Gertrude Blount, the daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, and his first wife Elisabeth Saye, was born in Newport, Devon, in about 1502. Her father, worked as a chamberlain for Catherine of Aragon. (1)
On 25th October 1519, Gertrude married Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon. He was related to Henry VIII (his mother was the sister of the king's mother). He also owned 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." (2)
They were both invited by the king to attend the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Her first son, Henry, died in infancy, but in 1526 she gave birth to Edward Courtenay. (3) Gertrude disapproved of the king's decision to divorce Catherine and to marry Anne Boleyn and did not attend the coronation. (4) Henry was furious and later insisted that Gertrude became godmother to Anne's daughter, Elizabeth and presented the princess with three engraved silver-gilt bowls. (5)
Gertrude Courtenay 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. (6) 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". (7)
Gertrude also made contact with Elizabeth Barton, a woman who had caused great controversy by making speeches in public. According to Barton's biographer, Diane Watt, she had been making predictions about the future for over five years. "In the course of this period of sickness and delirium she began to demonstrate supernatural abilities, predicting the death of a child being nursed in a neighbouring bed. In the following weeks and months the condition from which she suffered, which may have been a form of epilepsy, manifested itself in seizures (both her body and her face became contorted), alternating with periods of paralysis. During her death-like trances she made various pronouncements on matters of religion, such as the seven deadly sins, the ten commandments, and the nature of heaven, hell, and purgatory. She spoke about the importance of the mass, pilgrimage, confession to priests, and prayer to the Virgin and the saints." (8)
Elizabeth Barton had meetings with senior figures including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More. She suggested that they should tell Henry VIII to 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 Cranmer commented later that Henry put off his marriage to Anne because "of her visions". (9)
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." (10)
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. (11)
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. (12) Father Hugh Rich was also taken into custody. In early November, following a full scale investigation, Barton was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (13)
Henry VIII ordered the arrests of Barton's main supporters, including Bishop John Fisher. Gertrude Courtenay only kept her freedom by writing a "grovelling letter to the King protesting that she had never meant to offend him." (14) In the letter she described Barton as a "most unworthy, subtle and deceivable woman". (15) According to David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013), Gertrude was only spared because Cromwell wanted her to help overthrow Anne Boleyn. (16)
However, Barton and her closest associates, Edward Bocking, Henry Risby (warden of Greyfriars, Canterbury), Hugh Rich (warden of Richmond Priory), Henry Gold (parson of St Mary Aldermary) and two laymen, Edward Thwaites and Thomas Gold, were executed on 20th April, 1534. (17)
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, Gertrude Courtenay and her husband, Henry Courtenay, 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)
In November, 1534, Gertrude Courtenay had a secret meeting with Eustace Chapuys in order to inform him that Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary, were in grave danger. (21) Retha M. Warnicke has argued that in doing this she was probably working for Thomas Cromwell: "Apparently, Cromwell had hoped that if Chapuys could be convinced that their lives were in jeopardy, he would try to persuade them to submit to the recently passed Statute of Supremacy." (22)
It also seems that Cromwell also used Gertrude Courtenay to help bring down Anne Boleyn. In January, 1536, Eustace Chapuys, reported to King Charles V that the Marchioness of Exeter had told him that Boleyn had used witchcraft to "ensnare" the king and that her failure to bear him a surviving son was proof that God condemned their marriage. (23) This was meant to undermine foreign support of Boleyn, who was executed on 19th May, 1536. (24)
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." (25)
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." (26) On 5th November, Gertrude Courtenay, Henry 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. (27) He claimed that Henry Courtenay had said "I like well the proceedings of the Cardinal Pole" and that "knaves rule about the King". (28) He was found guilty of treason and was executed by decapitation with a sword on Tower Hill on 9 December 1538. (29) All the Courtenay properties were taken by Henry VIII. (30)
After a year Gertrude Courtenay was released from the Tower of London. According to her biographer little is known about her life over the next few years. However, following her accession in 1553, Queen Mary recalled her to the royal court and attended her coronation in November. Her son, Edward Courtenay was released from captivity and it was suggested that he might become Mary's husband. However, she eventually decided to marry Philip of Spain. Edward became involved in the plot led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. This resulted in both mother and son being "cast out of the court". (31)
Gertrude Courtenay died in 1558.
All began well for the Courtenays. As countess of Devon, Gertrude attended the queen at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. In 1525 Devon was created marquess of Exeter in the same ceremony that saw Fitzroy dubbed duke of Richmond, and so Gertrude became a marchioness. Soon afterwards was born a son and heir, Edward Courtenay (1526–1556); Henry, an earlier son, died in infancy. Royal grants of land augmented the ancestral estates in Devon, and marquess and marchioness both made regular appearances in the new year's gift rolls. When the validity of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon came under intense scrutiny, Henry Courtenay signed the petition of the English nobility to the pope to grant an annulment. However, both he and his wife had considerable sympathy for Catherine's cause, and they opposed the evangelicalism of Cromwell and Cranmer. Together with such prominent religious conservatives as Sir Thomas More and the countess of Salisbury, the marchioness of Exeter took an interest in the prophetic visions of Elizabeth Barton, the Canterbury nun who dared to predict King Henry's death should he repudiate Queen Catherine. Gertrude travelled in disguise to meet this Nun of Kent, and brought her to the Courtenay house at West Horsley in Surrey, where Barton experienced a trance. It was a risky association; Barton was executed for treason in 1534, and the marchioness was cited in the subsequent investigation.