COURTENAY, the name of a famous English family. French genealogists head the pedigree of this family with one Athon or Athos, who is said to have fortified Courtenay in Gâtinois about the year 1010. His son Josselin had, with other issue, Miles, lord of Courtenay, founder of the Cistercian abbey of Fontaine-Jean. By his wife Ermengarde, daughter of Renaud, count of Nevers, Miles left a son Renaud, one of the magnates who followed Louis le Jeune to the Holy Land. This was the last lord of Courtenay of the line of Athon. Elizabeth, his elder daughter—a younger daughter died without issue,—carried Courtenay and other lordships to her husband Pierre, seventh and youngest son of the French king Louis VI. the Fat, the marriage taking place about 1150, and the many descendants of this royal match bore the surname of Courtenay.
Pierre, the eldest son, was founder of a short-lived dynasty of emperors of Constantinople, which ended in 1261 when Baldwin (Baudouin), last of the Frankish emperors, fled before Michael Palaeologus from a capital in flames. Baldwin’s son Philip, however, bore the empty title, and his granddaughter Catherine, wife of Charles, count of Valois, was titular empress. Other lines of the royal Courtenays, sprung from Pierre of France, were lords of Champignolles, Tanlai, Yerre, Bleneau, La Ferté Loupière and Chevillon. On the death of Gaspard, sieur de Bleneau, in 1655, his cousin Louis de Courtenay, comte de Cési (jure uxoris) and sieur de Chevillon, had Bleneau, and reckoned himself the surviving chief of his house. He styled himself Prince de Courtenay and his family made attempts to obtain recognition for their royal blood. But their laboriously constructed genealogies availed nothing to this impoverished race. The last “Prince de Courtenay,” an ex-captain of dragoons, died in 1730; his uncle Roger de Courtenay, abbé des Eschalis, who died in 1733, was the last recognized member of the line of Pierre of France.
A younger branch of the first house of Courtenay came from Josselin, second son of Josselin, son of Athon. This Josselin, a notable crusader, went to the Holy Land with the count of Blois, and held by the sword for eleven years the county of Edessa, given him by his cousin King Baldwin II. Edessa was won back by the infidel from his son Josselin, who died a prisoner in Aleppo in 1147. A grandson, also a Josselin, was seneschal of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
In England a house of Courtenay has flourished with varying fortunes since the reign of the first Angevin king. The monks of Ford, to whom they were benefactors, complacently set down their patrons as the offspring of the royal Courtenays, of whose origin they had some dim knowledge, deriving them from “Florus,” son of Louis the Fat. A comparison of dates destroys the story. But they were, doubtless, Courtenays of the stock of Athon. Josselin, the first count of Edessa, has been suggested by modern writers as their founder, but the name Reinaud, borne by the first known ancestor of the English house, suggests that they may have sprung from a younger son of Josselin I. of Courtenay by his marriage about 1095 with Ermengarde, daughter of Reinaud, count of Nevers. It is also notable that the English Courtenays have, from the first introduction of armorial bearings, borne with various differences the three red roundels in a golden field, the arms of the Courtenays in France, the shield of the earls of Devonshire being identical with that of the lords of La Ferté Loupière.
Several Courtenays whose kinship cannot be exactly ascertained, appear in English records of the 12th century. One of them, Robert de Courtenay, married the daughter and heir of Reynold fitz Urse, the leader of the murderers of Archbishop Thomas Becket. His son, William, a Shropshire baron, held the castle of Montgomery, as heir by his mother of Baldwin de Buslers, or Bollers, to whom Henry I. had given it with his “niece” Sibil de Falaise. This William married Ada of Dunbar, daughter of Patrick, earl of Dunbar, but died in the reign of King John, without issue.
