DENHAM, John (1615-69), of Middle Scotland Yard, Whitehall.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1661 - 20 Mar. 1669

Family and Education

b. 1615, o.s. of Sir John Denham of Inworth, Egham, Surr., baron of the Exchequer 1617-39, by 2nd w. Eleanor, da. of Gerald, 1st Visct. Moore of Drogheda [I]. educ. Trinity, Oxf. 1631; L. Inn 1631, called 1639. m. (1) 25 June 1634, Anne (d. c.1646), da. of Don Coton of Whittington, Glos. and coh. to her gdfa., 1s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) 25 May 1665, Margaret, da. and coh. of Sir William Brooke of Cooling Castle, Kent, s.p. suc. fa. 1639; KB 23 Apr. 1661.1

Offices Held

J.p. Surr. c.1641-6, sheriff 1642-3, commr. of array 1642; j.p. Mdx. Aug. 1660-d., Westminster Sept. 1660-d.; commr. for sewers, Westminster Aug. 1660, assessment, Westminster 1661-4, Wilts. 1661-3, oyer and terminer, Mdx. 1662, loyal and indigent officers, London and Westminster 1662, highways and sewers 1662; clerk of works, Tower of London 1662-d., bailiff, Bedford level 1664-5, conservator 1665-6.2

Gov. Farnham Castle, Surr. 1642.

Surveyor-gen. of works, June 1660-d.; commr. for plantations Dec. 1660-d.; member, R. Adventurers into Africa Dec. 1660-3, R. Fishing Co. 1664.3

FRS 1663-6.


Denham could trace his ancestry no further than his grandfather, a London goldsmith. His father held judicial office both in England and Ireland; one of his last judgments was against the legality of ship-money in Hampden’s case. Denham shared his father’s opinion, and expressed it, both in his play The Sophy (performed in 1641) and in his poem Cooper’s Hill, published at Oxford during the Civil War. An only child, he succeeded to a competent estate, which, together with his first wife’s inheritance, brought in £680 p.a., but he soon gambled it away. He was in arms for the King in 1642, but his defence of Farnham Castle was inglorious, and on his release he took no further part in the fighting. Captured again at Dartmouth in 1646, he became acquainted with Hugh Peter, the radical cleric, who obtained permission for him to attend on Charles I at Hampton Court. Falling under suspicion, he fled abroad in 1648, and entered the service of the Prince of Wales, who employed him on diplomatic missions to Scotland and Poland. In spite of his denials he was regarded as a follower of Henrietta Maria’s party. Further ill luck at the gaming table compelled him to return to England, where he was thought to be more in danger from his creditors than from the Government; his debts already exceeded £4,000 in 1647. He managed to rescue Little Horkesley from the treason trustees, but soon had to surrender it to the mortgagee. But the 5th Earl of Pembroke took him under his protection at Wilton, though he continued to correspond with the exiled court. In 1658 he took Pembroke’s son (William Herbert, Lord Herbert) abroad, but returned in the following year, and became more directly involved in Cavalier plotting as head of a faction opposed to Lord Mordaunt, though his links with the Independents proved of little use.4

At the Restoration, Denham was made surveyor of works in accordance with a patent obtained in exile, though his knowledge of architecture was purely theoretical. At the general election of 1661, Pembroke returned him for his borough of Old Sarum. He was a moderately active committeeman, serving on 62 committees in 11 sessions. He soon put his membership to practical use, claiming privilege against an attorney who had sued him to outlawry. Denham was responsible for initiating the paving of Holborn, and he took a prominent part in the legislation for improving highways in and around London and Westminster. On 8 Apr. 1662, he was among those ordered to draw up reasons for a conference on the subject. In the following year he was on a small committee appointed to consider a proviso for widening London streets, and in 1665 he was one of the Members to bring in an additional bill. He served on no committees of political importance, except one for an additional corporations bill, but was regarded as a court dependant. His second marriage, in which there was great disparity of age and even more of appearance, subjected him to much ridicule, especially as the lady, who had been brought forward by Lord Bristol, was hotly pursued by the Duke of York. Shortly afterwards Denham went out of his mind; jealousy was popularly supposed to be the cause, but it was more probably tertiary syphilis. When Denham had recovered sufficiently to attend Parliament as a court supporter, Andrew Marvell wrote:

Of early wittols first the troop marched in,
For diligence renowned, and discipline:
In loyal haste they left young wives in bed,
And Denham these by one consent did head.

