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Sir  John Denham (1614/15–1669), by unknown artist, c.1661Sir John Denham (1614/15–1669), by unknown artist, c.1661
Denham, Sir John (1614/15–1669), poet and courtier, was probably born in Dublin, the only son of , judge, and his second wife, Eleanor (d. 1619), daughter of Gerald, or Garret, Moore, Baron Moore of Mellefont and first Viscount Drogheda. His father, some fifty-six years his senior, was then serving as chief justice of the king's bench in Ireland. In October 1619, two years after their return to England, Lady Denham died after giving birth to a stillborn daughter and was buried at Egham in Surrey.

Early life and works, 1631–1640

On 26 April 1631 Denham was enrolled at Lincoln's Inn and on 18 November following matriculated as fellow-commoner from Trinity College, Oxford, aged sixteen; his autograph subscription describes him as a son of Sir John of Little Horseley, Essex. John Aubrey, to whom is owed most of the surviving anecdotal information about Denham, was told by his college contemporary Josias Howe that he had been ‘the dreamingst young fellow; he never expected such things from him as he haz left the world’ (Brief Lives, 1.217). Denham's great vice was to ‘game extremely’ (ibid.), and he was rebuked in chapel by the president of the college, Ralph Kettel, for not repaying a loan from the recorder of Oxford. Wood asserts that he performed the exercises for the BA, but did not graduate. On 25 June 1634 he married, at St Bride's, Fleet Street, Anne (d. c.1647), one of the two daughters of Don Cotton and coheir of her grandfather Ralph Cotton of Whittington, Gloucestershire. She brought with her the Buckinghamshire manor of Horsenden. They had at least two sons and two daughters.

Denham then applied himself to the study of common law. Judge Wadham Windham, his senior by three years at Lincoln's Inn, recalled that he was ‘as good a student as any in the house’, though ‘not suspected to be a witt’ (Brief Lives, 1.217). A drunken prank of painting out all the signs between Temple Bar and Charing Cross, which ‘cost him … some moneys’, was recalled by ‘R. Estcott, esq., that carried the inke-pott’ (ibid.). Aubrey records that parental disapproval of his addiction to cards and dice led him to write the brief tract that was printed anonymously in April 1651 as The anatomy of play: written by a worthy and learned gent.: dedicated to his father, to shew his detestation of it. His earliest known literary venture is the translation of books 2–6 of Virgil's Aeneid that he made in 1636, which was not published until 1656.

Denham and his family lived with his father at the manor house of Imworth in Egham. The burial of one of Denham's sons in Egham on 28 August 1638 was followed by the death of Denham's father on 6 January 1639. On 29 January that year Denham was called to the bar. Despite the income from eight inherited estates in Surrey, Essex, and Suffolk worth upwards of £10,000, in less than twelve months he had run up gambling debts of £4500 and over the next four years sold or mortgaged several properties.

Royalist writer and agent, 1641–1659

In March 1641 Denham was called upon as a witness for the defence of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, on whose death in May he wrote, but did not publish, an elegy. His true début as poet and dramatist came about on the very eve of civil war with Cooper's Hill and The sophy, issued anonymously early in August 1642, of which the poet Edmund Waller famously remarked that he ‘broke-out like the Irish Rebellion—threescore thousand strong before anybody was aware’ (Brief Lives, 1.217). The sophy, a verse tragedy based on events in Persia under the tyrannic Shah Abbas I (d. 1628), was advertised as having been acted ‘with success’ (DNB) by the king's company at Blackfriars. In Cooper's Hill the prospect from a Thames-side viewpoint at Egham is made the occasion for historical and moral reflections on kingship at a critical juncture in English history. The poem, which shows the influence of some then unprinted verses by Waller, was praised by fellow poet Robert Herrick and pronounced by John Dryden ‘the exact Standard of good Writing’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.825). As an early instance of the topographical reflective genre and in its development of the closed couplet it looks forward to the Augustans. It was progressively revised, translated into Latin in 1667 by Moses Pengry, and long remained one of the most famous poems in the language.