Reinaud de Courtenay, ancestor of the main English line, may well have been a brother of the Robert above named. The English pedigrees confuse him with his son of the same name. He was a favourite with Henry II., his attestations of charters showing him as a constant companion at home and abroad of the king, whom he followed to Wexford in the Irish expedition of 1172. Henry gave him Berkshire lands at Sutton, still known as Sutton Courtenay, by a charter to which the date of 1161 can be assigned. In England he had to wife Maude, daughter of Robert fitz Roy by Maude of Avranches, the elder Maude being the heir of the house of Brionne. By her, who survived him, dying before January 1224, he had no issue, but by a wife who may have died before his coming to England he had, with other issue, Robert and Reinaud. Robert, who succeeded to Sutton about 1192, was husband of Alice de Rumeli, widow of Gilbert Pipard, and one of the three sisters and co-heirs of William, the boy of Egremond, of whose drowning in the Strid Wordsworth has made a ballad. Robert died childless in 1209. Of his brother Reinaud or Reynold de Courtenay little is known, save that he was a married man in 1178 when he and his wife Hawise were given by the pope a licence to have a free chapel at Okehampton. This wife, Hawise de Ayencourt, was, with Maude his father’s second wife, a daughter and co-heir of Maude of Avranches, her father being the lord of Ayencourt, first husband of the last named Maude. Her great inheritance included the honour of Okehampton in Devonshire of which, as a widow, she had livery about 1205. Her son, Robert de Courtenay, succeeded to her land in 1219, having been his uncle Robert’s heir in Sutton ten years before. Like his father he advanced his house by a great marriage, his wife being Mary, the younger daughter of William de Vernon, earl of Devon and of the Isle of Wight. He was succeeded in 1242 by his son John, who by Isabel, a daughter of Hugh de Vere, earl of Oxford, has issue Hugh, whose wife was Eleanor, daughter of the earl of Winchester, elder of the two favourites of Edward II. The son of this marriage, another Hugh, followed his father at Okehampton in 1291. Two years later died Isabel, surviving sister and heir of Baldwin de Reviers, earl of Devon, and widow of William de Forz, last earl of Aumerle (Albemarle). On her death-bed she had granted her lordship of the Wight to the king, but her cousin Hugh de Courtenay succeeded her in the unalienated estates of the house of Reviers. He was summoned as a baron on the 6th of February 1298/9, and in 1300 he displayed his banner before the castle of Caerlaverock. Claiming the “third penny” of the county of Devon, he was refused by the exchequer as he did not claim in the name of an earl. Following, however, a writ of inquiry, a patent of the 22nd of February 1334/5 declared him earl of Devon and qualified to take such style as his ancestors, earls of Devon, were wont to take. Hugh, his son, the second earl, a warrior who drove the French back from their descent on Cornwall in 1339, made another of the brilliant marriages of this family, his wife being Eleanor, daughter of Humfrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex, by Elizabeth daughter of Edward I. Their eldest son, Sir Hugh de Courtenay, shared in the honours of Crécy and Calais, and was one of the knights founders of the order of the Garter, the stall-plate of his arms being yet in St George’s chapel at Windsor. This knight died in the lifetime of the earl, as did his only son Hugh, summoned as a baron on the 3rd of January 1370/1, a companion at Najara of the Black Prince, whose step-daughter Maude of Holland he had married. The earl was therefore succeeded by his grandson Edward (son of Edward his third son), earl marshal of England in 1385, who died blind in 1419, the year after the death of Sir Edward his heir apparent, one of the conquerors at Agincourt. Hugh, a second son of Earl Edward, succeeded as fourth earl of the Courtenay line. By his wife, a sister of the renowned Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, he had issue Thomas the fifth earl, a partisan of Henry VI., whose wife was Margaret Beaufort, daughter of John, earl of Somerset. The effigy of this grandaughter of John of Gaunt, with the shields of Courtenay and Beaufort above it, is in Colyton church. It is less than life size, a fact which has given rise to a village legend that it represents “Little choke-a-bone,” an infant daughter of the tenth earl, who died “choked by a fish bone.” In spite of the evidence of the shields and the 15th century dress of the effigy, the legend has now been strengthened by an inscription upon a brass plate, and in the year 1907 ignorance engaged a monumental sculptor to deface the effigy by giving its broken features the newly carved face of a young child. Both sons of this marriage fell in the Wars of the Roses, Thomas the sixth earl being taken at Towton by the Yorkists and beheaded at York in 1462, his younger brother Henry having the same fate at Salisbury in 1466.
