DENNY, William (c.1578-1642), of Norwich, Norf. and Gray's Inn, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1578, 1st s. of John Denny, yeoman of Beccles, Suff.1 educ. Beccles sch. (Mr. Darley);2 Caius, Camb. 1594, aged 16, scholar 1595-6; Barnard’s Inn c.1597-8; G. Inn 1598, called by 1616.3 m. (1) by March 1621, Frances (d. 12 Feb. 1631),4 da. of James Taverner of Norwich, 1s.;5 (2) Dorothy (d. 10 Feb. 1634), s.p.6 suc. fa. 1620;7 kntd. 31 Oct. 1627.8 d. 26 Mar. 1642.9

Offices Held

Fee’d counsel, Norwich 1616-19,10 Gt. Yarmouth, Norf. 1618-29;11 reader, Barnard’s Inn 1617-18;12 steward, Norwich 1619-29;13 ancient, G. Inn 1622, reader, Lent term 1624, Autumn term 1625, treas. 1627-8;14 KC 1627-d.;15 recorder, Norwich 1629-Feb. 1642;16 sjt.-at law 1637-d.17

J.p. Norf. and Suff. 1620-d.;18 commr. oyer and terminer, Norwich 1619-d., Norf. and Suff. 1635-d., Norf. and Beds. 1636,19 bankrupts, Norwich 1621,20 sewers, Norf. 1621,21 destruction game 1621,22 fen drainage 1625,23 seabreaches 1625,24 Norf. and Suff. 1638,25 Forced Loan, Norf. 1626-7,26 knighthood fines 1630-2,27 worsted stuffs 1633,28 lands of John Cremer 1636,29 maltsters 1636.30


Denny’s father, a Suffolk yeoman, was sufficiently prosperous to give his son a gentleman’s education. Denny excelled, becoming a scholar at Caius College, Cambridge, before being admitted to Barnard’s Inn and then Gray’s Inn, where he was called to the bar. He subsequently acted as fee’d counsel for both Norwich and Great Yarmouth, and as a legal advisor to the wealthy East Anglian Paston family.31

Returned for Norwich in 1621, Denny delivered his maiden speech on 15 Feb., after the Shaftesbury Member, Thomas Sheppard, criticized the Sabbath bill and accused its supporters of being puritans. Like Sir Walter Hele, Denny thought that Sheppard should explain himself at the bar of the House.32 Five days later, at the grievances committee, he argued that the inns patentee, (Sir) Giles Mompesson*, should be given further time to explain his actions.33 On 20 Apr. he recommended that the ecclesiastical court judge Sir John Bennet*, who had taken bribes to grant probate of wills, should be heard, as ‘it might be a dishonour to the House to present it to the Lords and have him cleared’.34 Ever the cautious lawyer, Denny later declared that Sir Edward Villiers should continue to sit in the House until a case against him was proved: ‘non qui accusatur sed qui convincitur reus est’ (2 May).35

Most of Denny’s contributions in 1621 concerned fishing matters, among them the bill to suppress the taking of tithes for fishing voyages, which received a second reading on 26 February. As many Norwich and Norfolk ministers were paid by this method, Denny attacked the bill, stating that it overturned a statute of 1548 which provided for the maintenance of ministers. He drew upon his classical education to illustrate the point:

There were two notable persecutions, one under Domitian, the other under Diocletian. The one was occidere presbiteros, which though it were cruel, yet it brought a great increase into the church for sanguis martyrum est semen ecclesia. But the other was occidere presbiterium, which was far the greater. The bill seems to be guilty of the latter because take away maintenance and you take away the ministry.36

Although not named to the committee, he was eligible to attend as one of those who had spoken on the bill. The following day Denny spoke on the seamarks and mariners bill, supporting the Trinity House of Deptford against Sir Edward Howard I*, who had erected a lighthouse at Dungeness, and Sir John Meldrum and Sir William Erskine, who had done the same at Winterton, in Norfolk.37 The bill, which would have given Trinity House control over all lighthouses except those on the Tyne,38 was opposed by both the king and Buckingham and so stood little chance of success, but Denny strongly urged its passage, arguing that Trinity House should be ‘tied to maintain the lighthouses’ since the patentees had failed to do so.39 Denny was allowed to sit on the committee since he had spoken to the bill, but the measure was rejected on 9 March.40 That same day Denny also attended the ‘committee for want of money’, at which he noted that one reason for the shortage of coin was the wages paid at the annual Yarmouth herring fair to foreign fishermen, who departed in empty boats.41

Denny spoke to both bills on drunkenness introduced in 1621. One sought to maintain the price of strong beer and ale at 8s. per barrel, which he claimed was too high.42 The second aimed to continue two previous Jacobean acts on drunkenness, but with the proviso that drunkards were to be convicted on the testimony of a single witness rather than the customary two after a hearing in front of a magistrate.43 Denny commented that magistrates should not be allowed to grant bail, and was subsequently appointed to the committee.44 He evidently failed to persuade other Members of his concerns, as the amended 1621 draft and its 1624 counterpart allowed j.p.s to take sureties for good behaviour, ‘as if [the offender] had been convicted in open sessions’.45

