COURTENAY, Sir William, 1st Bt. (1628-1702), of Powderham Castle and Ford House, Newton Abbot, Devon.
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Family and Education
bap. 7 Sept. 1628, 1st s. of Francis Courtenay of Powderham by 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Sir Edward Seymour, 2nd Bt.†, of Berry Promeroy. m. c.1643, Margaret, da. of Sir William Waller I of Osterley Park, Mdx. and h. to her gdfa. Sir Richard Reynell of Ford House, 9s. (2 d.v.p.) 8 da. suc. fa. 1638; cr. Bt. Feb. 1645, suc. cos Lady Howard in Fitzford estate 1671, cos. Sir William Courtenay, Bt. at Newcastle, co. Limerick [I] by 1674.1
Commr. for assessment, Devon 1657, Aug. 1660-80, 1689-90, militia Mar. 1660, j.p. Mar. 1660-80, July 1688-d., col. of militia horse Apr. 1660, dep. lt. 1661-70, 1676-80, ?1689-d., commr. for loyal and indigent officers 1662, sheriff 1664-5; commr. for inquiry into Newfoundland government 1667; freeman, Exeter 1674, Totnes by 1684, Plymouth 1696; commr. for recusants, Devon 1675; portreeve, Bere Alston 1680-1; commr. for inquiry into recusancy fines, Cornw. Devon, Exeter and Dorset Mar. 1688.2
‘This ancient family’, wrote a contemporary, ‘of itself is enough to ennoble a county.’ Courtenay’s ancestor came to England with Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, and acquired the great barony of Okehampton. From 1335 to 1556 the head of the family enjoyed the title of Earl of Devon, while junior members represented the county regularly from 1377. Courtenay later claimed to have begun political life as a Cavalier ‘which name I own to the last drop of blood ... and there will I stick in spite of fate and all the enemies that I have upon earth’. He tried to hold aloof from political life in the Interregnum, though he gave shelter to the dean of Exeter at Powderham. When he was ‘drawn in to be a grandjuryman’, he told Henry Seymour I in March 1658 that if he could be assured of the King’s forgiveness and favour, he would hazard all in his service; he had already undertaken more than any three in his county. Courtenay kept his word, and on 13 Feb. 1660 with Sir John Northcote and Simon Leach was arrested for stirring up tumultuous demands in Exeter for a free Parliament. He was elected to the Convention for Ashburton, where he owned property. Lord Wharton, perhaps confusing him with his cousin, the recusant leader of the Hampshire Cavaliers, expected his election to be disallowed, but he took his seat, and on 12 July 1660 with Northcote was charged to desire George Monck to withdraw the guard from the House. Otherwise he leaves no trace on the records of this Parliament, being principally engaged in suppressing disaffection in the west country with Sir Coplestone Bampfylde. Courtenay was named to the projected order of the Royal Oak, with an estate valued at £3,000 p.a., but failed to secure re-election in 1661, though he put up his father-in-law at Honiton, and his characteristic large and shapely signature attests the returns for Devon and Totnes.3
In the following year Courtenay joined Bampfylde and Northcote in searching the guildhall at Exeter for arms in 1662. As sheriff, he secured the release of the deprived rector of Honiton, a Presbyterian and a kinsman by marriage whom he had himself presented during the Commonwealth, and established him in safety at Powderham. He refused the offer of a seat at Plympton in 1667. He formed the triumvirate (with Sir Edward Seymour and (Sir) John Rolle) to oppose the court candidate at the by-election for Devon in 1671, declaring that
he would not have stirred in the business if the Earl of Bath had not appeared in opposition to Sir Coplestone Bampfylde, and if he should receive a baffle in this election, he would sell all his estate in Devonshire and leave the country.