The earldom being extinguished by attainder, Sir Humphrey Stafford was created earl of Devon in 1469, but in the same year, having retired with his men from the expedition against Robin of Redesdale, another earl of Devon suffered at the headsman’s hands, his patent being afterwards annulled by a statute of Henry VII. On the restoration of Henry VI. John Courtenay, only surviving brother of Thomas and Henry, was restored to the earldom by the reversal of attainder. He, too, died in the Lancastrian cause, being killed on the 4th of May 1471 at Tewkesbury, where he led the rear of the host. The representation of the Reviers earls and of the Courtenay barony fell then to his sisters and their descendants. Beside him at Tewkesbury died his cousin Sir Hugh Courtenay of Boconnoc, son of Hugh, a younger brother of the blind earl, leaving a son Edward, who thus became the heir male of the house though not its heir general. Joining in the cause which had cost so many of his kinsmen their lives, he and his brother Walter shared the duke of Buckingham’s rising. On its failure they fled into France to the earl of Richmond, beside whom Sir Edward fought at Bosworth. By a patent of the 26th of October 1485 he was created earl of Devon with remainder to the heirs male of his body, and by an act of 1485 he was restored to all honours lost in his attainder by the Yorkist parliament. He defended Exeter against Warbeck’s rebels and was a knight of the Garter in 1489, dying twenty years later, when the earldom became again forfeit by his son’s attainder. That son, William Courtenay, had drawn the jealousy of Henry VII. by a marriage with Catherine, sister of the queen and daughter of King Edward IV., the Yorkist sovereign whose hand had been so heavy on the Courtenays. After the queen’s death, Henry sent his wife’s brother-in-law to the Tower on a charge of corresponding with Edmund Pole, an attainder following. But on the accession of Henry VIII., the young king released his uncle, who although styled an earl was not fully restored in blood at his death in 1511. His son Henry Courtenay obtained from parliament in December 1512 a reversal of his father’s attainder, thus succeeding to the earldom of his grandfather. At the Field of Cloth of Gold he ran a course with the king of France. He was knight of the Garter and on the 15th of June 1525 had a patent as marquess of Exeter. Profiting by the suppression of the monasteries he increased his estate, his power being all but supreme in the west country. But Cromwell was his enemy and the royal strain in his blood was a dangerous thing. Involved in correspondence with Cardinal Pole, he was sent to the Tower with his wife and his young son, and on the 9th of December 1538 he was beheaded as a traitor. The misfortunes of the house were heavy upon the son, who at twelve years old was a prisoner for the sake of his high descent. His honours had been forfeited, and release did not come until the accession of Queen Mary, who took him into favour. Noailles the ambassador found him le plus beau et le plus agréable gentilhomme d’Angleterre, and he had some hopes of becoming king consort. The queen created him earl of Devonshire by a patent of the 3rd of September 1553 and in the next month he was restored in blood. But, disappointed in his hopes, he formed some wild plans for marrying the Lady Elizabeth and making her queen. He could raise Devon and Cornwall. Wyat did raise Kent, but the plot was soon crushed. The earl was sent back to the Tower and thence to Fotheringhay. At Easter of 1555 he was released on parole and exiled, dying suddenly at Padua in 1556. His co-heirs were the descendants of the four sisters of Earl Edward (d. 1519), the wives of four Cornish squires, and with him was extinguished, to the belief of all men, the Courtenays’ earldom of Devon. His heir male was Sir William Courtenay, his sixth cousin once removed, head of a knightly line of Courtenays whose seat was Powderham Castle, a line which, during the civil wars, stood for the White Rose. Sir William, who is said to have been killed at St Quintin in 1557, was succeeded by his son, another Sir William, one of the undertakers for the settling of Ireland, where the family obtained great estates. William Courtenay of Powderham, of whose marriage with the daughter of Sir William Waller (the parliament’s general) it is remarked that the years of bride and bridegroom added together were less than thirty when their first child was born, was created a baronet by writ of privy seal in February 1644, the patent being never enrolled. His great grandson, Sir William Courtenay, many years a member of parliament, was on the 6th of May 1762, ten days before his death, created Viscount Courtenay of Powderham Castle.
