COURTENAY, Sir William II (1529/30-57), of Powderham, Devon and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 1529/30, 1st s. of George Courtenay of Powderham, by Catherine, da. of Sir George St. Leger of Annery in Monkleigh. educ. I. Temple, adm. 1546. m. lic. 28 Nov. 1545, Elizabeth, da. of John Paulet, 2nd Marquess of Winchester, 1s. Sir William 1da. suc. fa. by Nov. 1533, gd.-fa. 24 Nov. 1535. Kntd. 2 Oct. 1553.1

Offices Held


At the inquisition held at Exeter on 27 Oct. 1536 into the property of Sir William Courtenay I of Powderham, it was found that his grandson and namesake, then aged six, was heir to the extensive lands there enumerated. The wardship seems to have fallen to Cromwell, in whose household accounts for 1539-40 Courtenay’s name appears among the outgoings, and on his attainder to have reverted to the King, by whom it was granted, with the right of marriage, to Sir John Paulet on 4 May 1545. Within seven months Paulet had obtained the licence for Courtenay’s marriage to his daughter, and when a year later Courtenay and William Paulet each redeemed for 50s. the obligations incidental to their membership of the Inner Temple they were probably brothers-in-law. Courtenay was to have a namesake at this inn who was admitted in 1551 but was accidentally killed by Nicholas Hare before 13 May of the following year. Another William Courtenay captained ships in the French war in 1545-6 and was later reported to be involved in privateering in the Channel: it is more likely that he, or yet another namesake, was the yeoman of the guard mentioned in December 1545, than that the 15 year-old heir to wide estates should have served the crown in that modest capacity.2

Courtenay had licence to enter upon his inheritance on 16 Feb. 1553, but he did not use it to support the life of a country gentleman. In 1556 the Venetian ambassador called him a ‘cavalier’ and ‘one of those most in the habit of frequenting the court’, and it is there and in London that his progress is to be traced, taking part in the New Year jousts of 1552 and being knighted at Mary’s coronation. As a Protestant, however, he was to be restive under the new regime. An incident in December 1553, when with Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond and Ossory, and a Mr. Barnsby, he quarrelled with and assaulted a priest in a London street, cost the assailants a spell in the Compter, and when in April 1555 he and his friends Sir Arthur Champernon and Amias Paulet were given passports to travel abroad for four months it was probably with the object of being rid of him for a time. His absence did not prevent Courtenay from being elected to the Parliament which met in November of that year. Although the manor of Plympton Erle had been granted two years before to his distant kinsman Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, he is more likely to have been supported by another earl of local prominence, the young Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. It was his cousin James Courtenay, a Catholic, who as sheriff returned him, but his affiliations were with relatives such as his step-grandfather (Sir) Anthony Kingston and his uncle (Sir) John Chichester. He was one of those who attended the meetings where parliamentary business was discussed and opposition concerted, and he opposed a government bill in this Parliament.3

By the end of January 1556 Courtenay had become involved in the Dudley conspiracy. A messenger caught coming from the Continent made a confession which implicated him and by early April he was in the Fleet prison: he was soon removed to the Tower, where his wife was allowed to visit him. As a grandson-in-law of the lord treasurer he was an embarrassing prisoner and although he was indicted on 4 Nov. 1556 he was not brought to trial. On 8 Mar. 1557 he was pardoned all treasons and felonies committed before 1 Dec. 1556, but it is not known when he was released. By what has been called an ‘extraordinary decision’ of the House of Lords on 15 Mar. 1831 Courtenay was adjudged to have become de jure Earl of Devon during his imprisonment in the Tower.4

Courtenay joined the expedition of 1557 against France commanded by the Earls of Pembroke and Bedford. He took part in the siege of St. Quentin, but contrary to tradition he was not killed or, probably, even wounded in action. By an undated will made when he was ‘visited with bodily sickness’ he bequeathed to his wife the life interest of a third of his property in Devon and to his daughter an annuity of £20 until she was 21, when she was to receive £1,000. His executors, Sir William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, John, Lord St. John (his father-in-law), Sir Giles Strangways II, (Sir) John Perrot, Sir John Pollard and (Sir) John Chichester, were entrusted with another third with which to settle debts and fulfil bequests, whereupon it was to revert to his heir. ‘And for token of remembrance of my heart and goodwill’ and in acknowledgment of his ‘singular trust and affiance’, Winchester was to receive a horse which Courtenay had bought at St. Quentin. The overseers were Sir John Sellynge and (Sir) John Zouche, and the will was witnessed by Thomas Howard, Ambrose Dudley, Sir Robert Dudley, Thomas Heigham and Francis Killinghall. Courtenay died on 29 Sept. 1557, when his son and heir William was four years and 14 weeks old. His will was proved on 16 Nov. 1557 but the probate was later cancelled so that it does not appear in the register of the prerogative court of Canterbury. Courtenay’s widow later married Sir Henry Oughtred.5

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Date of birth estimated from age at grandfather’s i.p.m., C142/58/1. Vis. Devon, ed. Vivian, 246-7; CP, iv. 332-3; Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 335; C142/113/4.
  • 2. LP Hen. VIII, xiv, xx, xxi; CPR, 1550-3, p. 284; APC, ii. 141, 303; CSP Span. 1554, p. 216; C142/58/1.
  • 3. CSP Ven. 1555-6, p. 439; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 384; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 33; APC, v. 117; CPR, 1553, p. 3; 1553-4, p. 256; F. Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, i. 19; SP11/8/7, 35; Guildford mus. Loseley 1331/2.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1547-8, p. 84; CSP Ven. 1555-6, pp. 439, 447, 509; CPR, 1555-7, p. 456; Machyn’s Diary, 104; D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 211-12, 222, 228, 233-4, 266; CP, iv. 332, 336.
  • 5. Machyn’s Diary, 144; Prob. 10/34; C142/128/63.