Elizabeth Denton or Elizabeth Jerningham as she was when she was born was appointed as Lady Governess to the infant Prince Henry in 1491. She also looked after his younger sister Mary until the queen appointed the child’s own lady governess. Elizabeth continued to be a part of Elizabeth of York’s household until the queen’s death on 11 February 1503.
King Henry VIII showed his affection for his former lady governess with gifts of a tun of Gascon wine each year and appointment as keeper, for life, his Coldharbour, one of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s homes, soon after he became king. In 1515 she was granted an annuity of £50 for her service to the Tudors. The gifts led to Philippa Gregory portraying Elizabeth as the first of Henry’s mistresses. It seems unlikely, but not impossible, that Henry would have wanted a former mistress looking after his own daughter! She next appears as Lady Governess in 1516 caring for Mary Tudor. Also, as Amy Licence observes, the suggestion rests wholly on the grants.
Elizabeth’s family was part of the Suffolk gentry but their service to the Tudors saw them rise during Elizabeth’s life time marrying into the Dacre and Stanhope families. She was distantly related by to Anne Stanhope, the wife of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. And her family served the king in other capacities. One of her brothers, Richard Jerningham, was a Gentleman of the Chamber and is recorded as being sent to Germany in 1511 to buy armour on Henry’s behalf.
So who was Elizabeth Denton?
She was the daughter of Sir John Jerningham of Somerleyton Hall near Lowestoft in Suffolk who died in 1474 and his wife Agnes Darell. (Image from https://www.somerleyton.co.uk) Her half-brother, Edward[i], inherited the bulk of his father’s estate but under the terms of Sir John’s will, upon the death of her brother Osberne, she was to inherit the manor of ‘Little Worlingham with all the commodities etc. within the towns of Little Worlingham, Cove, Ellough and Great Worlingham . . . and in default to Elizabeth Denton, my daughter, for life, and after to Walter Denton, her son for life, and after to be sold.’ The date indicates that she was significantly older than Henry – so unlikely to be mistress material for a man who was known to like a younger woman.
Elizabeth was married before she entered royal service, potentially to John Denton, but very little is known about her family except that she had a son called Walter. By 1515 she was a widow and was granted an annuity by Henry who continued to be fond of her. Elizabeth recognised that her time was running out. She had become a tenant at Blackfriar’s Priory and erected a tomb for herself there. Her will, dated April 26 1518 stipulated that she was to be buried near the staned glass window which featured St Thomas Aquinas. She ensured her last resting place with gifts to the monastic community:
To the Prior 20s. to the Sub-prior 10s. to Frier Simond 20s. to Frier De la hay, 10s. to every other Firer of the said Place, that is a Priest, and shall be within the said Place at the time of my burying, 2s. To every of the Novices of the same Place 12d. To the intent of the same Prior, etc, shall pray for the Soul of my late Husband, my Soul, and all Christen Souls. (John Strype’s Survey of London and Lady Elizabeth Denton’s will Guildhall Labrary S 9171/15 f/108v.)
The content of the will is conventional and it is perhaps not surprising that Elizabeth Denton was a pious woman given the piety of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Her eldest brother’s family continued in their Catholic beliefs after Elizabeth I ascended the throne and chose to emigrate to America rather than conform.
Licence, Amy, The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. (p.XLII)
Suckling, Alfred, The History and Antiquities of the County of Suffolk, (London: John Weale, 1846), Vol. I,
Weir, Alison, Elizabeth of York
[i] Richardson, Douglas, Magna Carta Ancestry, 2nd ed., 2011, Vol. I, p. 512; Druery, John Henry, Historical Notices of Great Yarmouth, (London: Nicholas & Son, 1826), p. 17