On 10 November 1642 Denham, then sheriff of Surrey, briefly took possession of Farnham Castle for the king, following withdrawal of the parliamentary garrison under the aged poet George Wither. The removal of goods allegedly worth £2000 from Wither's house by members of the occupying force led the older poet to spend fifteen years seeking reparation from the younger. Farnham surrendered after three weeks and Denham was sent prisoner to London. On his release in March 1643 he published Mr Hampdens speech occasioned upon the Londoners petition for peace, a satire in rhyming verse, and, leaving his wife about to give birth at Imworth, he joined the cavaliers in Oxford where he brought out a new edition of Cooper's Hill and wrote anti-parliamentary ballads. Articles of peace drawn up in November 1644 stipulated his removal from the royal counsels. While his creditors continued to pursue him and parliament early in 1645 ordered the sale of his goods he persisted in his old habits, losing £200 at ‘New-cutt’ in a single night (Brief Lives, 1.218). Taken in January 1646 at the surrender of Dartmouth, on the journey to London he managed to impress the Independent minister Hugh Peters. The Commons exchanged him for a prisoner held at Exeter, but although discharged from the king's bench he was briefly re-arrested for debt.

Following his release in May 1646 Denham retired to the continent and spent some months in Paris with Henrietta Maria, who sent him to attend Charles I in captivity: the Lords' pass for him to return to compound for his estates is dated 24 March 1647. At some time before May his wife died, and in July through the influence of Peters he obtained access to the king at Caversham. Charles, who had seen his commendatory verses in Richard Fanshawe's Il pastor fido, urged him to give up poetry now that he was ‘thought fit for more serious Employments’ (J. Denham, ‘Epistle’, Poems, 1668). Later in the month Denham was one of the eleven-member council convened at Woburn to answer the army's proposals, but when the king fled from Hampton Court in November he had orders to remain in London as agent for royal correspondence, being ‘furnisht with nine several Cyphers in order to it’ (Kelliher, 5). Then and for some years afterwards he figured in royalist documents under various pseudonyms. In December he delivered his petition to compound, and parliament left him relatively unmolested in London until about August 1648, when his role was ‘discovered by their knowledge of Mr. Cowleys hand’ (J. Denham, ‘Epistle’, Poems, 1668). He fled to The Hague to join the prince of Wales, who soon afterwards appointed him to negotiate for the aid of the Scots. In the spring he was acting as courier between Charles, now king, and his mother: Henrietta Maria's signed instructions to him of 10 May 1649 are copied in Abraham Cowley's hand. In June he contributed an elegy to the Lachrymae musarum published in England on the death of Lord Hastings, and at the Louvre until mid-September wrote verses ‘to divert and put off the evil hours of our banishment’ (ibid.) on subjects proposed by Charles.

