COURTENAY, William (1777-1859).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1812 - Jan. 1826

Family and Education

b. 19 June 1777, 1st s. of Rt. Rev. Henry Reginald Courtenay, and bro. of Thomas Peregrine Courtenay*. educ. Westminster 1789; Christ Church, Oxf. 1794; L. Inn. 1793, called 1799. m. (1) 29 Nov. 1804, Harriet Leslie (d. 16 Dec. 1839), da. of Sir Lucas Pepys, 1st Bt., 4s. 1da.; (2) 30 Jan. 1849, Elizabeth Ruth, da. of Rev. John Middleton Scott of Ballygannon, co. Wicklow, s.p. suc. fa. 1803, 2nd cos. William Courtenay as 10th Earl of Devon 26 May 1835.

Offices Held

Patentee of subpoena office 1778-1852; commr. of bankrupts 1802-17; counsel, Queen Anne’s bounty until 1817; master in Chancery 1817-26; clerk-asst. of the Parliaments 1826-35.

Recorder, Exeter 1814-20, high steward, Oxf. Univ. 1838-d.; ecclesiastical commr. 1842-50.

Lt. Oxford university vols. 1798; vol. London and Westminster light horse 1803; capt. Roborough vols. 1803.


Courtenay, who was in possession of a sinecure worth £855 per annum before he left the cradle, belonged to one of the oldest families in Devon. His father held the valuable rectory of St. George’s, Hanover Square in London for 20 years, was appointed bishop of Bristol in 1794 and translated to Exeter in 1797. Courtenay eventually stood heir to his second cousin and namesake, the 3rd Viscount Courtenay, who had considerable property in Devon around his seat at Powderham Castle and large estates in Ireland, which were said in 1809 to bring in £90,000 a year.1 As clerk-assistant of the Parliaments from 1826 to 1835 he was well placed to advance Lord Courtenay’s claim to the earldom of Devon which was allowed to him on flimsy grounds by decision of the Lords, 14 May 1831, even though it had hitherto been considered as extinct since 1556. Courtenay succeeded to the title along with his kinsman’s estates in 1835.

Bred to the bar, he practised as a bankruptcy commissioner and equity draughtsman on the western circuit until he became a master in Chancery, at £3,000 a year, in 1817. He unsuccessfully contested the venal borough of Honiton, where Lord Courtenay had a minor interest, on a vacancy in March 1805, but a year later, when he was invited to stand for the borough on a new vacancy, he told William Dacres Adams that ‘I do not feel any inclination now to be in Parliament, which I cannot do without feeling more dependence somewhere than I choose to owe to anyone’. In the event a Mr Courtenay went to Honiton, but it is not clear whether it was William or his brother Thomas. Whoever it was, his politics were described as being ‘diametrically opposite’ to those of the ‘Talents’ and he did not go to the poll.2 An invitation in March 1811 from the corporation and ‘principal people’ of Exeter to stand for the city at the next general election was more acceptable, particularly as it coincided with the disgrace of Lord Courtenay who, long the subject of unsavoury rumours, was forced to go abroad to escape prosecution for homosexual practices. Courtenay’s friend from the circuit, the Whig lawyer Francis Horner, commented that ‘though he has Tory connexions, he is a very fit person to have a voice in the House of Commons’.3 He was returned unopposed in 1812.

The radical memoirist John Colman Rashleigh described Courtenay as a Canningite4 and, while he was not listed as one of Canning’s parliamentary squad as it stood in the new Parliament, there was clearly a connexion between them, which may explain why he was not included alongside his brother, recently appointed secretary to the Board of Control, in the ministerial list of Members expected to support government. His vote against the gold coin bill, 14 Dec. 1812, and his opposition to the vice-chancellor bill, 11 and 15 Feb. 1813, were probably inspired by Canning’s example. On 25 Feb. he declared his support for Catholic relief, an opinion ‘founded upon and confirmed by connection and acquaintance with Ireland’, and notwithstanding the unpopularity of such views at Exeter he was a steadfast supporter of relief throughout this period. He supported Romilly’s attempts to ameliorate the Treason Laws, 5 Apr. 1813 and 25 Apr. 1814, opposed the Admiralty registrars bill, 21 May and 8 July 1813, acting as teller for the minority of nine who voted against the bill on the second occasion, and attacked the stipendiary curates bill, 8 July 1813.

