Henry Courtenay, the eldest surviving son of William Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, and Catherine of York, sixth daughter of Edward IV, was born in about 1498. As his biographer has pointed out: "Courtenay's lineage proved to be both his blessing and his curse. His family had deep roots in Devon and Cornwall, but Henry's blood mingled the royal with the noble. His paternal grandfather Edward Courtenay of Boconnoc (d. 1509) was created earl of Devon for his defection from Richard III and support of Henry of Richmond in 1485." (1)
Courtenay was well educated and was taught by the same man, Giles Dewes, who had also taught the children of Henry VII. (2) On the death of his father in June, 1515, Henry inherited vast estates in the west of England. According to John Edward Bowle, the author of Henry VIII (1964), Courtenay was regarded by some "as a potential successor, even supplanter, of the king." (3)
On 25th October 1519, Henry Courtenay married Gertrude Blount, the daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, who worked as a chamberlain for Catherine of Aragon. His first son, Henry, died in infancy, but in 1526 Gertrude gave birth to Edward Courtenay. (4)
Over the next few years Courtenay became close friends with Henry VIII. He also spent a lot of time with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. All three men were talented horsemen and competed together in tournaments. Courtenay became a "gentleman of the privy chamber" and in 1525 Constable of Windsor Castle. Later that year the king created him Marquess of Exeter. On the death of his mother in 1527 in inherited "thirty-four Devon manors and twelve in Cornwall to his inheritance, and another sixteen between Dorset and Hampshire". (5)
Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter, disapproved of the king's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and to marry Anne Boleyn and did not attend the coronation. (6) The king was furious and later insisted that Gertrude became godmother to Anne's daughter, Elizabeth and presented the princess with three engraved silver-gilt bowls. (7)
Gertrude remained a Roman Catholic and formed an alliance with Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher and was a strong opponent of the religious reforms being promoted by Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. (8) In 1532 Gertrude began regular contact with Eustace Chapuys, the envoy of King Charles V of France. She has been accused of acting in a "criminally naive". Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has suggested that she probably did not "reveal any vital secrets". (9)
Gertrude also made contact with Elizabeth Barton, a woman who had caused great controversy by making speeches in public. Barton suggested that Henry VIII should burn English translations of the Bible and to remain loyal to the Pope. Elizabeth then warned the King that if he married Anne Boleyn he would die within a month and that within six months the people would be struck down by a great plague. He was disturbed by her prophesies and ordered that she be kept under observation. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer commented later that Henry put off his marriage to Anne because "of her visions". (10)
Gertrude Courtenay, travelled from her house in Kew to Canterbury, in disguise, to consult with Barton. As Sharon L. Jansen, the author of Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) has pointed out: "The Courtenays, along with the Nevilles and the Poles, were the last Yorkist claimants to the English throne; the contact between Gertrude Courtenay and Elizabeth Barton was thus dangerous to both of them." (11)
Thomas Cromwell was keeping a close watch on the activities on Barton. In 1533, Barton's religious adviser, Edward Bocking, produced a book detailing her revelations. 700 copies of the book were issued by the printer John Skot, who supplied 500 copies to Bocking. Cromwell discovered what was happening and ordered that all copies were seized and destroyed. This operation was successful and no copies of the book exists today. (12)
In the summer of 1533 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote to the prioress of St Sepulchre's Nunnery asking her to bring Elizabeth Barton to his manor at Otford. On 11th August she was questioned, but was released without charge. Thomas Cromwell then questioned her and, towards the end of September, Edward Bocking was arrested and his premises were searched. Bocking was accused of writing a book about Barton's predictions and having 500 copies published. (13) Father Hugh Rich was also taken into custody. In early November, following a full scale investigation, Barton was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (14)
Henry VIII ordered the arrests of Barton's main supporters, including Bishop John Fisher. The Marchioness of Exeter only kept her freedom by writing a "grovelling letter to the King protesting that she had never meant to offend him." (15) In the letter she described Barton as a "most unworthy, subtle and deceivable woman". (16) According to David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013), Exeter was only spared because Cromwell wanted her to help overthrow Anne Boleyn. (17)
The Elizabeth Barton case made Henry suspicious of the Marquess of Exeter. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (18)
Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. In May 1535, Pope Paul III created Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and the following month he was indicted and charged with treason. To test their loyalty, the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter, were placed on the jury. (19) They both agreed that he should be executed. On Tuesday 22nd June, 1535, the seventy-six year old Fisher was decapitated on Tower Hill. (20)
Henry VIII remained very concerned about the Courtenay family because they "did have royal blood". They also had been secret supporters of Catherine of Aragon. As Antonia Fraser has pointed out: "Conservative reactionary politics, a dislike of religious reform, made a dangerous mixture with royal blood. The spectre of conspiracy from these families, especially if they showed signs of uniting, would always haunt King Henry so long as he had no proper heir - and not necessarily without justification." (21)
In the closing months of 1538 the king and Thomas Cromwell decided to take action against the Courtenay family. "Thomas Cromwell decided struck at the conservatives with whom he had allied against Anne Boleyn two years earlier. Henry Courtenay's dominance of the privy chamber was an obstacle in the way of the principal secretary." (22) On 5th November, Henry Courtenay, Gertrude Courtenay and their son, Edward Courtenay, were sent to the Tower of London.
Also arrested were members of the Pole family. This included Sir Geoffrey Pole, his brother Henry Pole, and their mother, Margaret Pole. The leader of the group was Cardinal Reginald Pole, but he was living safely in France. Geoffrey revealed all he knew of his family activities. (23) He claimed that Henry Courtenay had said "I like well the proceedings of the Cardinal Pole" and that "knaves rule about the King". (24) He was found guilty of treason and was executed by decapitation with a sword on Tower Hill on 9 December 1538. (25) All the Courtenay properties were taken by Henry VIII. (26)
Courtenay's lineage proved to be both his blessing and his curse. His family had deep roots in Devon and Cornwall, but Henry's blood mingled the royal with the noble. His paternal grandfather Edward Courtenay of Boconnoc (d. 1509) was created earl of Devon for his defection from Richard III and support of Henry of Richmond in 1485. Another mark of Tudor favour came in 1495 when Edward Courtenay's son William married Katherine, the younger sister of Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth. But William's period of attendance on the king and jousting at court came to an abrupt end in April 1502, when he was sent to the Tower for conspiring against Henry with his wife's cousin, the Yorkist pretender Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk. Henry Courtenay's earliest memories would thus have been of his father in disgrace, attainted in 1504 and later imprisoned in Calais under threat of execution. The queen supported her close kin through these difficult days: her privy purse accounts for 1502/3 record the servants, nurses, food, and clothes provided for Henry and his sister Margaret...
Having been released soon after Henry VIII's accession, William Courtenay died within a month of his creation as earl of Devon in 1511. Henry, the second earl, secured the reversal of his father's attainder the following year. His fortunes continued to improve as he grew older. He entered the ceremonial life of the court in 1514, when he was chosen by Louis XII of France to attend Queen Mary in the diplomatic negotiations of that year. Henry VIII plainly enjoyed the company of his younger kinsman, and Courtenay rose to a position of prominence among the king's gentle companions. By 1519 he was one of the select band afforded daily livery and apartments within the royal household, and his accounts record the winter sport of the court at Greenwich: indoor tennis and shuffleboard, and a snowball fight with the king.