Edward Courtney was the only surviving son of the Marquess of Exeter born in 1526.
More significant was the fact that he was the great-grandson of Edward IV. Katherine, the sixth of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s children to survive babyhood, was married off to Sir William Courtney a loyal Lancastrian in the aftermath of Bosworth which must have been a bit of a comedown from an earlier proposal for her to marry either a Scottish or a Spanish prince but better by far than scuttling around in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately for poor old William he somehow became inveigled into a conspiracy to put Edmund de La Pole on the throne in 1502 and spent the rest of Henry VII’s reign in custody – it’s fairly safe to say that the Courtneys were framed.
When Henry VIII came to the throne he had his uncle by marriage released from prison but persuaded his Aunt Katherine to renounce her claim to the earldom of March- and the Mortimer inheritance which caused so much mayhem during the Wars of the Roses- and following the death of William in 1511, Katherine took a vow of chastity. This seemed to go down well with Bluff King Hal who gave her the rights to the income from the Courtney lands during her life time, drew her son Henry into the inner court circle and made her godmother to the Princess Mary in 1516. The problem so far as her grandson Edward would be concerned would be that little drop of Plantagenet blood. It had been alright for Katherine to sign herself ‘the excellent Princess Katherine, Countess of Devon, daughter, sister and aunt of kings’ (Westcott) but royalty wasn’t such a good thing to have in one’s bloodstream during the mid-Tudor crisis and especially not if one fancied wearing a crown rather than a coronet.
Edward Courtney looked all set for a charmed life – he was a cousin of the Tudors and his grandmother had been a respected member of the inner family circle. He’d spent time in the household of Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk – presumably to learn the art of being a gentleman.
Unfortunately for Edward his father Henry Courtney came up with the wonderful wheeze of marrying young Edward off to the Princess Mary – you’d have thought he’d have learned from his own father’s experiences. In addition, Henry’s second wife (and mother of Edward) Gertrude Blount was a daughter of Baron Mountjoy who had served Katherine of Aragon since her arrival in England – Blount, a Derbyshire man and Katherine’s chamberlain- had a bit of a torrid time of it during the 1530s but Gertrude remained unswervingly loyal to Katherine – and yes, Gertrude was related to Bessie Blount (Henry VIII’s mistress and mother of Henry Fitzroy) but this isn’t the post for that particular amble around Tudor family trees. The Mountjoy clan and the Courtneys were identified as members of the Aragonese faction as supporters of Katherine were called. Henry Courtney was not only related to the Poles and the Nevilles but on good terms with them – they, being Catholic, were decidedly grumpy about the break with Rome. Put in a nutshell Courtney managed to get himself caught up in one of Thomas Cromwell’s snares in 1538 to keep anyone with a claim to the throne under lock and key- the planned match between Edward and Mary being the icing on the cake so far as Cromwell’s evidence was concerned, so as to speak.
In November 1538 Gertrude, Henry and twelve-year-old Edward found themselves in the Tower. Henry was executed at the beginning of December and Edward remained a prisoner for the next fifteen years. Henry paid for his distant cousin’s food and education. Upon Henry VIII’s death the regency council and the duke of Somerset decided that an adult male with Plantagenet blood was better in the Tower than out of it – so there he remained, although he now had the company of Bishop Gardiner. The pair took something of a shine to one another. Edward referred to the bishop as “father” and Edward became Gardiner’s protégée.
In August 1553 Princess Mary fresh from Framlingham arrived in London to claim her throne from Lady Jane Grey. A month later Edward was created earl of Devon and Reginald Pole described him as the “Flower of English Nobility” on account of his learning – let’s face it there wasn’t much else for him to do in the Tower to while away the hours other than read, translate various ancient works and play the lute.
On 1 October 1553 Courtney took his place in Mary’s court by bearing the sword of state at her coronation.
Edward now spent considerable amounts of time running around London with the wrong kind of women – but I don’t suppose he’d had much opportunity for drunkenness and debauchery whilst in custody. Queen Mary was not impressed.
