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Sir John Denham

Sir John Denham FRS (1614 or 1615 – 19 March 1669) was an Anglo-Irish poet and courtier. He served as Surveyor of the King's Works and is buried in Westminster Abbey.[1]

Early life

Denham was born in Dublin to Sir John Denham, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, and his second wife, Eleanor Moore, daughter of Garret Moore, 1st Viscount Moore and his wife, Mary Colley. His father was a native of London; the family later settled at Egham in Surrey. His mother died in childbirth when he was about five years old. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and at Lincoln's Inn in London. He was an indifferent student, and was notorious for heavy gambling, which was a source of much worry to his father. There is no evidence that he took his degree at Trinity.


He married firstly, in 1634, Ann Cotton, of a wealthy Gloucestershire family, by whom he had three children, a son who died young and two daughters who reached adulthood. He married secondly in 1665 Margaret Brooke (1642-1667), daughter of Sir William Brooke and his second wife Penelope Hill, and half-sister of the leading statesman Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford. His unhappy second marriage was the cause of much gossip, and Margaret's sudden death in 1667 gave rise to a widespread suspicion, probably unfounded, that he had poisoned her.

His first wife came from a wealthy family, but he seems to have run through her money quickly. His losses from gambling ran to several thousand pounds, although in the 1630s he made some effort to reform. On his father's death in 1639 he inherited the family estate at Egham. He proceeded to go on one more gambling spree, and again lost several thousand.

Civil War

In his earlier years, Denham suffered for his Royalism; during the English Civil War, he was appointed High Sheriff of Surrey (for 1642) and governor of Farnham Castle. Farnham quickly fell to the Parliamentary forces and Denham was sent a prisoner to London, but was soon released. He spent the next five years in Oxford, where he enjoyed the trust and confidence of Charles I During the abortive peace negotiations of 1646, Parliament listed him as one of those who must be excluded from the King's counsels. In 1648 he joined the Court in exile, and spent the next four years abroad. He returned to England in 1652 to find that his lands had been sold; for a time he was almost penniless, until he acquired the protection of Philip Herbert, 5th Earl of Pembroke. The authorities, worried by his frequent visits to London, ordered him to choose a residence more than twenty miles from the capital, which he was not to leave. He settled at Bury St. Edmunds.

John Aubrey recorded a story of this period which reflects well on Denham's wit and generosity of spirit:

“In the time of the civill warres, George Withers, the poet, begged Sir John Denham's estate at Egham of the Parliament, in whose cause he was a captaine of horse. It happened that G. W. was taken prisoner, and was in danger of his life, having written severely against the king, &c. Sir John Denham went to the king, and desired his majestie not to hang him, for that whilest G. W. lived he should not be the worst poet in England.”[2]

After 1660

Denham became a Member of Parliament for Old Sarum in 1661, became a Fellow of the Royal Society on 20 May 1663, and became a Knight of the Bath. He received substantial grants of land in compensation for his forfeited estates. He built or commissioned the original Burlington House in Piccadilly in about 1665.

After the Restoration Denham became Surveyor of the King's Works, probably due to his earlier political services rather than for any aptitude as an architect. John Webb, who, as Inigo Jones's deputy undoubtedly had the competence to have served in the post, complained that "though Mr. Denham may, as most gentry, have some knowledge of the theory of architecture, he can have none of the practice and must employ another".[3] There is no evidence that he personally designed any buildings, although he seems to have been a competent administrator; he may, however, have played some part in the design of his own home, Burlington House. John Webb was appointed Denham's deputy by 1664 and did Denham's work at Greenwich (from 1666) and elsewhere.

Second marriage to Margaret Brooke

Denham's second wife Margaret Brooke, painted by Peter Lely.

Denham in 1665 made an unhappy second marriage to Margaret Brooke, a beautiful young woman almost thirty years his junior, who conducted a very public affair with the future King James II. To her husband's mortification, she insisted on being acknowledged publicly as a Royal mistress, saying that she would not, unlike her predecessor Goditha Price (daughter of Sir Herbert Price, the Master of the Household), "go up and down the back stairs, but would be owned publicly".[4] When she died in January 1667 after a short illness, Denham was rumoured, by Samuel Pepys among others, to have murdered her by giving her a poisoned cup of chocolate, although the autopsy found no trace of poison, and she had been seriously ill the previous year. In any case, rumour named several other possible poisoners, including James, his wife Anne Hyde and his sister-in-law, Lady Rochester.[5]

Last years, death, and children

His last years were clouded by dementia. He had long been rumoured to be insane, a condition generally attributed to his scandalous marriage, and later the hostility of the London public, which regarded him as a murderer, and he became a virtual recluse. With Denham's increasing mental incapacity, Charles II requested in March 1669 that Christopher Wren be appointed Denham's "sole deputy"; Wren succeeded him as King's Surveyor upon his death two weeks later. Denham was buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The public suspicion about his role in his wife's death continued to the end of his life. He was survived by his daughters, Elizabeth, who married Sir Thomas Arden Price in 1675 but died childless, and Anne, who married Sir William Morley of Halnaker, by whom she had two sons who died young and a daughter Mary, who married James Stanley, 10th Earl of Derby, but had no surviving issue.