Lady Holland, writing to Lord Lansdowne, 30 July 1813, of the reactions of some of Canning’s followers to their ‘recent manumission’ by their leader, reported that Courtenay was ‘considered as much aggrieved’.5 On 29 Nov. 1813, evidently speaking from the opposition benches, he condemned the bill imposing capital punishment for frame-breaking as ‘an instrument of cruelty’ and he was a teller for the minority of 20 who divided against its renewal. On 19 July 1814 Canning, detailing to William Sturges Bourne his attempts to place ‘my friends in connection with the government’ in consequence of accepting the Lisbon embassy, wrote that

Courtenay has (as you know) no political views. I have however recommended him in the strongest terms to Liverpool, with the expression of my good opinion and good wishes, and am happy to find that in doing so, I have done what is not disagreeable to him, and at the same time all he would have liked.6

For the rest of this period Courtenay, an active and conscientious backbencher, showed a basic inclination to support the Liverpool government, but he remained prepared to take an independent line on specific issues, particularly on legal matters and some questions of economy.

Having presented a petition from Exeter against alteration of the Corn Laws, 6 June 1814, he expressed willingness to support the proposed new measure ‘on the principle of general utility’, 27 Feb. 1815, but was not averse to a reduction of the price below which imports were to be prohibited. He accordingly supported the attempted substitution of 74s. for 80s., 6 Mar., and in the end he voted against the third reading of the bill, 10 Mar. Courtenay voted with government on the question of the Spanish Liberals, 1 Mar., and the civil list, 14 Apr., but against them on the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage establishment, 28, 30 June and 3 July 1815. He supported the army estimates, 6 and 8 Mar. 1816, though on the second occasion, now speaking from the ministerial side of the House, he paid lip service to the need for economy. His vote for the continuance of the property tax, 18 Mar. 1816, gave a handle to the radical who later in the year came forward for Exeter and who denounced Courtenay as a servile placeman.7 While he had no objection to an inquiry into the employment of children in factories, 3 Apr. 1816, he believed that it was in general well regulated. He supported an investigation of grants-in-aid, 30 May, but voted with government on the civil list, 6 May, and the public revenues bill, 17 and 20 June 1816. On 3 June his brother told Sturges Bourne that William still looked up to Canning, recently installed at the Board of Control.8

Courtenay voted with government on the composition of the finance committee, 7 Feb., and against Admiralty economies, 25 Feb. On 26 Feb. he supported the suspension of habeas corpus, professing his belief in ‘the existence of extensive associations for the purpose of undermining the principles on which the fabric of society was founded’. He backed the renewed suspension, 23 June, but also spoke and voted for Romilly’s motion criticizing Lord Sidmouth’s circular letter, 25 June. He voted with ministers in defence of repression and the use of spies, 10, 11 Feb. and 5 Mar. 1818, when he spoke at length in their support, but on 13 Apr. he spoke ‘very strongly’ against the royal marriage grants and voted for Brougham’s hostile amendment.9 On 12 Feb. he obtained leave to introduce a surgery regulation bill, but it was lost on its second reading, 10 Apr.

On the hustings at Exeter in 1818 Courtenay refused to repent his more unpopular votes and insisted on a Member’s right to exercise his own judgment, regardless of constituency opinion.10 Backed by the corporation, the clergy and the city establishment, he won a handsome victory at the polls. In the 1819 session he supported government on the Wyndham Quin* affair, 29 Mar., acting as teller for the majority in both divisions, voted with them against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, and for the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June, but spoke and voted against the coal duties, 4 Mar. and 20 May. He spoke on a miscellany of other subjects, including Mackintosh’s motion for inquiry into the criminal laws, 2 Mar., which he opposed, preferring piecemeal revision to a general investigation; the elector’s oath bill, 7 May, which he succeeded in defeating, and the poor rates misapplication bill, which he supported, 17 May and 11 June. Either he or his brother was teller for the minority who voted against the Penryn bribery bill, 22 June.

Courtenay took a strong line against popular unrest in the emergency session of 1819. On 30 Nov. he condemned the Manchester meeting of August as having been ‘inconsistent with every form of government in the civilised world’ and called for legislation to ‘repress the torrent of sedition and blasphemy’. He conceded that Devon was tranquil, 8 Dec., but supported the seditious meetings bill to protect the county against the incursions of ‘itinerant agitators’. He drew the attention of the House to the pamphlet, A trifling mistake, 9 Dec., pronounced it an outrageous and dangerous breach of privilege the following day and on 13 Dec. successfully proposed the committal of its author, John Cam Hobhouse*, to Newgate. He died 19 Mar. 1859.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Farington, v. 256, 277.
  • 2. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 11/30; Add. 51844, Cavendish Bradshaw to Holland [8 Apr. 1806].
  • 3. Farington, vi. 147-8, 273; Horner mss 5, f. 23.
  • 4. Cornw. RO, T/S, ‘Mem. of J. C. Rashleigh’, i. 60.
  • 5. Lansdowne mss.
  • 6. Harewood mss.
  • 7. R. Cullum, Exeter and Devon Addresses (1818), 38, 42.
  • 8. Northumb. RO, Wallace (Belsay) mss S76/17/29.
  • 9. Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey [14 Apr. 1818].
  • 10. Cullum, 108.