Denny was named to legislative committees on concealed lands (2 Mar.), the levying of debts in the king’s name (6 Mar.), and jeofails (2 May).46 He also attended the committee meeting on the inferior courts’ bill (20 Apr.) with his fellow Norwich MP, Richard Ross.47 Although one of the five Members appointed to draft the monopolies’ bill on 5 Mar.,48 it is unlikely that he played a large role as the bill exhibited a few days later was drawn up by Sir Edward Coke*.49 Denny spoke at the second reading of the bill for attainted persons to be liable for their debts, considering that creditors should have relief according to a rateable proportion.50 Although not appointed to the committee, Denny’s views were noted, for when Sir Robert Heath reported the bill on 24 May, a pro rata division of the value of the debtor’s possessions was included.51

Granted leave of absence from the House on 7 Mar. because his wife was ill, Denny delayed his departure for a few days, for on 9 Mar. he reported a bill for Painswick manor in Gloucestershire, which concerned a dispute between Henry Jernegan, a Norfolk gentleman, and his tenants.52 Moreover, the following day, at the second reading of the profane language bill, he called for the committee ‘to define what an oath is, that shall be punished by this act, for not to have a passionate word to be counted as an oath’.53 Denny had returned to Westminster by 7 May, when he opposed the enclosure bill,54 and two days later argued that a wardship bill concerning Robert Hogan should be heard in the law courts rather than in Parliament.55 He also supported a bill to repair Dunwich haven, in Suffolk, somewhat irregularly informing the Commons of the benefits of the measure at its first reading (11 May).56 On 31 May Denny entered the debate on whether those bills which had passed both Houses should be presented for the Royal Assent before Parliament adjourned. The Commons Journal records that he was against this idea, but Sir Francis Barrington* noted that he supported it.57 No record remains of any contribution Denny may have made to the winter sitting in 1621.

Between the 1621 Parliament and his re-election for Norwich in 1624, Denny continued to pursue his legal career. In 1622 he was called to be an ancient at Gray’s Inn,58 and in November 1623 he was chosen as reader for the following Lent.59 During the final Jacobean Parliament, Denny, who had spoken several times in 1621, made only one recorded speech, reporting on 22 Apr. from the committee for the bill to naturalize a Norwich grain merchant.60 Perhaps he now spent more time in the law courts than in the House, or he may have been busy preparing the Lent lectures at Gray’s Inn. Despite his silence, he was named to several committees. On 30 Apr. he was ordered to help draft a proviso to a measure to prevent strangers’ goods from being imported by Englishmen specially hired to avoid high customs duties.61 He was also appointed to committees for drafting bills on the assize of bread (3 Mar.) and the writ of habeas corpus cum causa, though neither measure was ever reported to the House.62 He was named to one legal bill committee, concerning alienations (5 March),63 and on 19 Apr. was appointed to review the petitions submitted to the standing committee on courts of justice.64 His numerous other committee appointments included a measure for cloths, serges and perpetuanas, which would have interested Norwich, a centre for the manufacture of the new draperies (20 Apr.), and several private estate bills.65

Denny played little part in the 1625 Parliament, making no known speeches and being named to just one committee, concerning a bill on petty larceny (25 June).66 His legal standing nevertheless continued to rise, for he served as Autumn reader at Gray’s Inn in 1625 and as its treasurer in 1627-8. In February 1627 he was appointed king’s counsel, being also granted special permission to continue as steward of Norwich, and shortly thereafter was knighted.67 Not long after he built himself new chambers in the south square of Gray’s Inn, close to the chapel.68 In 1629 he was dismissed as town counsel by Great Yarmouth after he acted against the borough in the law courts,69 but at Norwich he continued to prosper, exchanging the position of steward for that of recorder following the death of Rice Gwyn*.70 He may have lived at Norwich during the vacations, perhaps in a house within the cathedral precincts.71 In 1637 Denny was created a serjeant-at-law.

