Elizabeth Denton -a very respectable woman who received some rather nice gifts from Henry VIII!

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 

Elizabeth Denton

Henry-VIII-enjoyed-gambli-008I have just been re-reading Philippa Jones book on Henry VIII’s wives and mistresses.  She suggests that Elizabeth Denton nee Jerningham was Henry VIII’s, or Prince Henry as he was then, first bit on the side.  Not only that but she was hand selected for the role by Lady Margaret Beaufort which rather knocks the idea of her saintly piety to one side; though it might give an insight into the prevailing views of the rights of kingship. Its a thought that certainly made me sit up and take notice!

The idea that Jones puts forward is that young men’s minds inevitably turn to the birds and the bees.  Lady Margaret Beaufort eager to avoid scandal and a mistress likely to make demands selected the lady mistress of the royal nursery for the role of…er…lady mistress on the grounds that she would know her place and not make any trouble.

For a man whose marital history has caused scandal for the last five hundred years relatively little is actually known about his mistresses and potential children but then the evidence against Denton seemed a little, well, vague.  As Licence observes the claim rests entirely on the evidence of grants given in 1509 and in 1515.

So, what have we got.  Well we know for sure that Lady Elizabeth Denton died in 1519 and that she was Henry VIII’s governess.  Already one of Elizabeth of York’s ladies, her wardrobe keeper, she was appointed in 1497 to the role looking after the royal children which would have been Henry, Margaret and Mary replacing Lady Elizabeth Darcy in the job.  The Princess Elizabeth was born in 1492 but died in 1495.  Prince Arthur had his own household.  We know that Lady Margaret Beaufort wrote the rules for the ordering of the royal nursery and that Elizabeth Denton received £20 per annum.  If nothing else we can always rely on the account books. Alison Weir speculates as to the role played by Elizabeth of York and the relationship she had with her younger children.

Its those same account books that give the ‘evidence’ of Elizabeth Denton’s having been the lady mistress of the nursery in more ways than one.  In 1509 she was awarded an annuity of £50 a year as well as the keepership during her lifetime of Coldharbour, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s former London residence.  In addition there was a tun of Gascon wine delivered each year throughout her life (Hutchinson).  It is based on this very generous remembrance that Jones bases her hypothesis.  She argues that royal servants might receive allowances but this was a very generous allowance indeed suggesting that Elizabeth Denton had done rather more than the known facts would account for.  This is the problem with many of Henry VIII’s women. Unless they end up married to him there’s very little concrete fact to go on.  It all comes down to looking at the evidence; adding up two and two to arrive at mistress or illegitimate offspring.  For a very public monarch much of Henry’s life is surprisingly private.

If we apply the same rule regarding the giving of grants and annuities across the board we should also be looking askance at Anne Oxenbridge another nursery maid who received £20 a year for life in 1509. In fact Hutchinson reveals that a whole series of generous annuities and appointments that were made by Henry at this time celebrating the start of his reign and rewarding loyal service to his parents by many men and women but no one is accusing Henry’s male french tutor of being up to no good! Nor for that matter has anyone suggested that Elizabeth Saxby who was also in receipt of a grant at this time was being paid for any of ‘those kinds of service’ rendered. It is a known fact that Henry VIII wanted to appear much more generous than his legendarily parsimonious father- so perhaps its not unreasonable that he should have looked kindly upon the men and women who cared for him during his childhood.

We know that an Elizabeth Denton went with Princess Margaret to Scotland in 1503 and that she probably returned when King James ordered that the number of English women serving her was to be reduced.  We also know that she lived in the precinct of Blackfriars until her death and that she raised her own monument, her husband John  having predeceased her before the contentious grant was given.

Nothing is known about John Denton but Alison Weir mentions a William Denton who served as Elizabeth of York’s carver as well as the king’s in receipt of £26 per year.

Elizabeth went on to be appointed to the care of Princess Mary’s nursery in 1516 having been appointed to the same position for the short lived Prince Henry in 1511. This in itself would suggest that she was a woman thought to be of sound moral values rather than femme fatale. It is, perhaps, unlikely that Henry would have put a woman of dubious morals in charge of his children’s welfare.

In fact, as much as I would have liked to have posted a highly inflammatory article I can’t because there is no direct existing evidence, that I know of, that Henry VIII was permitted a mistress before his marriage and that both his father and grandmother kept a very close eye on him indeed. Ambassadors recorded that he was kept as closely as a maiden which might, perchance,  account for his delight in the romantic chase of his various wives’ ladies in waiting once he became king. Having said that it does make an excellent story and Henry was known to like a more mature lady during his early years… and no, last time I checked just because its a good story doesn’t make it good history.

The next post, reflecting the fact that I am somewhat  Tudor orientated at the moment, will be about Cardinal Wolsey – someone else known for their flamboyant dress sense.  Not only was he Henry FitzRoy’s (Henry VIII’s only openly acknowledged illegitimate child) godfather but he also had a ‘nephew’ of his own.  Just think what the Sunday papers would have made of it, had they existed!