Denham began his literary career with a tragedy, The Sophy (1641), but his poem, Cooper's Hill (1642), is the work by which he is remembered. It is the first example in English of a poem devoted to local description, picturing the Thames Valley scenery around his home at Egham in Surrey. Denham wrote many versions of this poem, reflecting the political and cultural upheavals of the Civil War.

Gilfillan wrote of Denham and his contemporary Edmund Waller: "Neither Denham nor Waller were great poets; but they have produced lines and verses so good, and have, besides, exerted an influence so considerable on modern versification, and the style of poetical utterance, that they are entitled to a highly respectable place amidst the sons of British song."[6]

He also received extravagant praise from Samuel Johnson, who quoted Denham's verse to exemplify the use of several words;[7] but the place now assigned to him is more humble.


  1. ^ 'The Abbey Scientists' Hall, A.R. p12: London; Roger & Robert Nicholson; 1966
  2. ^ John Aubrey, Brief Lives (ed. Andrew Clark), Volume I (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898), at page 221
  3. ^ Quoted in Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd ed. (Yale University Press), 1995, s.v. "Denham, Sir John;" Denham has a brief entry ex officio.
  4. ^ Diary of Samuel Pepys 10 June 1666
  5. ^ Diary of Samuel Pepys 10 November 1666, 7 January 1667
  6. ^ George Gilfillan, "Life of Sir John Denham", in The Poetical Works of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham, ed. George Gilfillan (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1857), p. 203.
  7. ^ Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746-1773 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 166.

External links

6 Annotations

First Reading

vincent  •  Link

1615-69, English poet and dramatist. His fame rests largely on two works: Cooper's Hill (1642), a topographical poem, combining descriptions of scenery with moral reflections, and The Sophy, a historical tragedy of the Turkish court, acted in 1641. He served the royalists during the Puritan revolution and as a result was made surveyor general of the royal works. He was knighted in 1661.…

He was born at Dublin in 1615; the only son of Sir John Denham, of Little Horsely in Essex ....more..…

159 My eye, descending from the hill, surveys
160Where Thames amongst the wanton valleys strays;
161Thames, the most lov'd of all the Ocean's sons
162By his old sire, to his embraces runs,
163Hasting to pay his tribute to the sea,
164Like mortal life to meet eternity.
165Though with those streams he no resemblance hold…

David Quidnunc  •  Link

A passage from one of his poems:

From "Directions to a Painter Concerning the Dutch War," 1667 -- the passage is about Charles Berkeley.…

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

John Denham, created at the Restoration K.B., and Surveyor-General of the Works; better known as the author of Cooper's Hill. Ob. 1668.
---Diary and correspondence of Samuel Pepys, the diary deciphered by J. Smith. 1854.

Bill  •  Link

John Denham, son of Sir John Denham, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in Ireland, born at Dublin in 1615, appointed at the Restoration Surveyor-General of the Works, and created a Knight of the Bath at the Coronation of Charles II.; better known as the author of "Cooper's Hill." He was one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society. His troubles with his second wife are related further on in the Diary. He died March, 1668-9, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
---Wheatley (1894).

Bill  •  Link

DENHAM, Sir JOHN (1615-1669), poet; son of Sir John Denham (1559-1639); matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, 1631; studied law at Lincoln's Inn; published 'The Sophy,' an historical tragedy, 1642; compelled to surrender Farnham Castle, of which he was governor, to Sir William Waller, 1642; published 'Cooper's Hill,' his best-known poem, 1642; petitioned Charles to pardon Wither, of whose poems Denham thought meanly; councillor of Charles I, and attendant of Henrietta Maria at Paris; sent to Holland with a letter of Instructions for Charles II, 1649; published a translation of Virgil's 'Aeneid II,' 1656; licensed by Cromwell to live at Bury in Suffolk, 1658: surveyor-general of works, 1660; K.B., 1661; became mad for a short period, 1666, in consequence of the faithlessness of his second wife. Lady Margaret Denham; lampooned by Samuel Butler, author of 'Hudibras,' 1667; published occasional verses and satires. His 'Cooper's Hill' is the earliest example of strictly descriptive poetry in English.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Sir John Denham (1615 – 1669) MP FRS was a poet, a courtier, a spy, a Sheriff of Surrey and represented Old Sarum (near Salisbury) in the House of Commons from 1661 - 1669, so at least half of his interestng biography there is about his activities as a Royalist before and during the Civil Wars and Interregnum.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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