COURTENAY, William (1777-1859), of 18 Duke Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1812 - Jan. 1826

Family and Education

b. 19 June 1777, 1st s. of Rt. Rev. Henry Reginald Courtenay, bp. of Exeter, and Lady Elizabeth Howard, da. of Thomas Howard, 2nd earl of Effingham; 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., of Juniper Hill, Surr., 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da. d.v.p.; (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. d. 19 Mar. 1859.

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 Univ. vols. 1798; vol. London and Westminster light horse 1803; capt. Roborough vols. 1803.


Courtenay, whose father had been bishop of Exeter,1 was returned for that city for the third time in 1820, with support from the chamber and cathedral interests, despite being absent owing to ‘severe illness’. At a celebration dinner he dismissed the ‘wild ideas of reform which are afloat’ and justified his conduct in securing the committal of John Cam Hobhouse* for libelling the House of Commons.2 He was a fairly regular attender, who continued to give general support to Lord Liverpool’s ministry, and as a master in chancery he often spoke on legal matters and served on relevant committees. In presenting a petition from newspaper vendors complaining of the injury to public morals from the growth of Sunday papers, 26 May 1820, he observed that ‘the true liberty of the press was most endangered by the abuse of it’. He regretted that ministers were unwilling to offer compensation to the American loyalists, whose ‘claims stood on the faith of Parliament and were quite distinct from any others’, 19 June. He clarified the law relating to annuities for the royal family, 6 July.3 He defended the practice whereby the accountant-general of the court of chancery was remunerated by fees rather than by a publicly funded salary, 18 July. He justified the trial of Queen Caroline, 17 Oct. 1820, and thought ‘the people were coming to a more sober and rational view of the subject’. He voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards the queen, 6 Feb. 1821. He divided for Catholic relief, 28 Feb., and argued that concession would ‘contribute to the stability, not only of the constitution, but of the Protestant religion’, 19 Mar., when he expressed the ‘utmost alarm’ at Croker’s proposal to add financial provision for the Catholic clergy to the relief bill.4 In the debate on Irish education, 1 Mar., he testified to the ‘disposition of the Catholics to support schools ... conducted on a liberal system’. Next day he supported his brother’s motion to disconnect the Grampound disfranchisement bill from any general principle of reform and argued that a £20 voting qualification for Leeds would be ‘most beneficial to the town ... and most conformable to the constitution’.5 He voted against the disfranchisement of ordnance officials, 12 Apr., and Russell’s reform resolutions, 9 May. He divided against repeal of the additional malt duty, 21 Mar., 3 Apr., army reductions, 11 Apr., 25, 28 May, and economy and retrenchment, 27 June. He obtained papers regarding the claims of American loyalists, 21 Mar., and successfully moved that their petition be considered, acting as a teller, 6 June. On 11 May he advised the House ‘not to allow itself to be carried away by ... indignation’ with the proprietors of John Bull, who had libelled Grey Bennet, and simply to order them to be taken into custody. He supported the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May, arguing that the death penalty was unnecessary as ‘a little time would enable us so to arrange our prisons as to make secondary punishments effectual in preventing crime’. He ‘hoped it was not proposed to revive any of the obnoxious old law with respect to whipping for vagrancy’, 15 June. He voted for the duke of Clarence’s grant, 8, 25 June 1821.

