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Sir Thomas Denys: the Doccombe Lord Farmer who lived under 8 different sovereigns

Sir Thomas Denys 1477-1561

Lord Farmer of Doccombe Manor from c1508 to 1561

Sir Thomas Denys was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Denys (d.1498) of Holcombe Burnell (about 6 miles to the east of Doccombe) and a well-established but not wealthy Devon family. He lived to over 80 under 8 different sovereigns, witnessing the religious settlements of four Tudor monarchs, and he was loyal to all of them. ‘His career rested more upon his own wit than on inherited status’. (J Cooper DNB)

Holcombe Burnell Barton - home of the Denys family

He had no university education or wealthy patron but was extremely ambitious. He became a prominent London lawyer, progressing to work for the royal court of Henry VII with the lowly position of gentleman usher and esquire. In Henry VIII’s reign he saw military action at Tornai in 1513 with the King where he earned his knighthood; by 1515 he had become the Chamberlain to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey. A decade later he had become Comptroller for Princess Mary, managing her finances and begun a close working relationship with Thomas Cromwell, later chief minister to Henry VIII. This relationship was cemented by the marriage of his stepdaughter, Frances Murfyn, to Cromwell’s nephew, Richard Cromwell (alias Williams); their son, Henry, was the grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. Thomas carried a banner at Jane Seymour’s funeral and was in the welcoming party for Anne of Cleves before becoming the chancellor of her household.

Thomas made two astute marriages, both times to wealthy, well-connected widows. Firstly, he married Anne, the wealthy widow of Thomas Warley, an exchequer official of London in 1506 and then after her death he married Elizabeth, the widow of Sir Thomas Murfyn, a Lord Mayor of London, in 1524. Elizabeth’s brother, Gabriel Donne, was the last Abbot of Buckfast Abbey presented by Thomas Cromwell in 1535 just before the dissolution of the monasteries.

From the album Mobile Uploads by Gerene May Jensen Mason
Elizabeth Murfyn

Being part of the royal court at this time was dangerous but Denys remained loyal to all the Tudor monarchs he served, even with their extreme opposing religious views and laws. He must have feared for his life when Cromwell accused him of concealing a robbery in Devon; when he was accused of being a papist and having ‘hung at other men’s sleeves’; and when Cromwell was arrested and executed. He was loyal to Queen Mary in 1553 against Lady Jane Grey’s attempt to usurp the throne and in the same year he did not support his fellow Devon MP, Sir Peter Carew’s attempt to prevent Queen Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, landing in the west country. He was sent to arrest Carew but instead allowed him to escape to France. and for this reason, his public career seems at last to have ended.

Thomas managed to link his work in the royal service with his administrative commitments in Devon. He held many important roles in Devon and Cornwall: a JP; Sheriff of Devon nine times; an MP many times; Chief Steward for Tavistock Abbey’s manors of Christow and Cowick; Deputy warden of the Stannaries; and he always attended the courts of the Devon Quarter Sessions.

His most notorious act locally was in 1531 in his role of Recorder of Exeter and the Sheriff of Devon, was the burning at the stake of the protestant school master, Thomas Benet, for heresy at Livery Dole, in Exeter, just outside the city walls. Benet had nailed a placard on the Cathedral door proclaiming the Pope as an Antichrist. A few years later Henry VIII separated England from the Church of Rome, starting the Church of England but too late for Thomas Benet. In atonement for this notorious act his son, Sir Robert Denys built alms houses and a chapel at Livery Dole. The chapel remains, but the alms houses were rebuilt in 1849 by Lady Rolle. There is also a granite monument, designed by Harry Hems on Denmark Rd and erected in 1909 in Thomas Benet’s memory.

The burning of Thomas Benet depicted in a wood cut of 1570 from Foxe's Book of Martyrs

By 1530 his services were retained by the majority of monastic houses and boroughs in Devon, including Christ Church Priory Canterbury’s ‘far-flung’ manor of Doccombe as early as 1508 as can be seen in this letter:


My Lord, in my most herty wise do recommend me unto you, and according to your desire, at my commyng over with my Lord's grace owte of Fraunce, I have sent to you your convent seale of the grant of Doccomb, and vj li. vj s. vj d. for this last yers rente, with the courte rolls of the same. And if it shall please yow to renewe my grante, and to geve me auctorite by the same grante to make woode-sale to your use, I shall do therin for you as I wold do for my self, as knoweth our Lord, the whiche preserve your Lordship long to indure. And farther that it may please you to credit this berer. Written with the rude hand of hym glad to do you pleasure or service to his litell power.


To the Reverend Fader in God my good Lord My Lord Prior of Crists {sic} Church of Canterbury.

(Canterbury Cathedral Archives: CCA-DCc-ChChLet/I/59 - Scrapbooks)

We cannot be sure of the exact date of the letter. Dennys is mentioned as farmer in the Canterbury archives between 1508 and 1522 (DCc/Register T, f63v; DCc/MA 13, f314v).]. The reference tomy commyng over with my Lord's grace owte of Fraunce’ may refer to the action at Tournai in 1513.

He gained much land and wealth through the Dissolution of the Monasteries including St Nicholas Priory in Exeter which he sold on for £541 within a month. He was also retained as Lord Farmer by the new owners of Doccombe, the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, as can be seen with his name on leases before and after the transfer in 1540:

Nicholas Halle

Nicholas Halle shows a Copy in these words.

To the legal Court of the manor there held on October 1st 1528 came

Nicholas Halle Junior & took from the lord Thomas Prior etc by the demise

of Thomas Denys, steward of the said manor, the reversion of all that

tenancy contayning 3 ferlingates of land called Corsett {Cossick Farm} that Nicholas Halle

<dead> father of the same Nicholas holds.

The reversion of the aforesaid tenement with its appurtenances conceded to

Peter Halle, son of the aforesaid Nicholas. At the legal court held there on

August 6th 1548 by the demise of Thomas Denys. Paid a fine of £13.

(ED 362 Lambeth Palace Archives Doccombe Manor Rental 1572)

He died in 1561, over 80 years old, having lived under 8 different sovereigns. having become a very wealthy and powerful man. For his funeral he requested no pomp, feasting, hearse or lights. 'by cause I will avoide all pompe used aboute my ded corps'. A Devonian to the last, he bequeathed 20s. to the prisoners in Exeter gaol.


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