John Covel’s Letter on the Karaites (1677)

  • J. Van Den Berg
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 119)


On 11 March 1677 John Covel, then English chaplain in Constantinople,1 sent a long letter to the Cambridge scholar Henry More, in which he provided him with extensive information about the Karaites.2 Apparently, More had asked the English Ambassador for information on this point. In his turn, the Ambassador had passed on More’s request to his chaplain, then already a scholar of some renown. It remains obscure why More was interested in the Karaites; perhaps (as was the case with quite a number of seventeenth-century Protestants) because the Karaites, who in their own way adhered to the ‘sola Scriptum’ principle, were considered to be more ‘pure’ than the other Jews.3 However this may be, Covel was certainly the right man to answer the letter of his former Cambridge teacher. Born in 1638, Covel had studied at Christ’s College (the college of Henry More) from 1654–1661. After that, he was elected to a fellowship of his college and took Holy Orders. In 1670 he went out as a chaplain to the English Ambassador in Constantinople, where he stayed till 1677. Via Italy, where he stayed for some time, he returned to England in 1679.


British Library Cambridge Scholar Reall Conjunction English Ambassador 14th Accord 
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  1. 1.
    For Covel, see DNB s.v.; J.T. Bent (ed.), Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant (Works Hakluyt Society 87), London 1893, XXVI–XXXIII (pp. 101–287 contain extracts from Covel’s Diary).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J. Covel to H. More, Constantinople, 11 March 1677, Christ’s College Cambridge, MS 21, f.28; published with the permission of the Master and Fellows of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Covel’s draught notes for this letter are in the British Library, Additional 22.911, f.373: ‘Some account of the Jewes Karaims and Rabanaims’ (undated). That More addressed his request to the Ambassador, Sir John Finch, can be explained from the fact that John Finch, a brother of More’s friend Lady Conway, had been a pupil of More; see M.H. Nicolson, Conway letters, London 1930, esp. p. 44.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For this, see J. van den Berg, ‘Proto-Protestants? The image of the Karaites as a mirror of the Catholic-Protestant controversy in the seventeenth century’ (this work, pp. 33–49).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    British Library, Additional 22.910, f.164–167.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Quoted in: J. Covel, Some Account of the Present Greek Church, Cambridge 1722, The Preface’.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cf. the remarks in his Diary on the Jews in Adrianople: Bent, Early Voyages, 189 f.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    S. Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge 1968, 293.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    A somewhat coloured version of the whole affair in: Hester W. Chapman, Mary II, Queen of England, London 1953, pp. 121 ff.; she describes Covel as a poor intriguer, elderly, gossiping and ill-bred.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    A copy of the letter (decoded) in British Library, Additional 15.892, f.264; quoted in S.W. Singer (ed.), The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and of his brother Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester I, London 1828, 165 (with some discrepancies in spelling).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Singer, The Correspondence of Henry and Laurence Hyde, 163 f.; cf. Hans Willem Bentinck’s letter to Henry Sidney, 22 October 1685, in R.W. Blencowe (ed.), Diary of the Times of Charles the Second by the Honourable Henry Sidney II, London 1843, s; here, Covel is mentioned as ‘le malicieux espion de la maison, qui a rapporté beaucoup de choses forgées pour nuire’.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    British Library, Additional 22.910, f.373–376.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    In particular, he was considered an authority on the Greek Church; cf. Archbishop Thomas Tenison’s letters to Covel, written on the occasion of the visit of the Metropolitan of Philippopolis to Cambridge in 1701: G. Williams, The Orthodox Church of the East in the Eighteenth Century, Oxford and Cambridge 1868, LIX.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Van Den Berg
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LeidenThe Netherlands

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