Sir Edward Denny was born at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire in 1547. He was the fifth, but eventually the second surviving son of the Right Hon. Sir Anthony Denny (Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Privy Councillor and Executor to Henry VIII, and Guardian to Edward VI) and Joan, his wife, daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne of Modbury, Devon. That same year King Henry VIII died and Sir Anthony was the only man to defy the charge of treason by telling the dying King of his impending fate just hours before it happened. His honesty and familiarity, however, brought no repercussions. It is possible that Sir Anthony named his son after his royal ward, Edward VI, who succeeded his father to the throne that same year.
Both parents died while Edward was still a child and he was left, apparently, in the guardianship of his mother’s executor, John Tamworth. It was not the best start to his life but Sir Anthony made sure his son would be well looked after by leaving him certain lands in Hertfordshire. There were also many powerful influences to favour him. His neighbour at Theobalds in Chesthunt was Sir William Cecil (Lord Burghley), who was later related by marriage; and one of his many cousins was Sir Francis Walsingham, the son of Sir Anthony’s sister, Joice.
Edward Denny’s first public appointment seems to have been as ‘Receiver General of the counties of Southampton, Wilts, and Gloucester’, but early in 1573 he was directed by Elizabeth I to go to Northern Ireland on an expedition formed by the Earl of Essex (Walter Devereux). Other distinguished Englishmen offered to risk their lives and fortunes to join the Earl, the objective being to ‘reduce’ the turbulent district of Clannaboy, in Ulster, and install English settlers. If successful the outcome would have been ‘advantageous’ to all involved, but the Earl’s mission was constantly delayed and impeded by his secret enemies. Denny, having sold his stock and part of his revenue to raise the £400 needed to ‘furnish’ himself for the trip, drew heavily on that amount while waiting in London to depart for Ireland. The ill-fated expedition finally set off in the summer of 1574, but for various reasons it turned out to be a complete failure.
Denny then appears to have done some ‘privateering’ on his own account, first by capturing a Spanish ship in 1577, and in 1578 taking a Flemish ship, the ‘Tennen’, off of Portland. That same year he joined a colonising venture to America under the leadership of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his step-brother Walter Raleigh, both of whom were sons of his mother’s sister Catherine and, consequently, his first cousins. But this expedition of discovery, initiated by Gilbert and sanctioned by Elizabeth I, was also a failure. One ship turned for home through lack of supplies after just two days, and two months later the remaining ships headed back to Plymouth after being severly hampered by storms, mutinees, sickness, and the deaths of many crew members.
In July 1580, at the Queen’s ‘suggestion’, both Denny and his cousin, Walter Raleigh, were put in charge of two hundred soldiers and sent to Ireland to put down the rebellion of the Earl of Desmond. Their fee was £100 each, but in September that year Denny was already expressing his dissatisfaction with the task. In a letter to his cousin, Sir Francis Walsingham, he wrote ‘I find alreadie my Ireland journey will rather decaie me quite, than amend me anything, and for this kind of service it is so graceless, so devoid of reputation – in respect of the service never seen; but it happens still in boggs, glinnes and woods, as in my opinion it might better fit mastives than brave gentlemen that desier to win honour’. Denny went on to say in his letter that he would only stay on in Ireland because of the love he bore towards Lord Grey. At that time Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton was the newly appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland – a close friend of Denny and connected to him by marriage*.
In November that year he was finally able to account for himself at Smerwick Bay when he assisted Lord Grey in the siege of Fort del Ore, held by a large body of Italian and Spanish mercenaries who were assisting the Irish rebellion. Denny and his company fought off four counter-attacks by the besieged mercenaries and eventually took their unconditional surrender.
For this action he was highly commended by Lord Grey and given the honour of delivering his dispatch announcing the capture of the fort to the Queen. In the Autumn of 1581 Denny was put in command of another expedition to Ireland, this time to quash the rebellious O’Tooles who held the mountains near Dublin. His success was such that he returned to England later that year with the head of their chieftain, Garret O’Toole, and the following January received formal thanks for his services from the Queen and Council.