In April 1650 one fifth of Denham's estate was ordered to be paid to Colonel John Fielder as guardian to his two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, and son John, who is last heard of as enrolling at Wadham College, Oxford, in July 1654. About June Denham left the exiled court at Breda with William, Lord Crofts, on a mission to raise money from Charles's Scottish subjects resident in Poland. By their return in autumn 1651 they had collected £10,000; disposal of the money was discussed in two letters that Denham wrote to Lady Isabella Thynne at Paris that winter. He continued to lose at play, wrote ribald ballads on his fellow exiles Thomas Killigrew and Sir John Mennes, and may have been cured of disfiguring venereal disease. Lack of money drove him to return to England in March 1653 to face a committee of the council of state, a member of which, Philip Herbert, sixth earl of Pembroke, entertained him over the year that followed in London and at Wilton, where Aubrey first made his acquaintance. By September his new found favour with the regime was known in Paris, where a spy of Thurloe's could write of him as ‘the state's poet’ (Thurloe, State papers, 1.471). In April appeared Certain verses written by severall of the authors friends, a series of mock commendatory poems on Sir William Davenant's Gondibert (1651), of which eight were the unsigned work of Denham. Along with a new version of Cooper's Hill (1653, 1655), emended to suit the changing political climate, he published a revised translation of book 2 of The Aeneid as The Destruction of Troy (February 1656), claiming it to represent a ‘new way of translating this Author’ (J. Denham, preface, Destruction of Troy, 1656) in the non-literal manner which he had praised in Fanshawe, and according to Aubrey wrote and then burnt a burlesque of Virgil. On 9 June 1655 he was banished from London on suspicion of conspiracy, but three days later John Evelyn was asked by his friend Thomas Henshaw to endorse Denham as ‘the fittest man … in England’ for a post in the household of the earl of Northumberland (BL, Add. MS 78311). In October 1656 Denham and his son called on Sir Richard Browne in Paris and in June 1657 he was at Brussels with the duke of Buckingham. The following March he obtained a licence from Cromwell to live at Bury St Edmunds, and on 24 September was granted a passport to go abroad with Pembroke's heir, William, Lord Herbert. By mid-November he was attempting to mediate between Charles II and the new protector, later joining Aubrey de Vere, earl of Oxford, in opposition to Lord Mordaunt's attempts to promote conspiracy. In May 1659 he published in broadside a scurrilous anti-Quaker ballad later reprinted as ‘News from Colchester’. Although Sir Edward Hyde's lingering suspicion of his connections with Henrietta Maria's party still stood in the way of complete trust, Denham's correspondence with the king early the next year shows him trying to form a party to restore the king, and he was still negotiating with parliamentary factions on the eve of the Restoration.

Surveyor of the works and MP

In May 1660 Denham was confirmed in the post, which had been spontaneously offered to him at St Germain in 1649, of surveyor of works, despite a petition from John Webb, nephew and assistant of the previous holder, Inigo Jones. It thus fell to him in April 1661 to make the physical arrangements for the coronation, at which he figured among sixty-eight new knights of the Bath. In the same month Pembroke's interest secured him a seat for the borough of Old Sarum in the new parliament, and on 20 May 1663 he was elected as one of the first fellows of the Royal Society. As surveyor he lacked the practical skills of an architect: in the dedication to Denham of his translation of Fréart's Parallel (1664) Evelyn, whose advice on the siting of the new Greenwich Palace he rejected, praised him merely for paving the streets of Holborn. Yet he proved an active and competent administrator and left Webb to superintend building work on the royal palaces. In March 1661 he leased land adjoining his office in Scotland Yard for a building of twenty rooms that he let out for rent, and in 1665 built Burlington House. Aubrey reports that he ‘gott seaven thousand pounds, as Sir Christopher Wren told me of, to his owne knowledge’ (Brief Lives, 2.219) on an official salary of only £382. In the Commons, which he attended regularly over eleven sessions as an adherent of the court party, he sat on sixty-two committees, though none of any political importance. Wither's committal to the Tower in April 1662 for publishing a seditious pamphlet may have given rise to the story of Denham's seeking his pardon on the ground that while Wither lived he himself ‘should not be the worst poet in England’ (ibid., 221).