Courtenay had the satisfaction of defeating Bath not only in the election, but also in the contest for the inheritance of Lady Howard (mother of George Howard), consisting of the Fitz property in Devon and Cornwall and over £9,000 personal estate. Shortly afterwards he inherited 35,000 acres in Ireland from his cousin. With his name, his wealth, his loathing of ‘new damned French tricks’, and his friendship with the Hon. William Russell, he now became the leader of the country party in Devon. ‘The present Sir William’, wrote Prince, ‘hath wanted nothing but his health to have rendered him as illustrious as most of his ancestors.’ Much of his political activity took place behind the scenes, as Sir John Fowell implies. As lord of the manor, he could nominate the returning officer at Honiton. Though he asserted that he always left people ‘to their own dispose’, he gave his interest to Thomas Reynell at Ashburton and to Henry Northleigh at Okehampton in the 1677 by-elections.4
Courtenay was duly returned for Devon to the Exclusion Parliaments. At the first election of 1679 he joined forces with the trimmer, Edward Seymour, against the court supporter Bampfylde. A member of the Green Ribbon Club, he was marked ‘honest’ on Shaftesbury’s list. He was inactive in the first Exclusion Parliament, serving only on two committees, those for the security bill and the export of leather, but he voted for exclusion, and was re-elected in September. During the summer of 1680, he tried to organize a petition at quarter sessions for the immediate sitting of Parliament, and acted as host to Monmouth at Exeter during his western progress. He was removed from local office, and Sir Leoline Jenkins lamented (quite correctly, granted his premisses):
An ancient, noble name will look odd in story, when its glorious ancestors shall appear to have placed their highest honours and merit in serving the crown, and a descendant standing alone with the blemish of having disserved it.
In the second Exclusion Parliament, Courtenay was moderately active, serving on the committee of elections and privileges and on the inquiries into abhorring and the conduct of Sir Robert Peyton. With Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt., he was preparing to present a petition to the King from Devon for the continuation of Parliament, when it was dissolved. He was returned unopposed to the Oxford Parliament, in which he was appointed to the committee for the exclusion bill and is said to have begun a speech on the subject, only to be shouted down before he had completed three sentences. He remained active in local politics, exercising ‘commanding persuasion’ on Richard Duke to purchase the borough of Ashburton. Courtenay and Samuel Rolle were the only Devonshire magnates who failed to sign the loyal address approving the dissolution in September 1681.5
According to Lord Grey of Warke, Courtenay promised Russell to support Monmouth by force of arms. He was implicated by Monmouth’s confession in the Rye House Plot, and his old comrade Bampfylde was ordered to take his deposition. It is probable that he was already disabled by the stroke which paralysed one side of his body. Further evidence was provided by William Howard who stated that he was to be engaged by Reynell, and it was not denied that he had received a visit from Walcot, allegedly on private business. Courtenay was summoned to attend the King in Sir Leoline Jenkins’s office on 4 July 1683, but he seems to have been allowed to put his disclaimer in writing, and no further proceedings were taken.6
Courtenay did not oppose the Honiton charter of 1684, on the assurance that his rights would be reserved. But apparently this condition was not kept, and he lost the right to nominate the returning officer for the 1685 elections. He was ordered to be apprehended during Monmouth’s rebellion, but in 1688 he was restored to local office. He was ‘supposed to be right’ on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws, and was expected to stand for Devon in spite of his infirmity. He was conspicuously inactive when William of Orange landed. Even when the prince spent the night in Courtenay’s house near Newton Abbot he ‘gave no countenance to the enterprise, either in his own name or by his tenants’. However, it was reported on 20 Nov. that his two sons had joined the prince, and in April 1689 he was offered a peerage, ‘as one of those who have contributed ... to the settling of the nation’. This was one of William’s genealogical blunders, for Courtenay considered himself the rightful Earl of Devon, and would not be satisfied with any title other than this one, which could hardly be granted to him without offence to the Earl of Devonshire (William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish). Courtenay’s loyalty to William III appears to have been doubted, but he signed the Association, unlike his eldest son, and was described as ‘zealous for the government’ in 1696. He died on 1 Aug. 1702 and was buried at Wolborough.7
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Authors: M. W. Helms / John. P. Ferris
- 1. Trans. Devon Assoc. xxii. 106; Devon N. and Q. ii. 8.