Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter

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Henry Courtenay, KG, shown 2nd from left wearing a mantle displaying the arms of Courtenay, with in the 1st quarter the Royal arms of England within a bordure counter-changed, detail from procession of Garter Knights in the Black Book of the Garter, c.1535, Royal Collection, Windsor[1]
Arms of Henry Courtenay, 10th Earl of Devon, KG: Quarterly, 1st: Royal arms of England (for his father-in-law King Edward IV), within a bordure counter-changed; 2 & 3: Courtenay; 4: Redvers, as seen (with faded azure tincture) on his mantle in the procession of Garter Knights in the Black Book of the Garter, c.1535, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle[2] and reproduced as an engraving in the 1724 transcript of it "The Register of the Most Noble Order of the Garter" by the herald John Anstis

Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter, KG, PC (c. 1498 – 9 December 1538) was the eldest son of William Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, and Catherine of York, and was a grandson of King Edward IV of England.

He was an older brother of Margaret Courtenay. Their maternal first cousins included among others Arthur, Prince of Wales, Margaret, queen consort of Scotland, Henry VIII of England, and Mary, queen consort of France.

Early life[edit]

At the time of his birth his paternal grandfather Edward Courtenay was still the Earl of Devon and his father was his eldest son and heir. In 1504, William Courtenay was accused of maintaining correspondence with Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, the leading Yorkist claimant to the throne, and Henry VII of England had him incarcerated in the Tower of London.

Henry VII died on 22 April 1509 and Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, on 28 May 1509. Henry VIII had succeeded to the throne and released William Courtenay from the Tower. On 24 June 1509, William took part in the coronation of Henry VIII. He carried the sword for his royal nephew. He enjoyed some favor with Henry VIII who created him Earl of Devon on 10 May 1511. However William died on 9 June 1511. Henry Courtenay was his heir.

Earl of Devon[edit]

The attainder had not been fully removed, but Henry was allowed to succeed his father as the Earl of Devon. In 1512, the attainder was fully removed and Henry was acknowledged as the proper heir of his paternal grandfather and inheritor of his lands and rights. His first cousin Henry VIII was at the time involved in the War of the League of Cambrai against Louis XII of France. The new Earl of Devon experienced his first battles in 1513 as second captain of a man of war.

He seems to have gained the further favour of his royal cousin during the 1510s. He became a member of the Privy Council in May 1520. He accompanied Henry VIII for his meeting with Francis I of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (7 – 24 June 1520) and became one of the debauched and athletic friends of the king's, frequently going on hunting trips with the king and his favorite, Charles Brandon.

In 1521, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was executed on charges of treason. The Earl of Devon replaced him as a Knight of the Garter on 9 June and received part of his lands and properties as a gift from Henry VIII. He was granted the administrations of the vacant Duchies of Exeter, Somerset, and Cornwall over the following two years. In April, he was made Keeper of Burling Park, Kent, during which period he reached his great height of power in the King's inner council; this may have been when he met the Boleyn family. He continued in hereditary traditional offices of the Courtenays as Warden of the Stannaries and the King's Steward in the Duchy of Cornwall from April 1523.

It was when he was the occasion as Constable of the Royal Castle of Windsor that he was elevated to Marquess of Exeter and was at the heart of government.

Marquess of Exeter[edit]

The Earl of Devon was created Marquess of Exeter on 18 June 1525.[3] At the time Francis I of France had lost the Battle of Pavia and was under the captivity of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII was allied with his nephew-by-marriage but sent the new Marquess of Exeter to secure an agreement with Regent Louise of Savoy and promise the assistance of Henry VIII in negotiations for the return of Francis.

The Marquess of Exeter further served the interests of the King in the proceedings for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was only second to the King at the Privy Council when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was charged with treason. He signed the documents for his prosecution. His signature is also present in the formal papers requesting the annulment from Pope Clement VII. He served as a commissioner for the formal deposition of Catherine in 1533.

He was granted stewardship over several monasteries in 1535. Henry VIII was already preparing the Dissolution of the Monasteries and had placed his favoured cousin in a key position for this process. Exeter was also a commissioner in the trial of Anne Boleyn in 1536. She was the second wife of Henry VIII and had been accused of adultery, incest, and high treason.