He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 21 Feb., abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., and repeal of the salt duties, 28 June 1822. On 5 Mar. he secured the reappointment of the select committee on gaols, after contending that ‘a uniform rule of discipline’ was needed.6 He blamed the ‘nature and multiplicity of ... public business’ for the slow progress of the prison laws consolidation bill, 10 June.7 He presented an Exeter petition for revision of the criminal law, 9 May,8 and ‘concurred in the general principles’ of Mackintosh’s motion to this end, 4 June, although he thought the House should not ‘set the public mind afloat’ while a select committee was considering the subject. He was a minority teller that day for the motion to consider next session measures for strengthening the police. He introduced the punishment by hard labour bill, 19 June, which he explained would not apply to political offenders; it received royal assent, 5 Aug. (3 Geo. IV, c. 114).9 He opposed Hume’s amendment challenging the king’s power to dismiss army officers, 12 Mar. He maintained that the House was justified in rejecting petitions using insulting language, 28 Mar., and observed that ‘those who contended for the unlimited admission of petitions ... were ... the most formidable enemies of the sacred right of petition’. He supported the removal of the ‘glaring anomaly’ of Catholic peers’ disabilities, 10 May, welcoming the spread of religious toleration and arguing that the bill was essential for the ‘harmony and tranquillity’ of Ireland. On 9 July he raised the case of publications by John Hope and William Menzies impugning the motives of James Abercromby in calling for an inquiry into the conduct of the lord advocate, which were ‘a part of that fatal system which had of late been manifesting itself ... and which it was high time the House should effectively put down’; his motion that they were guilty of a breach of privilege and should be ordered to attend was agreed. He successfully moved that the House should enjoin Abercromby not to interfere with its proceedings by prosecuting his quarrel by means of a duel, 12 July. On his motions, 17 July, Hope was found guilty of breach of privilege but no further action was taken. He successfully moved that £12,884 be granted to two American loyalists for the loss of their estates, 22 July 1822.10 That summer Croker mentioned him as a likely member of a ‘powerful floating party’ which would form around Canning, if he went into opposition.11 Courtenay divided against further tax reductions, 3 Mar., and repeal of the tax on houses valued at under £5, 10 Mar., but he was in the minority against the clause in the London Bridge bill giving the treasury control over the appointment of the engineer, 20 June 1823. He introduced the prison laws amendment bill, 3 Mar.,12 which gained royal assent, 10 July (4 Geo. IV, c. 63). He voted for the Scottish juries bill, 20 June, spoke in favour of the unamended capital punishments repeal bill, 25 June,13 and was a majority teller for accepting the Lords’ amendments to the felonies bill, 7 July. He denied that the public was enthusiastic for war in defence of Spain, 18 Mar., and trusted that ministers would ‘preserve the honour of the country unimpaired’ without jeopardizing the current ‘happy state of prosperity’. He voted against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr. He divided against producing papers regarding the Orange murder plot against the Irish lord lieutenant, 24 Mar., and on 15 Apr. argued that the Irish attorney-general Plunket had ‘used his legal prerogative fairly and honestly’ in the prosecution, although he regretted that the issue was aggravating ‘the unfortunate spirit of party at present the bane and curse of Ireland’; he voted against inquiry, 22 Apr. He divided against parliamentary reform in Scotland, 2 June. He introduced the bankruptcy laws amendment bill, 4 June,14 which did not get through committee. He voted against inquiry into delays in chancery, 5 June 1823, maintaining that the object was ‘not ... to investigate the real grievance, but indirectly and mainly to ... attack’ lord chancellor Eldon. He noted that in recent years there had been a ‘vast increase of business’ in the court, owing to the ‘increase of the population and ... commerce of the nation’, and he praised Eldon’s diligence and hard work. He spent that autumn as a member of the commission of inquiry into legal procedure in Scotland; the Whig lawyer Henry Cockburn found him a ‘fair, candid, intelligent man’.15

He reintroduced the bankruptcy laws amendment bill, 18 Feb., which received royal assent, 21 June 1824 (5 Geo. IV, c. 98). He defended the course taken by the home secretary Peel in relation to the duke of Atholl’s alterations to the criminal law in the Isle of Man, 18 Feb. In March he was appointed to the commission of inquiry into chancery and advised Peel that it was essential to include ‘one or two non-lawyers’, in order to inspire public confidence that the problem was being properly investigated.16 He welcomed the lord advocate’s proposed changes to the Scottish courts of justice, arising from the commissioners’ recommendations, 30 Mar. He supported the Scottish juries bill, 4 May, and approved Peel’s decision to postpone the Scottish judicature bill, 17 June, as he was confident that ‘the more the suggestions in the [commissioners’] report were canvassed, the less opposition would be made to the measure’. He agreed that ‘the state of the inferior gaols’ required urgent consideration and recommended that the Gaols Act amendment bill be supported ‘with a view to an ulterior measure’, 5 Mar. He presented an Exeter petition against the coal duties, 20 Feb., and complained that in the west of England ‘all enterprise in manufacture was checked ... by the weight of these unequal duties’, 1 Apr. He argued that the cattle ill-treatment bill was unnecessary and was a majority teller against its second reading, 9 Mar. He presented an Exeter anti-slavery petition, 16 Mar.17 He voted for the Irish insurrection bill, 14 June 1824, and the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb. 1825, as he considered the existence of the Catholic Association to be ‘incompatible with the well being of society’ and an obstacle to emancipation. He paired for Catholic claims, 1 Mar., presented a hostile petition from the Exeter chamber, 18 Mar.,18 described the proposals to pay the priests and limit the county franchise as ‘salutary and highly necessary to the welfare of Ireland’ but not ‘conditions of compromise’, 28 Mar., and voted for relief, 21 Apr., 10 May. He introduced a lunacy traverse bill to prevent the ‘frequent abuses’ that were occurring, 25 Mar.;19 it gained royal assent, 22 June (6 Geo. IV, c. 53). He assured the House that the chancery commission had ‘not been idle’, 25 Apr., and expressed confidence that ‘some remedy for ... existing abuses’ would be found, 7 June, when he was a majority teller against the motion for production of the evidence already taken. He denounced Alderman Wood’s London tithes bill as ‘an extraordinary attempt to interfere with the rights of individuals’ and successfully moved its rejection, 17 May; he was a minority teller against the St. Olave’s tithes bill, 6 June. He voted for the financial provision for the duke of Cumberland, 30 May, 6, 10 June. He argued that the conduct of the Surrey magistrate William Kenrick† was not a case in which the House should interfere, 28 June. He was a majority teller against an amendment to the spring guns bill, 29 June 1825. By November Peel was pressing for the chancery commission’s report to be ready early in the next session, lest the House decide to take the matter into its own hands, and he asked Courtenay to ensure that Eldon was aware of the urgency of the situation. In February 1826 Courtenay assured Peel that the commissioners were ‘sitting daily and I hope ... their report cannot be delayed many days; but the difficulties arising from the chancellor’s illness, the non-attendance of some of our members, and the too great activity of others, have been very great’. According to Lord Colchester, Courtenay ‘wrote the draft of the report, which underwent many alterations’ before its completion at the beginning of March. It contained 184 recommendations for reform, and while Courtenay believed that Eldon ‘does not in his heart concur in what we have done ... he consents to the experiment being tried’. He continued to communicate with Peel as to the best means of implementing the report.20

