The Denys/Dennis Family of Holcombe Burnell, Devon

 Arms: DENYS of Devon

One set of my 13th Great Grandparents are Sir Thomas DENYS, of Holcombe Burnell, and his wife, Elizabeth MIRFYN, nee DONNE, of London.

Sir Thomas Denys was born circa 1476 in Holcombe Burnell, Devon. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Angel Donne (of London) in 1524.

Sir Thomas met Elizabeth whilst he was living or studying at the New Inn?, London. A marriage licence was granted by the Bishop of London for their marriage on 14 July 1524.

Elizabeth was sister to Gabriel Donne, the last medieval Abbot of Buckfast Abbey. He had been presented to the Abbacy by Thomas Cromwell in 1535 and remained there until the surrender of monasteries and monastic lands to King Henry VIII in 1539.

Ancient Seal of Buckfast Abbey
Medieval Seal of Buckfast Abbey

After the Dissolution, the Abbey of Buckfast passed from Sir Thomas Denys to his son, Sir Robert, and then from him to his eldest son, another Thomas, who left two daughters and co-heirs – Anne, married to Sir Henry Rolle, and Margaret, who became the wife of Sir Arthur Mainwaring. The manor of Buckfast, which had acquired the name of Buckfast-Dennis, was the property of Anne, and descended to her grandson, Sir John Rolle, who died in 1706, in possession of that lordship. Though extinct in the male line, the family of Sir Thomas Dennis has been carried down through females by the families of Rolle, Mainwaring, Chichester, Arundel and Benthal.
[Source: Guide to Buckfast Abbey, by Dom John Stephan., O.S.B., 1932]

In many respects, of greater interest to me personally, is the career of my 14th Great Uncle, Abbot Gabriel DONNE, of Buckfast who after the Reformation became a Canon Residentiary of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Gabriel Donne, born circa 1491 was the eldest child born to Angel and Anne Donne of London. Although no records exist which accurately record his date of birth the year 1491 is an educated approximation given that Angel Donne married his wife, Anne Sparrow circa 1490 and by 1506 Gabriel was old enough to belong to the religious order of Cistercians at Stratford.

Gabriel was an educated and powerful cleric and he rose to great prominence in 1535 upon his appointment to the Abbacy of Buckfast Abbey by Thomas Cromwell. History however has not been kind to Gabriel since he was alleged to have played a pivotal role in the betrayal of William Tyndale in 1535. This allegation rose to greater prominence during the 19th century when the subject was tackled many times by a large number of protestant authors. Gabriel was also falsely regarded as having been appointed to the Abbacy of Buckfast by Thomas Cromwell as a way of reward for betraying William Tyndale to the authorities. Gabriel’s subsequent resignation to the powers of King Henry VIII in 1539 saw him surrender Buckfast Abbey to the Commissioners of the Reformation. For this action Gabriel has been wrongly regarded as an impostor into the Abbacy of Buckfast. Modern research has shown that despite great religious upheavals in England during the 1530s it could not have been known in 1535 that the Suppression of the Monasteries was to be so wide scale and complete and that therefore it is a great disservice to Gabriel to suggest he willingly handed “his” Abbey over to the Commissioners in 1539. This falsehood was further developed by the new community of Benedictines who had returned to Buckfast in 1882.

St Pauwls Church [From Hollar’s Map of London, 1665]

After the dissolution of Buckfast Abbey Gabriel pursued duties as a secular priest in London. His educated status and his Pre-Reformation role as Abbot enabled him to become a Residentiary Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. This was an excellent opportunity for Gabriel to continue in his ministry back in a part of the world he knew from his childhood. Records indicate that Gabriel performed his duties at St Paul’s from 1540 until his death in December 1558. Gabriel was buried immediately next to, or before the High Altar in St Paul’s Cathedral, a burial place reserved for the very ecclesiastical elite.

Gabriel had outlived the tyrannical King Henry VIII and the reign of the King’s son, Edward IV. In 1553 Catholicism reigned once more upon the Queenship of Mary. Under Queen Mary many of the religious and liturgical ‘undoings’ of the former monarchs were undone and Catholic practices came back once more. How Gabriel adjusted to life as a Catholic once again can only be speculated but it must have come as something of familiarity and of pious devotion to him.

Gabriel’s death came only weeks after the death of Catholic Queen Mary. It would be interesting therefore to speculate how his funeral was conducted at St Paul’s. It seems most probable that it would have been largely Catholic in nature despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth I had now taken the throne. Although it is of a somewhat contentious argument there are those scholars who agree that Queen Elizabeth was a Catholic sympathiser so the recitation of the Hail Mary or use of Rosary Beads would not have been out of place in the early weeks and months of her reign.

© Graham Naylor