British Isle Genealogy
 England, Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man
   Wales, Channel Island, Isle of Wight

The Noble House of Courtenay

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     It may be asserted without fear of contradiction that, in point of ancestral nobility and ancient glory, no family in the British Peerage exceeds that of the Courtenays, Earls of Devonshire, or Devon. It is true that it teas not until a comparatively recent date that they attained the coronet which their head now wears; but their nobility dates from before the Conquest, and is European rather than English, cosmopolitan rather than insular.
     If we may trust the statement of the monk Almoin, who wrote in the twelfth century, the earliest ancestor of the Courtenays was Otho, a certain French knight, who lived about the year 1100, and who built the castle of Courtenai, on the banks of the river Clair, between Sens on the east and Montargis on the west, and between fifty and sixty miles to the south of Paris. His grandson Joceline joined in the first crusade, and by the death of his kinsman, Baldwin, gained the title of Count of Edessa, with a large territory annexed to it. His son and successor, being worsted in his wars with the barbarians, died a prisoner at Aleppo in Syria. His daughter married the brother of Baldwin III, King of Jerusalem, and two of her descendants inherited that sovereignty. Joceline, third Count of Edessa, distinguished himself at the battle of Ascalon against Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, and is supposed to have been slain at the fall of Jerusalem. His daughters Beatrix and Agnes were married, the former to a German, and the latter to a French noble, and with them ended this (the elder) branch of the Courtenays.
     The descent from Otho, however, was carried on by his great-grandson, Reginald de Courtenay, who married Isabel, daughter of one of the Counts of Corbeille.  The eldest daughter of this marriage married Peter, a younger son of Louis le Gros, who assumed, as was the custom in such cases, his wife's name, and is known to history as Peter Courtmay, and whose son (also Peter) succeeded to the throne of Constantinople in right of his wife, sister and heiress of Baldwin and Henry, Counts of Flanders, the first and second Latin Emperors of the East.
     Three of his descendants in succession sat upon the throne of Constantinople. The last of these left a daughter and heiress, Jane, who married Charles V of France; and their son, Roger de Courtenay, Seigneur de Champaignelles and Chief Butler of France, died in Palestine in 1329.
     Nine generations pass by, when I find his descendant Francis de Courtenay Petitioning Henry IV, of France, but without success, for the restoration of his ancient house to their rights as princes of the blood; and other members of the house presented like petitions to his successors on the French throne, but with only the same mortifying result.
     The direct French line of Courtenay and the male descendants of Pharamond in that country are said to have ended by the sudden death of Charles Roger Courtenay, in May, 1730.
     It is a matter of tradition and history that the Reginald Courtenay mentioned above abandoned his estates in France, and settled in England in the early part of the reign of Henry II. It is said that the reason of his expatriation was the disagreement between Louis VII and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her consequent divorce and re-marriage to the King of England-an end to which Courtenay had largely contributed. Henry, being thus indebted to him, did his best to help him to a good match an this side of the Channel, in consequence of which Reginald espoused Hawise or Alice, granddaughter of Robert de Abrincis, Viscount of Devonshire; and Hugh Courtenay, his descendant in the fourth generation, succeeded in due course to the annexed Earldom of Devon, being lineally sprung from Baldwin de Brion, Baron of Oahhampton and Viscount of Devonshire, through his son Hugh, the first Earl of Devonshire. He added to his position at Court by a fortunate marriage with Margaret, daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, the all-powerful Earl of Essex, by the Lady Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of King Edward I. The succeeding earls were distinguished for their loyalty and devotion to their king and country; and, during the Wars of the Roses, they firmly adhered to the Lancastrian Cause. The first earldom of Devon became extinct on the death of John, eighth earl, who, having joined in the cause of Margaret of Anjou, fell, sword in hand, at the battle of Tewkesbury, in 1471. It is not to be wondered, therefore, that when the Tudors came to the throne the son of Henry of Lancaster should have resolved to bestow further honors on the Courtenays, and accordingly Edward, second Earl of Devon (of the new creation) was raised, in 1525, to the marquisate of Exeter.