Exeter and Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, were sent into Yorkshire to face the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Roman Catholic uprising that broke out on 15 October 1536. Exeter was not able to achieve victory and had to retreat to Devonshire. He was, however, Lord High Steward during the trial of Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy de Darcy, for treason on 15 May 1537.

Downfall and death[edit]

By the late 1530s, Exeter was an influential figure at court and was administering most of western England in his own name and that of King Henry VIII. He was also a political rival of Thomas Cromwell and the two men reportedly had little sympathy for each other.

However, his second wife, Gertrude Blount, was still a Roman Catholic. She had supported Elizabeth Barton to her downfall. She continued to maintain correspondence with Catherine of Aragon to her death. Cromwell used these connections to point suspicion at Exeter's loyalties.

At St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula of Cornwall a painted banner was reportedly created that toured the local villages and called the population to revolt—the stated demand was to have Henry VIII name Exeter his Heir Apparent, thus disinheriting his own children.

Then Courtenay himself was found in correspondence with the self-exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole. Sir Geoffrey Pole, younger brother of the Cardinal, came to London with the information that a Roman Catholic conspiracy was preparing a new uprising. Both Poles were accused of heading this conspiracy and Cromwell convinced Henry VIII that Exeter was part of it.

In early November 1538, Exeter, his wife, and their son Edward Courtenay were all arrested and incarcerated at the Tower of London. On 3 December 1538, Exeter was put on trial in Westminster Hall. There was little evidence for his involvement in the so-called Exeter Conspiracy.

Being a powerful landowner in the west country did not make him blind to the sufferings of his tenants. Many lay and clerical alike were turned out of their lands and homes by the dissolution, notably of Glastonbury Abbey, the largest ecclesiastical estate in England, and home of the legend of King Arthur's burial. The Marquess, Henry came to hate Vicar-General Cromwell and his Protestantism.

He joined the Catholic Poles in the Western Rebellion during 1538 and, perhaps anticipating the end, wrote a will on 25 September 1538.[4] Captured as his support collapsed, he was taken in chains to the Tower. He was tried by his peers on 3 December 1538 in Westminster Hall. He was found guilty because of his correspondence with Cardinal Pole from Rome. He was executed by decapitation with a sword on Tower Hill on 9 December 1538.[5] The earldom of Devon became forfeit, and his lands in Cornwall annexed by the Duchy.

His wife and son were both attainted. His wife was released in 1540 and maintained a friendship with Princess Mary Tudor for the rest of her life. Their son was released on 3 August 1553 on the orders of Mary, now Mary I of England, as she had become Queen Regnant.

Marriages and children[edit]

Henry Courtenay married first Elizabeth Grey, Viscountess Lisle (1505–1519). She was the only daughter of John Grey, 2nd Viscount Lisle, and Muriel Howard. Her maternal grandparents were Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his first wife Elizabeth Tilney.

Elizabeth was heir to her father but had previously entered a marriage contract with Charles Brandon who had been created Viscount Lisle in her right in 1513. Elizabeth had refused to marry him when she came of age. She instead married Henry Courtenay.

He married secondly Gertrude Blount (c. 1499 - 1502 – 5 September 1558). She was a daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, and his first wife Elisabeth Say. They were parents to two children, Henry, who died young, and Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon (c. 1527 – 18 September 1556).


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Patent Roll, 17 Hen. VIII (1525), 2
  4. ^ Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, pt 1, 793-7
  5. ^ J. P. D. Cooper, ‘Courtenay, Henry, marquess of Exeter (1498/9–1538)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2008 accessed 6 November 2014.


  • Alison Weir, Henry VIII (London, 1998)
  • G. E. Cokayne, Complete Peerage; new ed. (1910–59)
Court offices
Preceded by
Lord Warden of the Stannaries
? – 1538
Succeeded by
The Lord Russell
Peerage of England
New creation Marquess of Exeter
Preceded by
William Courtenay
Earl of Devon