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
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
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.
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