Dentons in the fens

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We need to backtrack a little. The Hillesden and American Denton pieces got us a little ahead of the story. Back in the 16thcentury we spent three generations evolving in the Fens, sadly another area where little proved discoverable.

These three Williams (GGF8, 9 and 10) are confirmed but I could find little about them, only details of their wives and children. It was a period before censuses and little emerged from the genealogical sites and databases to give me ‘purchase’ with my research.

Haddenham Dentons

The Denton family appears to have spent much of the 16thcentury settled in the east of England, much of it in a place I assumed to be something of a backwater – the Fens. Specifically they lived in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, set on a high ridge and the gateway to the Isle of Ely in medieval times. The Venerable Bede first recorded Ely derived from the ‘isle of eels’, a staple diet of Fenmen.

The name Haddenham means ‘Haeda’s homestead’ and in 673 CE it formed part of Queen Etheldreda’s dowry, negotiated by a loyal monk living locally named Ovin.

Ely was an island that protruded from the marshy fens and Haddenham was the access route to the two causeways (Aldreth and Earith) that connected the communities. Aldreth was the route the Romans used to reach Ely and also that taken by William the Conqueror in 1071 when he managed to quell the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, as featured in Charles Kingsley’s novel the Last of the English. One of William’s knights bribed the monks to show them the safe Aldreth route through the marshes; Hereward managed to escape.

Fifty years later in 1216 during the First Barons’ War the isle was unsuccessfully defended against the army of King John. Another fifty years later a ferry began operating the route and by the 13thcentury there was a toll bridge. The toll was a halfpenny for horsemen and a farthing for those on foot. Later Ely took an active part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

In 1562 (William Denton’s’ time) Haddenham was the most populous village in the county. In 1599 another birth in the region would lead to radical change in the whole country. This newcomer was Oliver Cromwell, born just sixteen miles west of Haddenham in Huntingdon. Oliver was descended from Katherine, the elder sister of Thomas Cromwell who was Henry VIII’s leading minister. The family had become wealthy by acquiring confiscated lands following the dissolution of the monasteries.

In 1639-40 Haddenham’s success led to Charles I setting the town a levy of £75 15s in Ship Money taxation. Larger Ely was only charged £85. Ship Money was one of the frustrations that accumulated against Charles and led to his being deposed and executed. Oliver Cromwell gathered around him a host of’ God-fearing, honest Fenmen and forged them into his New Model Army. Subsequently he was appointed Lord Protector.

Oliver Cromwell’s home in Ely

So the area was not quite such a backwater in the days of the three William Dentons.

Their church Holy Trinity, Haddenham was originally built in the 13thcentury. In 1763 a stone bearing a Latin inscription stating ‘Grant Oh God to Ovin [Ethelreda’s monk] Thy light and rest. Amen’ was discovered being used as a horse-mount outside a public house near the church. The stone, known as ‘Ovin’s Cross’, was taken to Ely Cathedral where today it is the only piece of stonework of Saxon origin. A replica has been placed in the north-west corner of Holy Trinity churchyard.

The church originally had a steeple with a belfry containing five large bells, visible from afar in the flat countryside. One of the bellmakers ran out of bronze while casting and apparently finished off the bells by adding pewter plates stolen from the local pubs – recompense for Ovin’s cross?

In 1876 the church was rather inexpertly refurbished. This included a planned reconstruction of the steeple but locals suggest that the treasurer at the time ran off to the United States with the funds and the spire was never reinstated. A 15thcentury rood screen was thrown out at the time and lay for thirty years in a builder’s yard before it was restored and reinstated.

Holy Trinity, Haddenham, Cambs

During WWII a bombing decoy was located at Haddenham. It was built to deflect enemy bombing from nearby RAF airfields. It was a ‘Starfish’ site, both a ‘K-type’ day decoy and a ‘Q-type’ night decoy. The daytime decoy had a replica airfield equipped with dummy aircraft. The night decoy used lights to suggest it was an active airfield.

William Denton (1528-?) – GGF10

William’s father Thomas (GGF11) was the lawyer close to King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, and also an MP for a number of constituencies. Among other land acquisitions he had secured Hillesden Manor in Buckinghamshire in 1547 and this became the family seat.

Thomas was born in Great Houghton as was this son William, his 1528 birth preceding the acquisition of Hillesden. Intriguingly the younger brother Sir Alexander was born and became much more involved with Hillesden than did William.

William married Isabel Howden in 1552 and they spent their time in Rutland. William’s son, also a William, and his daughter Elinor were born in Haddenham. While William married in Haddenham, his sister travelled forty-five miles north to Great Houghton for wedding.

William Denton (1552-?) – GGF9

William GGF9 married Agnes Farrar from Ewood, Halifax in 1572. Presumably he died before 1580 when Agnes remarried William Scarborough at Woburn in Bedfordshire.  GGF9 William and Agnes had two sons, William and Thomas, and a daughter, Isabel.

William Denton (1572-?) – GGF8

William GGF8 married twice, first to Elizabeth Steade in 1594, then to Margaret Purver in 1601. With Margaret he had five sons, William, John, George, a second William and Edward GGF7, plus two daughters both named Mary. George and the second Mary were ‘Irish twins’ born in 1618.

Fortunately in the next phase there were some notable Dentons and the research proves more fruitful.

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