In a debate on 13 Oct. 1666, he attacked the proposed ban on Irish cattle imports. (Sir) Allen Brodrick to the Duke of Ormonde: ‘Jack Denham presents his duty to your grace, who alas hath not recovered his former understanding in any measure, yet spoke very good sense this morning in opposition to the bill’. Shortly afterwards Lady Denham was taken ill, and died on 6 Jan. 1667; the post mortem, held to refute suspicions of poison, gave inflammation of the bowels as cause of death, and revealed incidentally that her virginity was intact; but neither finding dissipated the atmosphere of scandal in which Denham now moved, though he continued to attend and speak regularly in Parliament. In the same month, he was given leave to attend the House of Lords as witness for the defence of his old enemy Mordaunt and ordered to bring in a proviso about the rebuilding of London.5

Denham was one of the Members appointed to confer with the Duke of Albemarle (George Monck) about highway robberies on 26 Oct. 1667. He opposed stiffening the penalties for recusancy during the Dutch war with ‘a merry story’ from Boccaccio. He took part in the attack on Clarendon, though not appointed to the impeachment committee. To the evident surprise of John Milward, he made ‘a most rational and excellent speech’ justifying, though only at second hand, the charge that the lord chancellor had described the King as ‘indisposed for government’. When Clarendon was accused of advising the King ‘never hereafter to think of Parliaments’, John Birch sarcastically suggested on 9 Nov. that such words must be due to ‘distraction’; but Denham, no doubt from his own experience of the condition, declared this explanation unlikely. On the same day he and Sir Charles Harbord were asked to put into execution the laws restraining the excessive fares demanded by hackney coachmen. He spoke twice in favour of the conventicles bill, saying: ‘It is true Holland and France did tolerate several religions amongst them, but it is as true that they keep a standing army in pay to keep them under’. He asserted that the evidence of the cowardice of Henry Brouncker was demonstrably false. Denham died on 20 Mar. 1669, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Though long accounted a sceptic in religion, he declared himself in his will a true Christian of the Church of England ‘as by law it is now established ... whose doctrine and discipline I do and ever have embraced and adhered to, not only as being born and bred within it, but (after diligent search and inquiry both at home and abroad) have chosen for the best and most apostolic in the Christian world’.6

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: John. P. Ferris


Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on the introduction by T. H. Banks to Poetical Works of Sir John Denham.

  • 1. Glos. Inquisitions (Index Lib. ix), 56; Hasted, Kent, iii. 520.
  • 2. C181/7/38; Tudor and Stuart Proclamations ed. Steele, i. 405; S. Wells, Drainage of the Bedford Level, i. 457.
  • 3. Sel. Charters (Selden Soc. xxviii), 173, 183.
  • 4. Morant, Essex, i. 235; Manning and Bray, Surr. iii. 250; SP23/80/169-72; Nicholas Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xl), 300; D. Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy, 243, 305; Clarendon SP, iii. 740.
  • 5. Cal. Cl. SP, v. 13; CJ, viii. 393, 602, 681, 687; Pepys Diary, 15 Aug. 1664, 12 Dec. 1666; Marvell ed. Margoliouth i. 144; Bodl. Carte 35, f. 101.
  • 6. Milward, 104, 116, 216, 225, 262; Grey, i. 30; Clarendon Impeachment, 27; Bulstrode Pprs. 96; PCC 57 Penn.