DENYS, Sir Thomas (by 1477-1561), of Holcombe Burnell and Bicton, Devon and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. by 1477, 1st s. of Thomas Denys of Holcombe Burnell and Bicton by Janera, da. of Philip Loveday of Sneston, Suff. educ. I. Temple. m. (1) by 1506, Anne, wid. of Thomas Warley alias Waley and of Thomas Wood of London; (2) lic. 14 July 1524, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Angel Donne of London, wid. of Sir Thomas Murfyn of London, 5s. inc. Robert 3da. suc. fa. 4 June 1498. Kntd. Mar./Nov. 1514.2

Offices Held

Marshal I. Temple 1511, 1513, 1514.

J.p. Devon 1504-d., Exeter 1537, western counties 1540; custos rot. Devon 1507-53; sheriff 1507-8, 1508-9, 1512-13, 1518-19, 1522-3, 1527-8, 1531-2, 1549-50, 1553-4; gent. usher by 1509; esquire of the body by 1509, knight by 1533; feodary, duchy of Lancaster, Devon 1509-56; commr. musters Devon 1511, subsidy 1512, 1514, 1515, 1523, 1524, relief 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, Exeter 1553, chantries 1553; other commissions 1509-47; dep. warden (under Sir Henry Marney) of the stannaries by 1512; auditor, duchy of Cornw. 1514, 1518, 1528, dep. steward, Lidford in 1515; recorder, Exeter 1514-44, Sept. 1551-d.; chamberlain, household of Cardinal Wolsey by 1524; comptroller, household of Princess Mary July 1526; chief steward, abbot of Tavistock’s manors of Cowick and Christow and of liberty and franchise of Tavistock 1535; chancellor, household of Queen Anne of Cleves 1540; master of the game, Okehampton, Devon in 1553; dep. lt., Devon and Cornw. Mar. 1558.3


The Denys family had long been established in Devon. Trained as a lawyer, Thomas Denys embarked on a career which linked court, city and county. Before the death of Henry VII he had entered that King’s service, had married the widow of a former exchequer official and clerk of the works, and had settled in London. He had also begun to take a part in the affairs of his shire. There is a tradition that when (in 1508) Henry VII pricked him sheriff for a second year in succession, a practice forbidden by statute, Denys complained to the King who ‘asked what was the penalty. He said £100, half to the King, half to him who could sue for it. The King sent for his attorney and required him to enter an action against Denys, which forfeiture he redeemed to him and bade him serve the office’. In August 1509, before his second term was out, he acquired a reversionary interest in the recordership of Exeter.4

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

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

Denys was probably returned, with his new fellow-Member George Carew, to the Parliament of 1536 in accordance with the King’s general request for the re-election of the previous Members. When in the following autumn the north rose in rebellion he was called upon to join the King with 200 men, but on 12 Oct. the order for his attendance at Ampthill was countermanded. Twelve months later he bore a banner at the funeral of Queen Jane Seymour.7

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 Christi in ‘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

It may have been Denys’s advancing years which kept him out of the next four Parliaments, and his service in the French campaign of 1544 is his only known activity beyond the shire until the accession of Mary. He was in Devon on the outbreak of rebellion there in June 1549: the Privy Council early besought him to persuade the rebels to disperse, and later, when Exeter was besieged, he was both chosen by the authorities to confer with the insurgents and also accepted by these as one of three men with whom they were prepared to parley. His selection as sheriff, for the eighth time, in the following November was perhaps a tribute to his reputation as a peacemaker. Four years later he was chosen yet again, and perhaps on the same ground, after the succession crisis of that summer, in which he had supported his former mistress against the usurpation. He had already been elected knight of the shire, this time taking second place to Sir Peter Carew: of his role in this, his last, Parliament all that is known is that he was not among the Members noted as having ‘stood for the true religion’, that is, for Protestantism. No sooner had Parliament ended, and Carew and Denys returned to Devon, than they were pitted against one another: Carew became the centre of a conspiracy to raise an insurrection, while Denys stood firm for the Queen. His conduct was ill-rewarded, for the government showed an unwarranted lack of confidence in him by virtually superseding him as sheriff by Sir John St. Leger, a slight which called forth from Denys a defence of his actions in a letter to the chancellor, Gardiner.9

This was effectively the end of Denys’s public career, which would in any case have succumbed to his advanced age: the assistance he is said to have given in 1558 to Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford as lieutenant of Devon and Cornwall can scarcely have been active, for he was probably over 80 when he sued out his pardon from Elizabeth in January 1559. He had made his will on 13 Dec. 1558 and he died on 18 Feb. 1561, leaving as heir his son Robert, then rising 31 years of age. He had made provision for his wife, whom he made sole executrix, his children, his servants and charity. For his funeral, which he wished to be without pomp, feasting, hearse or lights, he allowed £200. His heir inherited a considerable estate, for Denys had bought much monastic land in Essex and Devon and by sale and exchange had consolidated his property: it has been calculated that his purchases were worth in all nearly £80 a year.10

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Authors: L. M. Kirk / A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from age at fa.’s i.p.m., CIPM Hen. VII, ii. 180. Vis. Devon, ed. Vivian, 279-80; Vis. Devon, ed. Colby, 79; CPR, 1494-1509, p. 467; Mar. Lic. London (Harl. Soc. xxv), 4.
  • 3. CPR, 1494-1509, p. 636; 1547-8, p. 76; 1550-3, p. 393; 1553, pp. 352, 361, 416; LP Hen. VIII, i-iv, viii, xii-xiv; C1/1467/29; E137/8/4; Somerville, Duchy i. 635; Statutes, iii. 53, 80, 117, 174; Duchy Cornw. RO receiver-gen. accts. 215-66; J.A. Youings, ‘The disposal of monastic property in land in the county of Devon 1535-58’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1950), 88-89; Stowe 571, f. 58; Exeter act bk. 1, ff. 8v, 56v; CSP Span. 1554-8, p. 369; information from G. Haslam.
  • 4. Youings, 14-15; CPR, 1494-1509, p. 467; W. J. Harte, Gleanings from the Commonplace Bk. of John Hooker, 25; R. Izacke, Exeter (1681), 107; Exeter act bk. 1. f. 5v.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, ii. iv, vii; Cal. I.T. Recs. i. 32-33; D. H. Pill, ‘The diocese of Exeter under Bp. Veysey’ (Exeter Univ. M.A. thesis, 1963), 187.
  • 6. LP Hen. VIII, iv, v-vii; vii. 1522 (ii) citing SP1/87, f. 106v; x; Foxe, Acts and Mons. v. 25; Pollard, Wolsey (1953), 212n, 351; W. T. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640, pp. 176, 183, 213.
  • 7. LP Hen. VIII, xi, xii.
  • 8. Ibid. xiii, xiv, xviii, xxi.
  • 9. Ibid. xix; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 19, 56, 59; J. Hoker, The description of the citie of Excester (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. xi), 63-64; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 35; D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 35-42.
  • 10. CSP Span. 1554-8, p. 369; CPR, 1558-60, p. 160; PCC 6 Spert; C142/129/24, 47; DKR, ix. 200; J.A. Youings, Devon Monastic Lands (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. i), p. xxviii; J. R. Kew, ‘Land market in Devon 1536-58’ (Exeter Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1967), 53.