early years

John Overall was born in 1559, in Hadleigh, Essex. In Overall's time, Hadleigh was a center for radical Protestantism. He was baptized there on 2 March 1561, the younger son of George Overall, who died that July. The future bishop studied at Hadleigh Grammar School, where he was a fellow student with Bible translator John Bois. John Still, then Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and a parish priest from 1571, took an interest in their education. Owing to his patronage and direction both applied to St John's College, Cambridge, when in 1575, Still became Master of the college. When Still moved to become Master of Trinity, Overall followed him and on 18 April 1578 was admitted as a scholar.[]

He graduated BA in 1579 and became a minor fellow on 2 October 1581. He proceeded MA (Cantab) the following year and on 30 March became a major fellow. Overall received other college preferments while Still was master and at the start of the academic year in 1586 he was made praelector Graecus, by October 1588 he was praelector mathematicus. He became seneschal on 17 December 1589 and junior dean on 14 October 1591. That year he was also ordained a priest at Lincoln.[]

Church of England

He was briefly, in 1591–2, vicar of Trumpington, a college living just outside Cambridge. In 1592 Sir Thomas Heneage, on behalf of Elizabeth I, created him vicar of Epping, Essex. In October 1595 he was appointed to the Crown living of Henton by Elizabeth,[] and in December 1595 Overall was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. His election may have been a snub for Archbishop John Whitgift, who had adopted the Calvinistic Lambeth Articles. Overall, with Lancelot Andrews, Samuel Harsnett, and others, had rejected these articles in support of Peter Baro, the Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity, when on 12 January 1596 he attacked them from the pulpit. This opposition cost Baro his chair, as he failed to be re-elected in 1596. John Overall was also a friend to the erratic mystic William Alabaster (1568-1640), even throughout his years of imprisonment, and was the tutor to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex at Trinity College. Perhaps Overall brought these two acquaintances together. Essex became Alabaster’s patron. In Alabaster’s Conversion we read:

The only thinge that I desired most was to have some disputation abowt my religion, whereof I was well in hope when I sawe certaine learned men of the university to come and visite me, as namely the cheef divinitie reader, Doctor Overall, that was of Trinity College also, and had byn my tutor in former tymes and loved me well...[]

In 1599, Overall clashed with the authorities when he maintained that the perseverance of a truly justified man was conditional upon repentance. There followed a year-long campaign against Overall which ultimately had little effect. Through it all, he retained his chair until he resigned it in 1607.[]

As one of the chaplains-in-ordinary to the queen, Overall was appointed by Whitgift in 1598 to preach before her on the third Wednesday of Lent, 15 March, in place of Bishop Godfrey Goldsborough of Gloucester. Shortly afterwards, at Easter, his theological position was further endorsed in Cambridge when he was appointed master of St Catharine's College, with the support of Whitgift. Thereafter he was occasionally chosen to give Lenten sermons before the queen, but he was not happy in the pulpit. He apparently found it “troublesome to speak English as a continued oration” after years of lecturing in Latin.[] John Manningham, a Magdalene graduate who would have heard Professor Overall in Cambridge, later complained that he "discoursed verry scholastically" when he preached a Whitehall sermon at the dead queen's court on 6 April 1603[]

In 1602, Overall was made rector of Algarkirk, Lincoln; he held the living for three years. With the support of Sir Fulke Greville he was nominated Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. On 6 June, Lawrence Barker, vicar of St Botolph Aldersgate, and a former colleague at Trinity, spoke at Paul's Cross of the "gravity & learning and life" of the new dean.[] The Deanery itself became a haven for scholars like Scultetus who shared the house with him. Overall himself, according to the radical preacher Thomas Scott, emerged as something of an Anglo-Catholic.[] Overall was also granted the Prebendary of Tottenhall.[]

King James I of England

King James, unlike Elizabeth, granted the Puritans a chance to air their grievances. This was perhaps insincere on the absolutist king’s part since he had no sympathy with Protestant dissenters. John Overall was present in 1603 at the famous Hampton Court Conference, an account of which was afterwards published by Dr. William Barlow, Dean of Chester, as “The Summe and Substance of the Conference, which, it pleased his Excellent Majestie to have with the Lords, Bishops, and other of his Clergie... in his Majesties Privy-Chamber, at Hampton Court, January 14, 1603”. At this time, while plague raged in London, King James rejected the claims of the puritans and threatened to expel them from the land if they did not conform. On the second day of the three day conference, Dean Overall spoke about predestination.[]

Soul hunting, Overall, as Dean of St. Paul’s, was present on 3 May 1606 in St Paul's Churchyard in London, for the hanging of Father Henry Garnet, Provincial of the Jesuits, from whom he tried unsuccessfully to extract a gallows recantation of Roman Catholicism. Garnet was charged with having a hand in the Gunpowder Plot. During the Convocation of 1610, John Overall's famous Convocation Book was sanctioned, although it was not published until much later. This treatise was “on the subject of Government, the divine institution of which was very positively asserted.” In addition, the nature of the sacraments was described by Overall. The composition of the latter part of the Catechism, containing an explanation of the Sacraments, is generally attributed to John Overall. It was added in 1604 by royal authority, “by way of explanation,” in compliance with a wish which the Puritans had expressed at the Conference at Hampton Court.[]

