Wednesday, May 2, 2012

All the King's Men: Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquis of Exeter

Edward Courtenay

Henry Courtenay was that son of William Courtenay, Earl of Devon and Princess Catherine of York, sister of Queen Elizabeth of York. Thus, Henry Courtenay was Henry VIII's 1st Cousin. Despite "being family," William Courtenay and Edward Courtenay (Henry's grandfather) were thrown in the Tower as traitors in 1504. Evidence that they supported the main Yorkist claimant over Henry VII didn't help their case. Lucky for them, Henry VII died without ordering their executions.

Life at Court

With the rise of Henry VIII to the throne in 1509, the sun seemed to shine a little brighter on the Courtenays. They were released from the Tower and their Earldom restored. Henry was allowed to inherit his father's title in 1511 upon William's death.

Henry Courtenay from
the Order of the Garter
Procession, 1535.
Being young and family, Henry instantly became a member of the King's inner circle; one of his "men." His favor grew as he excelled in both military efforts and hunting. In 1520, Courtenay was made a member of the King's Privy Council. In 1521, he was made a Knight of the Garter, one of the greatest honors in the land (Perhaps this was a little foreboding as he replaced the executed Duke of Buckingham). In 1525, at the height of his power, he was made Marquis of Exeter.

In the late 1520's, it is not surprising that he sided with the King and aided in the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey's fall made Courtenay second in power to the King. He also sided with the King on the "Great Matter," despite the fact that Katherine of Aragon cited him as one of her "friends." He sat as commissioner at the divorce hearings. When it was Anne Boleyn's turn to fall, Courtenay again played a big part, serving as commissioner at her trial.


Despite aiding the King in getting rid of his first wife, Courtenay's wife remained in correspondence with Catherine. She was a Catholic and did not attempt to hide it. It did not help matters that Courtenay was not a friend of Cromwell. From primary evidence, he seems to have disapproved of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Thomas Cromwell
Like his grandfather and father, evidence was found that Courtenay was in correspondence with a Yorkist Claimant to the Throne, this time Cardinal Reginald Pole. To make matters worse, a small movement in Cornwall demanded that Henry VIII, who at this point had no male heir, take Courtenay as his heir apparent.

In 1538, Courtenay, along with his wife and son, were thrown into the Tower. He was put on trial for the so-called "Exeter Conspiracy." By the time he was tried, the "evidence" had been construed to claim Courtenay was attempting to insight rebellion and take the throne for himself. In reality, it was most likely another ingenious plot by Cromwell. Like with Anne Boleyn and her "lovers," Cromwell was able to rid himself of his enemies (more like men who held power and were close to the King), such as Courtenay and Nicholas Carew. 

Courtenay was found guilty and executed on Jan. 9, 1539. Also like Anne Boleyn, he was beheaded with a sword. His son wasn't released from prison until 1553 by Queen Mary I.

Considering Henry Courtenay's position within the Government and Royal Family it is surprising that little is really written about him. I suppose he is overshadowed by Wolsey, Cromwell and other men who formed the King's inner circle. Though Cromwell's masterful art of riding himself of his enemies is best displayed with Anne Boleyn, Courtenay proves another good example.

Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter
Henry VIII: King and Court, Alison Weir

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