Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sir Thomas Denys, RIP

Sir Thomas Denys of Devon died on February 18, 1561. Reading his biography on the History of Parliament website demonstrates to me once again how careful English MPs and officials had to be during the Tudor era:

With the rise of Wolsey, Denys found himself serving both King and minister. He took part in the Tournai campaign of 1513 but was knighted only in the following year. It was because of his new status ‘and for other considerations’—doubtless his call to be elsewhere—that in February 1515 he was excused the marshalship of his inn. In that year he is mentioned as one of those employed by Wolsey to victual the army abroad, a capacity in which he probably served again in 1523. He eventually became chamberlain of Wolsey’s household, an appointment which he retained until the cardinal’s death and which served him and his family well: by 1530 his services were retained by the majority of monastic houses and boroughs in Devon, while his friendship with another of Wolsey’s servants, Cromwell, was to prove an insurance for the future.5

So he could have been affected by the fall of Wolsey but his friendship with Thomas Cromwell saved him from losing his influence and position. Note that there were about 20 monasteries (abbeys and priories) in Devon before the Dissolution.

His closeness to Wolsey neither deterred nor debarred Denys from sitting in the Parliament which joined in the cardinal’s overthrow, and he seems to have been equally unaffected by his place in the household of Princess Mary: for the rest, his standing and influence in the shire must have made him an obvious partner for his friend Sir William Courtenay I. His attendance was interrupted by ill-health. He twice excused himself to Cromwell for not making the journey from Devon for the third session when he had a poisoned leg, and for the final one when he was forced to keep his bed: on the first of these occasions Denys was again sheriff and ten days after reporting his disability he supervised the burning of the heretic Thomas Benet at Exeter. His part in the proceedings of this Parliament is glimpsed only in its seventh session, when his name occurs in a list of Members written by Cromwell on the back of a letter of December 1534: the Members concerned are thought to have had a particular connexion with the treason bill then passing through Parliament, perhaps as belonging to a committee, and Denys would have been appropriately included as a lawyer, household official and friend of Cromwell. His attachment to the minister was strengthened about this time by the marriage of his step-daughter to Richard Cromwell alias Williams*, and early in 1534 he had been rewarded with an authority to grant export licences for tin.6

See the entry for Thomas Benet in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

But then Denys ran into some trouble:

The years which followed saw Denys’s hitherto unruffled progress placed at risk. In January 1538 he wrote to Cromwell to rebut accusations that he had concealed a robbery, was a papist, and ‘hung at other men’s sleeves’. The second of these charges he met by affirming his acceptance of the supreme headship—for which he and Sir William Kingston had found precedent in the description of the King as vicarius Christiin ‘a book called Bracton’ recommended to them by Cromwell three years ago—while to the third he declared that he was no man’s save the King’s, and that the fee of £4 a year and mastership of game which he had ‘from a great man’ he would surrender if the King so wished. As the great man was the Marquess of Exeter, who before the year was out would be executed for alleged treason, Cromwell’s reassurance that the King would consign to oblivion the complaints against Denys, and would remain his very good lord, could not have spared its recipient continuing apprehension, perhaps reflected in his plea to the minister to help advance his children. Two years later he had cause for fresh anxiety when it was Cromwell’s turn to go down, although as in 1529 Denys was again a Member of the Parliament which abetted that process. He had also been made chancellor to the new Queen whose rejection had preceded the palace revolution.8

So he survived another crisis when Anne of Cleves was replaced by Katherine Howard and Cromwell was attainted and beheaded. He received grants of two monasteries: the Cistercian house of Buckfast Abbey (not to be confused with the modern foundation of a Benedictine house there) and St. Nicholas Priory, a Benedictine house in Exeter. Denys also paid rent on grants of land from Shirborne Abbey in Dorset (the nave is pictured from a Wikipedia Commons photo, used with permission), and the Cistercian Abbey of the Vale of St. Mary in Croxen. From the latter, somehow the Uttoxeter Casket, an Anglo-Saxon era reliquary survived. More about it here.

When Sir Thomas Denys died on February 18, 1561, he had survived the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I; his age prevented him from serving Elizabeth I. He left his son a great estate, gained through the grants and the selling and renting of lands obtained through the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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