On 25 May 1665 in Westminster Abbey Denham, then fifty years of age, ‘ancient and limping’ (Brief Lives, 1.219), married Margaret (1641/2–1667), daughter of Sir William Brooke, and a beauty some twenty-seven years his junior. Six days earlier, as coheir of the last lord Cobham, she had been granted the precedency due to a baron's daughter. From summer, when the great plague struck London, to October, when parliament convened at Oxford, the couple may have been absent from the capital. Early in the following March Denham's lameness led him to be summoned by the king to test the healing abilities of Valentine Greatrakes. Soon after, while in the west country to inspect the Portland stone quarries, he fell dangerously ill; Lady Denham left London on 7 April to be with him. By the 14th it was said that the ‘great master of wit and reason, is fallen quite mad, and he who despised religion, now in his distraction raves of nothing else’ (Ormonde MSS, new ser., 3.217). Rumour attributed his derangement to jealousy at his wife's very public affair with the duke of York, whom Pepys on 10 June reported to be already ‘wholly given up’ to it (Pepys, 7.158), visiting her with his retinue at Scotland Yard. By 22 September Denham had resumed his official duties, and though said not to have ‘recovered his former understanding in any measure, yet spoke very good sense’ in debate on 13 October (Bodl. Oxf., Carte MS 35, fol. 101). In his mock ‘Panegyric upon Sir John Denham's recovery from his madness’, Samuel Butler savagely attacked him for literary plagiarism, peculation, gambling, and faults of character. By November, when the duke's passion had abated, Lady Denham in turn was sick. Pepys noted that she ‘says, and everybody else discourses, that she is poysoned’ (Pepys, 7.365), while gossip fastened on a cup of ‘mortal Chocolate’ (A. Marvell, Last Instructions, 1667, 1.342) administered through the duchess of York's agency (CSP dom., 1666–7, 262–3). After rallying awhile Lady Denham died on 6 January 1667, when an autopsy performed by her own wish found her free from venom (A Collection of the State Letters of … Roger Boyle, First Earl of Orrery, ed. T. Morrice, 1742, 219), and, as Pepys sceptically added, still a virgin. She was buried three days later in Westminster Abbey. No credence need be given to the fanciful account in Anthony Hamilton's Memoirs of the comte de Grammont (1713) or to the scurrilous story preserved by Oldys that Denham contracted syphilis in order to pass it on to the duke.

In September 1667 it was reported that like his friend and fellow courtier Edmund Waller, ‘poor Sir John Denham is fallen to the ladies also. He is at many of the meetings at dinner, talks more than ever he did, and is extremely pleased with those that seem willing to hear him’ (W. Temple, The Works of Sir William Temple, new edn, 4 vols., 1814, 1.459). When the Commons reconvened in October, besides allegedly proclaiming the merits of the newly published Paradise Lost there, Denham opposed the bill for further penalties on recusants by citing a tale of Boccaccio, and on 7 November, during the attack on the lord chancellor, Clarendon, made ‘a most rational and excellent speech’ (Diary of John Milward, 104–5, 116). Late in the year appeared a pamphlet entitled Directions to a painter … being the last works of Sir John Denham. This included four pieces in the advice-to-a-painter mode recently introduced by Waller. Denham's authorship of the Second advice (c.June 1666), an attack on the conduct of the Second Anglo-Dutch War that alluded in passing to his wife's affair, was strenuously denied in his friend Christopher Wase's poem ‘Divination’, and he is not nowadays thought to have had a hand in any of them. His pen, however, had not been idle. By the time that he registered his elegy on Cowley, a mere twelve days after the latter's funeral on 3 August 1667, plans for a collected edition of his poems were already forming. The project did not come to fruition until the following February, a month in which the court witnessed a sumptuous performance of Corneille's Horace in a translation by Katherine Phillips that Denham had been persuaded to complete. In Poems and Translations (1668), which comprised twenty-five pieces, fourteen of them printed for the first time, he claimed that, true to his promise to Charles I, he had not taken up writing poetry until the previous summer at ‘the Wells’, instancing his translation of two fifteenth-century Latin moralizing poems. These, with another didactic piece, ‘The progress of learning’, and a revised version of The sophy conclude the incomplete and oddly haphazard collection that remained the basis for all editions until that of T. H. Banks in 1928, revised in 1969. Denham's own copy incorporates autograph texts of an elegy on Davenant's death on 7 April 1668, along with eleven satires of which eight had been printed anonymously in the Gondibert volume. In the same year his Version of the Psalms of David, unprinted until 1714, came to the notice of Samuel Woodford, a former contemporary of Denham's son at Wadham. The final months of his life saw the publication of his Cato Major of old age (1669), a loose verse translation of Cicero's De senectute, while some mock commendatory verses appeared in Edward Howard's British princes in Easter term. A century later Johnson summed him up as, by virtue of Cooper's Hill, one of the founding fathers of English poetry, commenting on his talent for ‘grave burlesque’ and reflective poetry (Johnson).