Meanwhile Mary was determined to marry into the family of Charles V. It had been her mother’s wish and she refused to consider any other options – no matter what anyone else might say on the matter. The thought of Philip II of Spain made quite a lot of English gentlemen feel a little nauseous. Gardiner did try and suggest Courtney as a match but it was no go. Instead, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Peter Carew came up with the idea of Courtney marrying the Princess Elizabeth – voila Protestant, English – Tudor/Plantagenet- what more could one wish for? Sir William Paget the Tudor administrator was keen on the match as well. Obviously Gardiner wasn’t so keen on the idea – him being very catholic and everything but Courtney whose freedom seems to have done strange things to his personality and common sense thought it was a terrific plan, as did the recently freed duke of Suffolk Henry Grey, father of Lady Jane Grey.
The plan for the regions to rise up did not go well. The council found out that there was rebellion in the air and various parties ran around in ever decreasing circles until they were rounded up and placed under arrest – the only exception was in Kent where Wyatt’s rebels advanced upon London and caused quite a lot of panic. Henry Grey scarpered to the Midlands where he met with indifference or hostility whilst Gardiner slapped Courtney metaphorically around in order to find out exactly what he knew. Gardiner had no intention of languishing in the Tower or loosing his head although it looks as though Gardiner did try and keep Courtney out of trouble no matter what the rest of the Privy Council and the now very influential Spanish Ambassador had to say on the subject.
Ultimately Wyatt’s Rebellion foundered and Edward Courtney found himself back in the Tower once more scratching his head and looking vaguely bewildered. Unfortunately for Courtney, Wyatt had been tortured and had incriminated the earl in the hope, it is believed, of securing a pardon. The two men would meet on the 11 April 1554 when Wyatt went to the block and is said to have begged Courtney’s pardon. Wyatt made it quite clear before his execution that neither Courtney nor Elizabeth had been involved in his rebellion. Henry Grey went to the block and so too did Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley who had no part in the plot and were not intended to benefit from the plot – it was an opportunity to tidy up loose ends. But not as it turned out to get rid of Courtney and Elizabeth.
At the end of May 1554 Courtney was sent to Fotheringhay where he stayed for a year. Then he took a journey, presumably for the benefit of his health to Brussels and from there to Venice. Unfortunately the Spanish took a dim view of the earl and were planning to have him assassinated – the assassin changed sides in Venice thus saving Courtney from an untimely end.
It does appear that Courtney couldn’t help but dabble in treason as the moment he arrived in Italy he hooked up with Sir Henry Dudley, one of Northumberland’s sons, and between them they came up with a harebrained plan to murder Mary and replace her with Elizabeth – with Courtney as royal spouse. There was even talk of a possible match to Mary Queen of Scots thanks to Henri II of France.
On the 18 September 1556 Edward Courtney died in Padua where he had enrolled as a student. There were rumours of poison but in reality he’d caught a chill whilst out hawking. A letter sent to Queen Mary by Peter Vannes provides an account of events, “for his Honest recreation… to see his hawks fly upon a wasted ground, without any houses” was caught “in a great tempest of wind and rain” Rather than leave his sport he’d refused to get changed out of his wet clothes and by the end of the week “entered into a continue hot ague, sometimes more vehement than at another… so that his tongue had so stopped his mouth, and his teeth so clove together” that he couldn’t take the Sacrament at the end.
Inevitably with an unexpected death in a time of intrigue and treason there are always conspiracy theories. Poisoning is a favourite so far as Courtney is concerned but I have also read that he may have died of syphilis – that other perennial Tudor exit strategy. The earldom of Devon was extinct as there were no more male sprigs. Four girls inherited his estates but not the title. There was also one less contender for the throne.
Ian W. Archer, ‘Courtenay, Edward, first earl of Devon (1526–1556)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6449, accessed 17 March 2017]
Margaret R. Westcott, ‘Katherine, countess of Devon (1479–1527)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/70277, accessed 17 March 2017]