Authorized Version of the Bible

Sometime, perhaps on the final or third day of the Hampton Court Conference, a decision was made to make a new English translation of the Bible. Both the Crown and the puritans found fault with the bibles then in use. The work was carried on by 54 middle-aged, learned men. John Overall served as a translator (in the First Westminster Company) of the Authorized King James Version of the Bible. His name appears in the 1611 and 1613 printings, and he is associated with the translation of the chapters from Genesis to 2 Kings. During work on the Authorized Bible, Overall became a friend of Bishop Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626), and the two were firm allies from then on, forming the Arminian wing of the Anglican church. Both Overall and Andrews are considered early fathers of the Anglican Church, along with Thomas Cranmer, Matthew Parker, Richard Hooker, John Cosin, and William Laud. They discriminated and vindicated the Anglican position as opposed to both Papalism and Puritanism.[][]

During the translating of the Bible, John Overall's beautiful young wife, Anne Overall (nee Orwell), ran off with a Yorkshire courtier, Sir John Selby. Although John had her brought back to London, the scandal was well known. A popular verse of the day went like this, according to the great gossip John Aubrey:

The Dean of St Paul's did search for his wife
And where d'ye think he found her?
Even upon Sir John Selby's bed,
As flat as any flounder.

Anne Overall seems not to be mentioned after this incident. She was the subject of this suggestive rhyme, cited as evidence that she was too hot for intellectual John Overall to handle:

Face she had of filbert hue
And bosom’d like a swan.
Back she had of bended ewe
And waisted by a span.
Hair she had as black as crow
From her head unto her toe,
Down, down all over her,
Hey nonny, nonny no.[]

Final years

John Overall also served on the Court of High Commission. The Court of High Commission was the supreme ecclesiastical court in England. It was instituted by the Crown during the English Reformation and finally dissolved by parliament in 1641. The Court was convened at will by the sovereign, and it had near unlimited power over civil as well as church matters. In the same way, Parliament could impeach bishops. In 1614, John Overall was appointed Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and was installed on 4 May.[]

On 16 November 1616, Marco Antonio de Dominis, Archbishop of Spalato in Dalmatia, being in a feud with his Roman Catholic superiors, came to England. At the King’s command, he was entertained in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Overall, who was highly favored by the king, was sent to meet the Roman Catholic Archbishop. The result of this intervention by Bishop Overall was that Marco Antonio de Dominis was created Dean of Windsor. On 14 December 1617 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Spalato - who had been consecrated at Venice using the Tridentine Pontifical in October 1600 - assisted Archbishop George Abbot at the consecration of Nicholas Felton, and George Montaigne, elected, respectively, Bishops of Ely and of London, with the Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Overall, and Archbishop Spalato laying on hands. The participation of Spalato was a form of giving additional weight to the consecrations.[]

Two years later, Overall was translated to the See of Norwich as bishop. In the diary of senior Herald of the College of Arms, William Camden (1551-1623), the relevant entry stated:


John Overall died in 1619. The event failed to generate much notice from the royal court. William Camden’s diary entry only stated:

7 May 1619. Overall, Bishop of Norwich, by far the most learned, died. George Carleton and the Bishop of Chichester and others vie for his vacant See. Chichester prevails, and Carleton is transferred to Chichester.

While the cause of death of Overall was not recorded, it is known he expired in his cathedral. There is also no record of the burial site of Overall's wife, Anne, although their union was apparently childless.


Overall is buried in the south choir aisle of Norwich Cathedral, and there is a monument to him in the interior of the cathedral in the second recess on the north side of the altar. The memorial to Bishop Overall, with a coloured bust looking out from a niche above, bears the inscription “Vir undequaque doctissimus, et omni encomio major.” The monument was placed there by his friend and former secretary, John Cosin, after his own elevation as bishop to the See of Durham.[] Cosin's later teaching of the Church of England on the Eucharist used the language of John Overall: “Corpus Christi sumitur a nobis sacramentaliter, spiritualiter, et realiter, sed non corporaliter.” Cosin remembered his mentor as his “dear Lord and Master.”[]

Norwich Cathedral housed 17th Century panels to Overall's memory (“with a little painted portrait and vulture-like dove of peace”). This may be the source for the portraits in the National Portrait Gallery that were done by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1657 from an unknown original. Several English cathedral libraries contain copies of various editions of Bishop John Overall's Convocation Book (1606 and 1610) and unpublished works by him are also housed in these collections, such as the undated Latin manuscript in the Cambridge library De statu questionum quinq' inter Remonstrantes et Contra-Remonstrantes Controversarum.

See also


Further reading

  • Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949)
  • PRO, C 66/2190; SP 14/90/101
  • K. Fincham, Prelate as pastor: the episcopate of James I (1990)
  • Norwich dean and chapter act book, Norfolk RO, DCN 24/2, fol. 20v
  • LPL, Register Abbot I, fols. 126–31
  • N. R. N. Tyacke, Arminianism and English culture, Britain and the Netherlands, ed. A. C. Duke and C. A. Tamse (The Hague, 1981), 98
  • D. Oldridge, Religion and society in early Stuart England (1998)
  • Fuller, T. The history of the worthies of England, 4 pts (1662); new edn, 2 vols., ed. J. Nichols (1811); new edn, 3 vols., ed. P. A. Nuttall (1840), repr. (1965).
  • Nicholas W. S. Cranfield, Overall, John (bap. 1561, d. 1619), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 30 May 2006
  • McClure, Alexander. (1858) The Translators Revived: A Biographical Memoir of the Authors of the English Version of the Holy Bible. Mobile, Alabama: R. E. Publications (republished by the Marantha Bible Society, 1984 ASIN B0006YJPI8 )
  • Nicolson, Adam. (2003) God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: HarperCollins ISBN 0-06-095975-4

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