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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. 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.
He married firstly in 1634 Ann Cotton, 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. His unhappy second marriage was the cause of much gossip, and Margaret's sudden death in 1667 gave rise to unfounded rumours that he had poisoned her.
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.”
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." 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.
Denham in 1665 made an unhappy second marriage to Margaret Brooke, a beautiful girl almost thirty years his junior, who conducted a very public affair with the future King James II. 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. In any case rumour named several other possible poisoners, including James, his wife Anne Hyde and his sister-in-law, Lady Rochester.
His last years were clouded by dementia. 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. He was survived by his daughters, Elizabeth, who never married, and Anne, who married Sir William Morley, by whom she had a daughter Mary, who married James Stanley, 10th Earl of Derby.
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 round 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."
- John Aubrey, Brief Lives (ed. Andrew Clark), Volume I (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898), at page 221
- 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.
- Diary of Samuel Pepys 10 November 1666, 7 January 1667
- 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.
- Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746-1773 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 166.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
- H.M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 (1997) ISBN 0-300-07207-4
- Kelliher, W. H. (January 2008). "Denham, Sir John (1614/15–1669)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7481. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
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With: Edward Nicholas