Courtenay had resigned his seat in January 1826 on being appointed clerk-assistant to the House of Lords, at an annual salary of £4,000. This surprised some observers, who thought his ambition was the more lucrative office of accountant general in chancery. His decision to accept the post may have been influenced by the prospect of an intervention at Exeter by a ‘church and king’ candidate.21 After the formation of Canning’s ministry in 1827 he observed to an old supporter that ‘the Protestants are surely very cowardly fellows to run away and leave their king’, facetiously adding that ‘the good Protestants need be under no alarm. There is no intention of making the pope lord chancellor at present’.22 Canning subsequently wrote that he had understood Courtenay to be ‘choosing for life’ in 1826 and relinquishing ‘other chances or prospects’; he therefore had no right to complain of being passed over for offices to which he apparently aspired, such as master of the rolls and lord chancellor of Ireland.23 At the Devon county meeting on Catholic emancipation, 16 Jan. 1829, he seconded Lord Morley’s unsuccessful amendment against petitioning Parliament, arguing that the present critical state of affairs in Ireland outweighed any imagined dangers from concession.24 Later that year he submitted a proposal to the duke of Wellington for the appointment of an additional deputy speaker in the Lords, suggesting himself for the post, but nothing came of this; Lord Grey’s government proved no more enthusiastic about the scheme.25 He enjoyed greater success in 1831 when his persistent efforts led to the earldom of Devon, dormant since 1556, being revived in favour of his cousin, William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay, whose scandalous sexual behaviour had forced him to live abroad for many years. Courtenay succeeded to the title in 1835, inheriting extensive landed estates at Powderham Castle, Devon, and in County Limerick. However, his cousin’s personal estate, which was proved under £16,000 (and at £23,076 in Ireland), was heavily encumbered by settlements, bequests, pensions and irrecoverable debts, and all the French property had reportedly been left to servants.26 In 1841, when he was trying to make provision for his brother’s children, he lamented to Peel that ‘the manner in which my predecessor disposed of his property and the pressure of my own family, of whom two are living on small curacies’ made his task more difficult.27 He served as chairman of the royal commission on Irish land in 1843, supported repeal of the corn laws in 1846 and thereafter sat in the Lords as a Liberal Conservative. By 1849 he was in a ‘state of absolute penury’, owing to the loss of income from his Irish estate, but his plight was eased in 1856 when Parliament granted him an annual pension of £1,500.28 He died in March 1859 and was succeeded by his eldest son, William Courtenay (1807-88), Conservative Member for South Devon, 1841-9; following the death of his grandson in 1891 the title passed to his second son, Henry Courtenay (1811-98).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. He left William £1,500 in his will (PROB 11/1396/622; IR26/77/52).
  • 2. Alfred, 29 Feb., 14 Mar., 25 Apr. 1820.
  • 3. The Times, 7 July 1820.
  • 4. Ibid. 20 Mar. 1821.
  • 5. Ibid. 3 Mar. 1821.
  • 6. Ibid. 6 Mar. 1822.
  • 7. Ibid. 11 June 1822.
  • 8. Ibid. 10 May 1822.
  • 9. Ibid. 11 June 1822.
  • 10. Ibid. 23 July 1822.
  • 11. Add. 41319, f. 57.
  • 12. The Times, 4 Mar. 1823.
  • 13. Ibid. 26 June 1823.
  • 14. Ibid. 5 June 1823.
  • 15. Cockburn Letters, 99.
  • 16. Add. 40363, f. 66.
  • 17. The Times, 17 Mar. 1824.
  • 18. Ibid. 19 Mar. 1825.
  • 19. Ibid. 26 Mar. 1825.
  • 20. Add. 40383, ff. 96-98; 40385, ff. 195, 301; 40386, f. 33; 40389, ff. 5-11; 40390, ff. 113-18; Colchester Diary, iii. 417.
  • 21. Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 6 Feb. 1826; Add. 40387, f. 94.
  • 22. Devon RO 68/30/3/5, Courtenay to Toland [1827].
  • 23. Canning’s Ministry, 330.
  • 24. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 Jan. 1829.
  • 25. Wellington mss WP1/1024/17; Add. 51837, Courtenay to Holland, 28 May [1832].
  • 26. PROB 11/1848/355; IR26/1380/390; Raikes Jnl. ii. 116, 118-19.
  • 27. Add. 40389, f. 231.
  • 28. Brougham mss, Devon to Brougham, 7 July 1849, 27 Feb. 1855, 10 July [1856].