The eldest son of Sir Henry Colet, (Lord Mayor of London 1486 and 1495), he was born in London about 1467, and was educated at St Anthony's school and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took his M.A. in 1490. He was already nonresident rector of Dennington, Suffolk, and vicar of St Dunstan's, Stepney, and now became rector of Thurning, Hunts. In 1493 he went to Paris and then to Italy, studying canon and civil law, patristics and Greek.
During his time abroad he became acquainted with Budaeus (Guillaume Budé) and Erasmus, and with the teaching of Savonarola. On his return to England in 1496 he took orders and settled at Oxford, where he lectured on the epistles of Saint Paul, replacing the old scholastic method of interpretation with one more in harmony with the new learning. His methods did much to influence Erasmus, who visited Oxford in 1498, and who later received an annuity from Colet.
Since 1494, Colet had been prebendary of York, and canon of St Martin le Grand, London. In 1502 he became prebendary of Salisbury, in 1505 prebendary of St Paul's, and immediately afterwards its dean, having previously taken the degree of doctor of divinity. He continued to lecture on the books of the Bible; and he soon afterwards established a perpetual divinity lecture, three days each week, in St Paul's itself. In about 1508, having inherited his father's large wealth, Colet formed his plan for the re-foundation of St Paul's School, which he completed in 1512, and endowed with estates of an annual value of £122 and upwards. The celebrated grammarian William Lilye was the first master, and the company of mercers were (in 1510) appointed trustees, the first example of non-clerical management in education. The dean's religious opinions were so liberal that some deemed him a heretic; but William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to prosecute him. King Henry VIII also held him in high esteem despite his sermons against the French wars.
Besides the preferments above mentioned, he was rector of the guild of Jesus at St Paul's and chaplain to Henry VIII. In 1514 he made the Canterbury pilgrimage, and in 1515 preached at Wolsey's installation as cardinal. Colet died of the "sweating sickness"., and was buried on the south side of the choir of St Paul's, where a stone was laid over his grave, with no other inscription than his name.
Colet, though never dreaming of a formal breach with Roman Catholicism, was a keen reformer, who disapproved of auricular confession, and of clerical celibacy. He was a powerful force in the England of his day, and helped materially to disintegrate the medieval conditions still obtaining, and to introduce the humanist movement. Amone his works which were first collectively nihilishet in 1867-1876, are Absoliaissimus de octo orationis partium constructione libellus (Antwerp, 1530), Rudimenta Grammatices (London, 1539), Daily Devotions, Monition to a Godly Life, Epistolae ad Erasmum, and commentaries on different parts of the Bible.
See F Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers; JH Lupton, Life of John Colet (1887); art, in The Times, July 7, 1909.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.