Denham's last official act, on 6 March 1669, was to ensure the appointment of Wren as his successor in the surveyorship. He died in Scotland Yard on 19 March and was buried four days later among the poets in the abbey, ‘at night and without pomp’ (BL, Add. MS 36988, fol. 91). His passing was strangely unlamented, the sole known elegy, by Wase, surviving only in manuscript. Aubrey described him as ‘of the tallest’ but slightly bent at the shoulders, not very robust, with a stalking gait and piercing grey eyes that ‘look't into your very thoughts’ (Brief Lives, 1.220). His will, dated 13 March 1669, affirmed his Anglican faith and named as one of its overseers Sir John Birkenhead, the ‘J. B.’ of the address printed in the 1655 edition of Cooper's Hill. The will was proved on 9 May by his unmarried daughter Elizabeth, to whom he left the lease of Scotland Yard, worth about £440 a year, from which sums were to be set aside for the education of his eldest grandson, John Morley (d. 1683), child of his daughter Anne and her husband Sir William Morley. To the new St Paul's he donated £100 and all the fees that he had received for rebuilding the old cathedral before the fire. Other grandchildren also received bequests, but all dying without issue his line became extinct. An inventory taken on 24 June records, besides almost £1000 owing to his estate, household goods and money estimated at £382 and ‘bookes valued at £5-0-0’.

W. H. Kelliher


B. O Hehir, Harmony from discords: a life of Sir John Denham (1968) · B. O Hehir, Expans'd hieroglyphics: a critical edition of Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill (1969) · The poetical works of Sir John Denham, ed. T. H. Banks, 2nd edn (1969) · Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, 2 vols. (1898) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn · G. Langbaine, An account of the English dramatick poets (1691), annotated copy, BL, C.45.d.14 · H. Berry, ‘Sir John Denham at law’, Modern Philology, 71 (1974), 266–76 · W. H. Kelliher, ‘John Denham: new letters and documents’, British Library Journal (spring 1986), 1–20 · J. G. Nichols and J. Bruce, eds., Wills from Doctors’ Commons, CS, old ser., 83 (1863) · J. P. Ferris, ‘Denham, John’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90 · The diary of John Milward, ed. C. Robbins (1938) · P. Beal and others, Index of English literary manuscripts, ed. P. J. Croft and others, [4 vols. in 11 pts] (1980–) · J. Maclean and W. C. Heane, eds., The visitation of the county of Gloucester taken in the year 1623, Harleian Society, 21 (1885) · H. M. Colvin, ed., The history of the king's works, 6 vols. (1963–82) · S. Johnson, Life of Denham (1779) · R. Fréart, A parallel of the antient architecture with the modern, ed. and trans. J. Evelyn (1664) · Pepys, Diary · Thurloe, State papers, vol. 1 · Calendar of the manuscripts of the marquess of Ormonde, new ser., 8 vols., HMC, 36 (1902–20), vol. 3 · GEC, Peerage, new edn · BL, Add. MS 36988, fol. 91; Add. MS 78200 · inventory, TNA: PRO, PROB 32 8/45


NRA, letters and literary MSS · Yale U., MS poems


portrait, c.1661, U. Lond., Sterling Library [see illus.] · J. Collyer, line engraving, 1779, BM, NPG; repro. in Johnson, Life of Denham · L. Legouse, stipple, 1808, BM, NPG; repro. in J. Denham, Memoirs of Count Garamont (1808) · Restoration artist , oils, NPG