DEBENHAM, Gilbert (d.1417), of Alburgh, Norf. and Great and Little Wenham, Suff.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

s. and h. of Gilbert Debenham (d.1369) of Little Wenham, prob. by his w. Mary. m. (1) ?Joan, da. of John Gernegan of Somerleyton, Suff., 1s. Gilbert†, 1da.; (2) Ellen.

Offices Held

Tax collector, Suff. May 1384, Mar. 1404.

Sheriff, Norf. and Suff. 11 Nov. 1394-9 Nov. 1395.

J.p. Suff. 12 Nov. 1397-8.

Commr. of inquiry, Suff. May 1398 (alienation of lands belonging to Roger Withermarsh); to assess contributions to a subsidy Jan. 1412.

Collector of customs and subsidies, Ipswich 25 June 1407-Sept. 1408.


This shire knight was the second of four successive Gilbert Debenhams. His father, an able lawyer who served as a j.p. from 1349 until 1361, was retained as legal counsel to the Black Prince (from whom he received an annual fee of £5), to Robert de Ufford, earl of Suffolk, and to the prince’s chief councillor Sir John Wingfield (d.1361) of Wingfield.1 Debenham senior purchased a manor in Alburgh, Norfolk, but the principal landed holdings of the family were situated in south Suffolk at Great and Little Wenham, and it was in the parish church of Little Wenham that both father and son chose to be buried. The father’s will, dated September 1361, was not proved until ten years later, though it would seem that he died in 1369. Gilbert the son had entered his patrimony before 1384 and subsequently added to it holdings at Coddenham in Suffolk.2

Details of Debenham’s career suggest that he followed his father in his choice of profession, but, lacking his father’s ability, he does not appear to have attracted clients from among the higher nobility on a regular basis. As compared with his father and with his own son, he appears as a colourless individual. He was clearly reluctant to take on any responsibilities in local government: on 15 Oct. 1383 he obtained royal letters patent of exemption from service as a collector of taxes against his will, and on 16 Nov. he was exempted from appointment as sheriff. He put the first patent into use the following year, when, having been named as a collector of the subsidies granted in the Salisbury Parliament, he presented his exemption in Chancery in order to secure a discharge.3 However, Debenham was often employed as a feoffee-to-uses, acting, for example, on behalf of Sir Richard Sutton (d. 1396), a prominent landowner in Essex and Suffolk, whose sister-in-law, Margery, Sir John Sutton’s† widow, was Debenham’s tenant. His services were also engaged by John Gernegan and his widow, who may have been his first wife’s parents. In 1394, notwithstanding his exemption, Debenham was appointed sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and among the duties of his year of office was the holding of elections in both counties to the Parliament of 1395. In the autumn of 1397 he was named on the commission of the peace for Suffolk, only to be replaced a year later. This replacement coincided with the departure into exile of the disgraced Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, and it is not altogether unlikely that Debenham was a retainer of his. In May 1398 Debenham was appointed to a commission set up to investigate illegal alienations of land made by Roger Withermarsh. He was later to claim (during his only Parliament, that of 1402) that this commission had never been delivered to him, but more probably his reluctance to act stemmed from personal involvement as one of Withermarsh’s feoffees.4

It is now impossible to ascertain where Debenham’s sympathies lay at the time of Richard II’s deposition, but there can be no doubt that he soon realized that his career could only benefit from acquaintance with Sir Thomas Erpingham, a staunch supporter of the new regime. In 1401 he assisted in making settlements of estates on Sir Andrew Butler* and his wife Katherine, who was Erpingham’s niece, and these transactions brought him into contact with several prominent figures in the community of East Anglia. This stood him in good stead in the following year when he sought election to Parliament.5 In 1403, after making a claim in Chancery, Debenham secured possession of the manor of Coddenham which had once belonged to Sir Robert Hemenale. Three years later he took on the trusteeship of estates in Gloucestershire on behalf of Sir Robert Corbet*, one of the ‘King’s knights’, and he subsequently acted as feoffee of lands in Suffolk and Essex for another of Henry IV’s retainers, Sir Edmund Thorpe*, whose wife was the widow of Roger, Lord Scales.6 In his later years Debenham evidently developed an interest in the affairs of the town of Ipswich, where he served as customs’ collector in 1407-8. He established a friendship with James Andrew*, who was retained as legal advisor to the town authorities; and his kinsmen the two William Debenhams* served several times as bailiffs of Ipswich and represented the borough in at least six Parliaments between them. Gilbert Debenham acted as a trustee of Andrew’s lands and eventually asked him to be overseer of his will. Together they were co-feoffees of the Suffolk estates of Sir Thomas Genney. Among others for whom Debenham acted in property conveyances were the Loudhams of Norfolk. Debenham was present at the shire courts which made the Suffolk returns to the Parliaments of 1410, 1411, 1413 (May) and 1414 (Nov.), usually being accompanied by his kinsman, William II.7

Debenham made his will at Little Wenham on 27 Aug. 1417, leaving bequests amounting to £5 10s. to the local church and to four other parishes. He died before 12 Oct., the date of probate, being survived by his wife Ellen, who subsequently married John Lancaster II*.8 His son, Gilbert, may have already entered the service of Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, and was soon to embark on a long and frequently lawless involvement in the affairs of East Anglia, during which he represented Suffolk in six Parliaments.9

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. W.D. Sweeting, Fam. Debenham, 40; Reg. Black Prince, iv. 301; CPR, 1350-4, p. 179; 1358-61, p. 257; CCR, 1354-60, pp. 68, 69.
  • 2. F. Blomefield, Norf. v. 352; Norf. and Norwich RO, Reg. Heydon, f. 44; CFR, viii. 59; CIPM, xvi. 52; CP25(1) 223/106/11; Bodl. Ch. Suff. 569.
  • 3. CPR, 1381-5, pp. 319, 330; CCR, 1381-5, p. 479.
  • 4. CP25(1)223/107/20; CIPM, xvi. 149; CPR, 1396-9, p. 2; C219/9/11; CCR, 1402-5, p. 117; 1405-9, p. 382; 1413-19, p. 201; Bodl. Chs. Suff. 845, 1078-9, 1086, 1089.
  • 5. CCR, 1399-1402, pp. 392, 395; Bodl. Chs. Suff. 422-3, 1380.
  • 6. CCR, 1402-5, p. 80; 1405-9, p. 500; 1413-19, p. 404.
  • 7. Stowe Ch. 395; CCR, 1409-13, p. 331; CP25(1)223/111/38, 224/113/4; C219/10/5, 6, 11/1, 4.
  • 8. Norf. and Norwich RO, Reg. Hyrning, f. 37; DL42/17 (pt. 2), f.96d.
  • 9. For the younger Gilbert’s colourful career see W.I. Howard ‘Gilbert Debenham, a Medieval Rascal in Real Life’, History, xiii. 300-14.