     He had the honor of tilting with Francis I. of France at the tournament which formed part of the amusements at the meeting of the French and English monarchs on the 'Field of Cloth of Gold.
     'His prosperity, however, lasted but a few brief years, for, in 1538, he was accused, truly or falsely, of high treason, in having, together with Henry Pole, Lord Montacute, and Sir Edward Nevill, conspired to place Reginald Pole, Dean of Exeter, upon the throne. He was executed, by the headsman's axe, on Tower Hill, January 9, 1539, when his marquisate passed under attainder.
     His son and heir, Edward, who, but for the attainder, would have been second marquis, was only twelve years old at his father's death, was kept a close prisoner in the Tower till the and of Henry's reign, and through that of his son Edward; but be was released on the accession of Mary, and restored by a new patent of creation, dated September 3, 1553, as Earl of Devon. The original precedence, however, of his ancestors he was never able to recover, as did the Dukes of Norfolk and Somerset. He is described by quaint Old Fuller as being 'a person of a lovely aspect, a beautiful body, a sweet nature, and a royal descent' Queen Mary is said at one time to have intended to bestow on him her hand, but this design never came about. Perhaps he was wise in steering clear of a match with so dangerous a lady as a Tudor princess. Same, however, say that the queen never forgave him for slighting her love for that of her sister Elizabeth. Be this as it may, he was again thrown into the Tower, from which he was soon after released at the intercession of Mary's husband, Philip of Spain.
     As his ancestor had come over to England from the Continent, so now he resolved to retire from this land of strife and war, and to seek a refuge in the sunny and peaceful south. He accordingly withdrew into Italy, where he died unmarried, not without suspicion of having been poisoned. His large estates passed into the families of Mohun, Trelawny, and Arundell of Trerice, and his earldom was supposed to have become extinct, or, at all events, to have passed into a hopeless abeyance; so hopeless, that the earldom (and subsequently the dukedom) of Devonshire was held to be at the free disposal of the Crown, and was bestowed by James I on the head of the house of Cavendish.
     Towards the end of the reign of George IV, however, a claim to the ancient earldom was preferred by William, Lord Courtenay, of Powderham Castle, as a descendant of Hugh de Courtenay, second of the old earls of Devon; and, after a long investigation before a Committee of Privileges, it was resolved by the House of Lords in March, 1831, that the claim had been clearly established. The new earl, however, who had long resided in Paris, where he led a self-indulgent and eccentric life, never came to England to take his seat in the House of Peers, the doors of which he had sought, at such cost of money and labor, to have opened in his favor. He died some three or four years afterwards, when the earldom passed to his cousin, William Courtenay, who had been for many years a clerk in the House of Peers; and his son, who sat as M. P. for South Devon in the House of Commons, and afterwards held office successively as Secretary to the Poor Law Board, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and also as President of the Poor Law Board, is the present head of the noble house of Courtenay, unless the Almanack de Gotha can furnish us with any elder branches among the maisons royales or maisons ducales on the Continent.*
     The Courtenays till quite lately retained for their motto the touchingly plaintive words, 'Ubi lapsus? quid feci?' Where am I fallen, and what have I done?' These words, which express astonishment at a sudden and undeserved fall, are said to have been adopted by the Powderham branch of the Courtenay family, when they had lost the earldom of Devon. Of late they have adopted the far more prosaic motto, Quod verum tutum.

* Gibbon, as is well known, devotes an eloquent chapter of his 'Decline and Fall' to a general statement of the honours of this noble house. 'what have I done?' These words, which express astonishment at a sudden and undeserved fall, are said to have been adopted by the Powderham branch of the Courtenay family, when they had lost the earldom of Devon. Of late they have adopted the far more prosaic motto, Quod verum tutren.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

Search British Isles

British Isles Genealogy Records

Channel Islands Genealogy
England Genealogy
Ireland Genealogy
Isle of Man Genealogy
Scotland Genealogy
Wales Genealogy

Other Genealogy Records

Free Genealogy
British Isles Books
Genealogy Library
Canadian Genealogy
Genealogy Gateway
Family Tree Guide

Cyndi's List

Sites I Visit

Garden Herbs
Trade Recipes

Sip of Wine
The Little Tea Book

British Isles Genealogy


Add/Correct a Link


Comments/Submit Data


Copyright 2004-, the web pages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from BIGenealogy. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!