Since the death at Padua in 1556 of Edward, earl of Devon, that ancient title had been twice revived. Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who was created earl of Devon in 1603, died without lawful issue in 1606. In 1618 Sir William Cavendish, son of the famous Bess of Hardwick, was given the same title, which is still among the peerage honours of the ducal house descending from him. For the Courtenays, who had without protest accepted a baronetcy and a viscounty, their earldom was dead. In the reign of William IV., the third and last Viscount Courtenay was living unmarried in Paris, an exile who for sufficient reasons was keeping out of the reach of the English criminal law. In the name of this man, his presumptive heir male, William Courtenay, clerk assistant of the parliament, succeeded in persuading the House of Lords that the Courtenay earldom under the patent of 1553 was still in existence, the plea being that the terms of the remainder—to him and his heirs male for ever—did not limit the succession to heirs male of the body of the grantee. Five other cases wherein the words de corpore suo had been omitted from the patent are known to peerage lawyers. In no case had a peerage before been claimed by collateral heirs male. “I have often rallied Brougham,” writes Lord Campbell, “upon his creating William Courtenay earl of Devon. He says he consulted Chief Justice Tenterden. But Tenterden knew nothing of peerage law.” After the death of the exile in 1835 the clerk of the parliament succeeded him as an earl by force of the House of Lords decision of the 15th of March 1831. His second son, the Rev. Henry Hugh Courtenay (1811–1904), succeeded, as 13th earl, a nephew whose extravagance had impoverished the estates. He in turn was followed, as 14th earl, by his grandson Charles Pepys Courtenay (b. 1870).
No other recognized branch of this house, once so widely spread in the western counties, is now among the landed houses of England. Among its cadets were many famous warriors, but three prelates must be reckoned as the most eminent of the Courtenays. William, a younger son of the match of Courtenay and Bohun, was bishop of Hereford in 1370, bishop of London in 1375 and archbishop of Canterbury in 1381. Proceeding against Wycliffe he opposed John of Gaunt, who, taunting him with his trust in his great kinsfolk, threatened to drag him out of St Paul’s by his hair, a threat which roused the angry Londoners in his defence. He died in 1396 and lies buried at the feet of the Black Prince in his cathedral of Canterbury. By his will he left his best mitre to his nephew Richard Courtenay—son and pupil, as he styles him—against the time he should be a bishop. This Richard, a friend of Henry V. when prince, and treasurer of his household, was bishop of Norwich in 1413. Twice chancellor of Oxford, he repelled Archbishop Arundel and all his train when that primate would have had a visitation of the university, although the claim of the university to independence was at last broken down. Tall of stature, eloquent and learned, he kept the favour of the king, who was with him when he died of dysentery in the host before Harfleur. Heir of this bishop was his nephew Sir Philip of Powderham, whose younger son Peter Courtenay was the third of the Courtenay prelates, being bishop of Exeter from 1478 to 1487, when he was translated to Winchester. Although of the Yorkist Courtenays, he was of Buckingham’s party and, being attainted by Richard III. for joining with certain of his kinsfolk in an attempt to raise the west, he escaped to Brittany, whence he returned with the first Tudor sovereign, who had him in high favour. A fourth prelate of this family was Henry Reginald Courtenay, who was bishop of Bristol 1794–1797 and bishop of Exeter from 1797 to his death in 1803.
See charter, patent, close, fine and plea rolls, inquests post mortem and other records. G. E. C.’s Complete Peerage; Dictionary of National Biography; Notes and Queries, series viii. vol. 7; J. H. Round’s Peerage Studies; Calendars of State Papers; Machyn’s Diary (Camden Society); Chronicles of Capgrave, Wavrin, Adam of Usk, &c. (O. Ba.)