Denny then seems to have been frequently employed by the Queen as her private messenger, and it was at court, in 1582, that he met Lady Margaret Edgecumbe. She came from the ancient family of Edgecumbes of Mount Edgecumbe in Cornwall, her parents being Pierce Edgecumbe MP, and Margaret Luttrell, whose own mother was a descendant of Edward I, and second cousin to both Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn. At the age of 18 Lady Margaret became a Maid of Honour to the Queen and within five years was one her majesty’s favourites.
Her acquaintance at court with Edward Denny led to marriage in 1583, or early the following year, and as a wedding present the Queen obtained from Richard, Bishop of London, a 21-year lease on Rectory Manor House to be assigned to Sir Edward.
In 1584, Denny made a bid for a seat in parliament as a knight of the shire but was defeated in the election. Afterwards he reverted to his interests in Hertfordshire, but in 1587 was granted possession of the castle at Tralee in southern Ireland, along with its six thousand acres of rich land, at a charge of £100 per annum payable to the Crown. This was part of Queen Elizabeth’s plan to improve England’s control of Ireland, and thousands of acres of land in Munster belonging to the Earl of Desmond were confiscated (including the castle of Tralee which had been the Desmonds chief seat for nearly 400 years). Other notable Englishmen received land on similar terms and conditions, including Sir Walter Raleigh (knighted in 1585). The land was to act as a plantation for the settlement of English farmers, who paid a nominal rent, and became known as the Munster Plantation.
The following year (1588) Denny’s previous service in Ireland was rewarded when Sir William Fitzwilliam, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, dubbed him Knight Banneret of Bishop’s Stortford.
1588 was also the year of the Spanish Armada and King Philip II’s attempt to invade England. What he hadn’t bargained on was the English navy’s superior battle tactics and bad weather in the English Channel. The Armada was beaten off and any remaining ships chased into the North Sea where they continued to sail around the coast of Scotland in a desperate attempt to get back to Spain. Had it not been for a violent storm off the Irish coast, near Tralee, they probably would have made it, but most of the ships were wrecked and Edward’s wife, the Lady Margaret, ably assisted in capturing many Spaniards who made it ashore.
Sir Edward, by this time High Sheriff of County Kerry, had been in Dublin at the time of the incident but a neighbouring Englishmen, Sir William Herbert, accused him of seizing for himself the treasure of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, cast up by the wreck of the Spanish High Admiral’s flag-ship near Tralee. This was untrue but Herbert, it seems, had had no liking for Denny from the time he arrived at Tralee. To allay the situation Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of the Province of Connaught, offered to resign his office in favour of Denny taking his position. An agreement between them was struck and the details later confirmed before Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam.
Denny then returned to England to gain consent for the unopposed position of Governor but, for reasons unknown, never took up the post and was soon back serving in Northern Ireland. From there he returned to Kerry and shortly after sailed for England with his wife and young family aboard a ship captained by George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland. The Earl had put in at Dingle to take on water and provisions on his return from the Azores.
Where the Denny family settled in England isn’t recorded, but wherever it was his stay was brief. In 1591, at the Queen’s command, Sir Edward was employed on naval service as commander of relief ships sent to Admiral Lord Thomas Howard, at that time in the Azores looking for Spanish treasure ships.
But by now the Munster plantation in Ireland had proved a failure, and on his return to dry land Sir Edward found his property at Tralee had become an unprofitable burden on his resources. His debt in non-payment of rent to the Exchequer was substantial, but with friends in ‘high places’ the debt was waived in 1592.
A further bid for parliament in 1593 resulted in yet another defeat, this time by a protégée of the Earl of Leicester (Robert Dudley). Despite this, his ambition was finally realised in 1595 when he became MP for a Cornish borough – coincidently the same county from which both his mother and wife had originated.