In September 1640 the Privy Council ordered Denny to investigate the rumour, ‘much disquiet[ing] the common people’ in Norwich, that the Scottish army was coming to burn the city within the week. Although Denny succeeded in identifying the person responsible for spreading this gossip,72 he was by now ill. Indeed, early in 1641 the corporation of Norwich noted that his mind and body were so disabled he was incapable of ‘managing of the affairs of his own private estate [and] is altogether unable for giving of counsel to this city ... nor hath exercised the same ... for one whole year’.73 On 25 Feb. 1642 Denny was dismissed as recorder and died a few weeks later.74 He was buried next to his first wife in the north ambulatory of Norwich Cathedral. No will, inquisition post mortem or administration has been found. Denny’s only son, William, author of Pelecanicidium and various pastoral poems, was created a baronet in 1642.75 None of Denny’s descendants sat in Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. W. Rye, Norf. Fams. 161.
  • 2. Biog. Hist. Caius Coll. comp. J. Venn, i. 154.
  • 3. Al. Cant.; GI Admiss.
  • 4. MI, N. ambulatory, Norwich Cathedral.
  • 5. Norf. RO, Rye ms 4, p. 372.
  • 6. GL, ms 6673/2, unfol.
  • 7. Add. 19112, f. 79v.
  • 8. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 193.
  • 9. MI, N. ambulatory, Norwich Cathedral.
  • 10. Norf. RO, NCR Case 16/D/5, ff. 52, 87v.
  • 11. Ibid. Y/C19/5, f. 197v.
  • 12. Readers and Readings in Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 194.
  • 13. Norf. RO, NCR Case 16/D/5, ff. 87v, 246v.
  • 14. PBG Inn, 229, 246, 260, 279, 285.
  • 15. List of Eng. Law Officers comp. J.C. Sainty (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. vii), 85.
  • 16. Norf. RO, NCR Case 16/D/5, ff. 246v, 368.
  • 17. Order of Sjts.-at-Law comp. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 376.
  • 18. C193/13/1, f. 74; C193/12/2, f. 42; SP16/405, ff. 49v, 62v.
  • 19. C181/2, f. 349; 181/5, ff. 32, 72v, 104, 210v, 218.
  • 20. C66/2228.
  • 21. C181/3, f. 41.
  • 22. APC, 1621-3, p. 30.
  • 23. C181/3, f. 164.
  • 24. Ibid. f. 189v.
  • 25. C181/5, f. 103.
  • 26. W. Rye, Norf. State Pprs. 48.
  • 27. E178/5520, ff. 7, 10, 13, 19, 22.
  • 28. PC2/43, p. 72.
  • 29. C181/5, f. 55.
  • 30. PC2/46, p. 374.
  • 31. Corresp. Lady Katherine Paston ed. R. Hughey (Norf. Rec. Soc. xiv), 30, 56.
  • 32. CJ, i. 521b-22a.
  • 33. CD 1621, vi. 254.
  • 34. Ibid. iii. 29-30; CJ, i. 583b.
  • 35. CD 1621, iii. 133; CJ, i. 603a.
  • 36. CD 1621, ii. 135-6; iv. 103-4; CJ, i. 526b.
  • 37. Trinity House Trans. ed. G.G. Harris (London Rec. Soc. xix), pp. x-xi.
  • 38. CD 1621, vii. 7-17, 218-25; Trinity House Trans. 46.
  • 39. CJ, i. 529b; CD 1621, v. 521-2; iv. 109.
  • 40. CJ, i. 546a.
  • 41. CD 1621, v. 525; vi. 17.
  • 42. Ibid. vii. 33-6; CJ, i. 531b; Kyle thesis, 400.
  • 43. Kyle thesis, 400; CD 1621, vii. 51-3.
  • 44. CJ, i. 532b.
  • 45. SR iv. 1216-7.
  • 46. Ibid. 534a, 540a, 602b.
  • 47. C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 193.
  • 48. CJ, i. 539b.
  • 49. Kyle thesis, 60-1.
  • 50. CJ, i. 595b.
  • 51. Kyle thesis, 279-80.
  • 52. CJ, i. 543b, 546b.
  • 53. Ibid. 548b.
  • 54. CD 1621, iii. 186.
  • 55. CJ, i. 615a.
  • 56. Ibid. 616b.
  • 57. CD 1621, iii. 372; CJ, i. 633b.
  • 58. G. Inn Lib. ms 54, f. 189v.
  • 59. PBG Inn, 260.
  • 60. CJ, i. 762b, 772b.
  • 61. Ibid. 780a; Kyle thesis, 437-8.
  • 62. CJ, i. 677a.
  • 63. Ibid. 678a.
  • 64. Ibid. 770b.
  • 65. Ibid. 744b, 746a, 762b, 771b, 691b, 705b.
  • 66. HMC Lords xi. 187.
  • 67. C66/2393.
  • 68. PBG Inn, 285, 288.
  • 69. Norf. RO, Y/C19/6, f. 129v.
  • 70. Ibid. NCR case 16/D/5, f. 246v.
  • 71. Extracts from Min. Bks. Norwich Cathedral ed. J.F. Williams and B. Cozens-Hardy (Norf. Rec. Soc. xxiv), 63, 78.
  • 72. SP16/467/38; 468/44.
  • 73. Norf. RO, NCR case 16/D/5, f. 368.
  • 74. F. Blomefield, Hist. Norf. iv. 13.
  • 75. Oxford DNB.