Born on 29th March 1602 in Stoke-on-Trent, the son of Thomas Lightfoot, vicar of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. After finishing his studies at Morton Green near Congleton, Cheshire, he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge. There he became extraordinarily proficient in Latin and Greek. After taking his degree he became the assistant master at Repton School, Derbyshire for two years and then took holy orders. In 1625 he became Curate at St Chad’s Church, Norton-in-Hales. It was during his time at St Chad’s that he became acquainted with Sir Rowland Cotton, who taught him Hebrew. Sir Rowland appointed John his Domestic Chaplain at Bellaport. Helped by Sir Rowland he quickly mastered the basics and through incessant, diligent study, he surpassed his teacher and eventually became the greatest Hebrew scholar in all of England.
He accompanied Cotton when removed to London at the request of Sir Allen Cotton, who was Lord Mayor of London (Rowland’s uncle) and then became rector of Stone, Staffordshire for two years. In 1628 John married Joyce, the daughter of Mr William Crompton of Stone Park and widow of George Copwood of Dilverne. John and his family moved to Hornsey, Middlesex, in order to consult the rabbinical collection at Sion College, London. During his time at Hornsey he wrote his first work dedicated to Cotton – Erubbin, or Miscellanies, Christian and Judaical, penned for Recreation at vacant Hours (London, 1629). He was at this time only 27 years old.
Mr Lightfoot, I have by Baddeley received your book. You know what Martial says of his; Si totidem bona, quotidem mala,” &c. that the book is good. I have read yours over: there are many varieties; nothing so vulgar that you need fear your book’s endangerment, unless it pass into the hands of an envious and stupid dunce. You have passed by your payment beforehand, to prevent any retribution; for he will ever be found worthy any favours, that is found thankful for the least; and such is your recognition and retribution, that it doth more than cancel any obligation you stood bound in to me. But it is like i have also a vanity: you shall find I will ever cherish and tender an ingenious person. I joy much in your proficiency, and I hope you will proper; and doubt not but God will pay you your wages in due time. Thus tired with scribbling, so unserviceable my hand is become. My wife’s salutation to your wife and self, and blessing to her god-daughter remembered, mine included. I rest your very loving friends.R Cotton, Bellaport, Nov, 26, 1629.
Sir Rowland eventually presented him to the living of Ashley. He only resided in the parish for twelve years, but held the rectory up to the time of his death. In 1634 Sir Rowland Cotton died. It is said they Lightfoot and Cotton were bound by stronger ties than those of ordinary friendship ; indeed, such was the affection existing between them, that Rowland expressed a wish that when he came to die he should spend his last moments in the arms of his friend. His wish was granted, for he passed away, reclining on Dr. Lightfoote’s chest.
He laid such doubled and redoubled obligations upon me by the tender affection, respect and favor, that he showed towards me, as have left so indelible an impression on my heart, of honor to his name and observance to his house of Bellaport, that length of time may not wear it out nor distance of place ever cause me to forget it.Dr. Lightfoote about Sir Rowland Cotton
During the years he was absent from the parish, his nephew, Josias Lightfoote, acted as his locum. In 1642 he went to London, and the Long Parliament made him a member of the Assembly of Divines. He was made Master of Catherine Hall in 1643 and then promoted to the rectory of Much Munden, Hertfordshire. He filled several important offices, and took the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1652.
In 1654 John had been chosen vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, but continued to live at much Munden. In 1675 Whilst travelling from Cambridge to Ely he caught a cold. It is said he was advised to eat a red herring and to drink two or three glasses of claret, having always used to drink nothing but small beer (weak beer) or water, the little wine he took, according to the judgement of his physician cast him into a fever or at least heightened it. The disease much affected his head, so that he lay dozing and slumbering for nearly a fortnight and then died. His body was brought from Ely to his beloved Munden were he was buried. Mr Gervase Fulwood preached his funeral sermon.