It would seem, though, that his finances were not all they should have been at this time and that Queen Elizabeth probably gave him a helping hand. Records of 1595 show that the deceased bishop of London made, ‘by her majesty’s appointment’, a ‘gratification’ of £500 out of Starford [sic] to Sir Edward Denny, and on 17 October that same year an assignment was made to him of the Manor of Stortford to take effect on 5 November 1614. Such a ‘gift’ would certainly have made him financially secure in old age.
But in 1598 Edward’s Irish estate was lost to the rebellious Earl of Tyrone, and on 12 february 1599 he died, aged 52, from what was said to be a sickness acquired while ‘in his countrie’s service’s’ [sic]. His body was laid to rest at Waltham Abbey church in Essex – near to his birthplace – and Lady Margaret had a stately monument erected within the church to his memory.
Due to events between the year they were married and his death in February 1599, it’s possible the Dennys never actually lived in Rectory manor house as a couple. Margaret Denny isn’t recorded as taking up residence until 1600 – the year administration of the property was granted to her – but she did continued to live there for the next 48 years.
Margaret Denny lived an eventful and colourful life with her husband and continued to do so long after his death. In 1614 her brother’s son, Thomas Edgecumbe, died in Rectory manor house, and in 1642 she gave shelter to her grandson’s widow (Lady Ruth Denny) and her seven children after they fled the Rebellion in Ireland.
That same year saw the start of the English Civil War (1642–1646) and soon after the first major conflict at Edgehill, King Charles I came to Bishop’s Stortford to visit Margaret Denny at this house. In recognition of her loyalty and that of her family, he gave her a charter of protection, signed and dated 19 December 1642, which read:
‘Our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby signifi, charge and commande all our Colonels, Lieutenant-Colonels and Captains, and all their officers and souldiers of our army whatever, that they shall not do, or suffer to be done any act of force or violence, or offer any interruption or disturbance whatever to the Lady Denny, her Family, goods, or Manor House, being Stortford Manor House or parsonage, in the parish of Stortford, in our county of Hertford. Herein fail you not, as you would incur our heartiest displeasure, and will every one of you answer at your uttermost peril’. Being an ardent loyalist – the only one of any note in the town of Bishop’s Stortford – Cromwellian soldiers were stationed at the house for the duration of the war.
Margaret Denny died on 24 April 1648, aged 88. After the expense of taking in and caring for her grandson’s widow and seven children in 1642, she abandoned her original wish to be buried alongside her husband at Waltham Abbey and requested in her will that ‘cost be spared and my body be buried in Stortford Chauncell’.
The above text is taken, in part, from ‘Biography of Sir Edward Denny’ compiled for the ‘Hertfordshire Directory of Biography’ by Rev H.L.L. Denny BA, 1905.
*Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton’s sister was the wife of Edward Denny’s elder brother Henry.
*Sir Edward Denny had seven sons and three daughters:
Arthur Denny, of Tralee, born 1584, married Elizabeth Forrest; father of Sir Edward Denny, born 1605, who, on the death of his son Sir Edward Denny, Earl of Norwich, in 1637, who had no heirs, became head of the Denny family and from whom the present family is descended.
Francis Denny M.D., who died unmarried, aged 63;
Henry Denny, of Bishop’s Stortford, whose heirs became extinct in the third generation;
Anthony Denny, who died in infancy;
Anthony Denny, of Bishop’s Stortford, died April 1662, aged 71; his male heirs became extinct but was represented in the female line by the Brome family, formerly of Bishop’s Stortford.
Thomas Denny, died unmarried;
Rev Charles Denny M.A., Senior Fellow of King’s College Cambridge, died 29 December 1635;
Elizabeth Denny, eldest daughter, married Christopher Erie of Topsfield, Essex;
Honora Denny, died young, buried in Wormley Church, Hertfordshire;
Marie Denny, married 1634, Richard Harlakenden of Earls Colne, Essex; High Sheriff of Hertfordshire 1646, died 29 November 1678, having had two daughters.