Lost Princes of France: The Courtenays, from Latin Emperors to Earls of Devon

This is the story of a family that rose to great heights as princes and emperors in the eastern Mediterranean, then slowly declined over several centuries in rural France, before attempting to restore their former position in the line of succession to the French throne in the 17th century. An offshoot branch had established itself in England in the Middle Ages and by the 16th century were potential claimants to the throne there too. In an alternative reality, it is not impossible that, had the wheel of fate turned a bit differently, there could have been two royal Courtenay dynasties, facing each other across the Channel.

Arms of the House of Courtenay in France and England

The English succession potential of the Courtenays was fairly close, as nieces and nephews of the last of the Yorkist kings. Had Edward, Earl of Devon not died suddenly in 1556, some consider he might have married Elizabeth I and united the rival Plantagenet and Tudor claims in a royal Courtenay dynasty. The French succession potential for the Courtenays was much more remote: the entire Bourbon Dynasty would have needed to suddenly disappear to establish the reign of royal Courtenays in the mid-seventeenth century. More importantly, Louis de Courtenay-Chevillon (who assumed the title ‘Prince of Courtenay’) had to overcome five centuries of his family’s relative obscurity and poverty in order to convince the French elites to accept his candidacy for the throne should such a dynastic cataclysm occur. This he attempted to do, commissioning a massive and elaborately detailed ‘genealogical history’, which he presented to Louis XIV in 1661. In it, the author makes the case that the Courtenays should enjoy the same privileges as any prince of the blood, and that, should the main line fail, and those of the Bourbon cadet branches as well, the Courtenays must be recognised as next in line for the throne. This wasn’t as outrageous as it sounds: in 1663, besides the King and his brother Philippe, and the two-year-old Dauphin, the only males of the house of Bourbon were the Prince of Condé and his brother the Prince of Conti, Condé’s son Enghien, and Conti’s infant son. That’s only five adult males—it still may seem like a lot, but considering how many Bourbons were wiped out by smallpox in 1711-12, it’s not outside the realms of possibility.

frontispiece of the grand genealogical history of 1661

The two Courtenay families were actually not the same family by strict male-line succession—both probably inheriting the name from a female heiress—though they had the same origins and bore variations of the same coat-of arms for many centuries. It’s not even really certain how exactly they connect, and there are several legends surrounding the connection in the mid-12th century, when the original noble House of Courtenay died out. From this point, one member established a branch in England and rose to be the powerful earls of Devon, one of the oldest continually held earldoms in the United Kingdom (and surely one of those families most deserving of a dukedom that never got one—see Stanley); while another member headed east and established the Imperial House of Courtenay in Constantinople (see below).

The original Courtenays were servants of the Capetian monarchy in the central provinces of France: regions known as the Gâtinais and the Puisaye, neither very well known provincial names today, but rich agricultural lands and key territories in the struggle between the royal house in the Île de France and their chief vassals and rivals the dukes of Burgundy. Gâtanais and Puisaye lie in the zone between these two regions, and between the major waterways the Loire and the Seine. At the end of the 10th century, a lord known as Atto, Athon or Hutton was given several castles in this area to re-fortify and defend in the name of the king, notably the castle of Courtenay, watching over the valley of the Cléry river which feeds into the Seine, and guarding an important road between the key agricultural centres of the Loire Valley and the markets of Champagne.

The Clery river at Courtenay in the Gatinais

Lord Atto’s son Josselin consolidated his family’s power in the region through marriage to the daughter of the local count of Gâtinais, and their son, Miles (or Milon), rooted the family firmly in these lands by founding a Cistercian abbey nearby at Fontaine-Jean (in about 1124), bringing in twelve monks from the parent abbey of Cîteaux, in which the family mausoleum would be established for many generations. Nothing remains today of the castle of Courtenay, but the 12th-century church of St-Pierre and St-Paul remains in Fontainejean. Once the Courtenay family became connected to the royal house, the abbey was raised to the status of a ‘royal abbey’, and it grew: by 1200 there were about 200 monks and 400 students. Its buildings were mostly destroyed by ravaging English troops in 1359, and again in 1422. Rebuilt, its abbot in the 1560s converted to Calvinism and participated in a massacre of his brother monks. Yet the buildings remained and were again restored; the Courtenays were still burying their dead here in the 1630s—in fact, a particularly large monument was erected here in 1637 as part of the process of gaining recognition as princes of the blood. The very last member of the French Courtenays deposited her heart here in 1768, but the chapel did not survive the Revolution: the abbey lands were sold and the buildings, and its tombs, destroyed.

an early 19th-century print of the ruined abbey of Fontaine-Jean

The two younger brothers of Miles, Lord of Courtenay, Josselin and Geoffroy, headed east to stake their claim to glory in the First Crusade. Josselin was a successful warrior companion of Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, who gave him the lordship of Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, from which he took the grand title ‘Prince of Galilee and Tiberias’ in 1113. A few years later, Baldwin II assigned him the lesser title but more significant territory of the County of Edessa in the northern parts of Syria (today Urfa in Turkey). Josselin ruled here until he died in 1131 and his son Josselin II took over. Just under fifteen years later, he lost Edessa, and was taken to a prison by the Emir of Aleppo where he died.

Meanwhile, back in France, Miles had three sons—maybe: Guillaume, Josselin and Renaud. The eldest died on the Second Crusade, about the same time as his cousin the Count of Edessa. Josselin may be imaginary, and is given in some English sources as the founder of the house of Courtenay in England and Lord of Sutton (in Berkshire, near Abingdon, today called Sutton Courtenay; see below). Some French sources suggest they did have lands there this early, as one of Atto’s brothers (or perhaps sons) had accompanied William of Normandy in the conquest of 1066. Other sources say they did not come over in the Conquest, but later, in the suite of Eleanor of Aquitaine following her marriage to Henry II in 1152. It is confusing.

Certainly by about the 1170s, a Sir Reginald (or Renaud II) de Courtenay was established at Sutton. If he was a son of Josselin, all subsequent Courtenays in England were direct male descendants of Lord Atto; but he may have been a nephew via a sister of the last Courtenays in France and took their name to establish himself across the Channel. He certainly did so, but not in Berkshire: he married the heiress of Okehampton, in Devon, and established the family’s position in the southwest of England which persist still today. We will return to them in the second half of this piece.

Whatever the case in England, by the 1170s, there were no more male Courtenays in France, and Renaud I’s daughter, Elisabeth, took the family’s name and French estates to her husband (since about 1150), Pierre de France, 6th son of King Louis VI (‘the Fat’). Louis VI (reigned 1108-1137) was one of the first to re-assert the power of the French Crown—pretty weak since the days of Charlemagne—and wanted to centralise, not continue to subdivide the kingdom for his heirs as was traditional. But he had a lot of sons, and did need to provide for all of them. The eldest two sons were lined up as the heir and spare, the third son became archbishop of Reims, and a fourth son died young, leaving Robert and Pierre (and one further son who came along a bit later). Neither Robert nor Pierre were given large parts of the patrimony and were expected to marry heiresses. Robert was given the small county of Dreux, southwest of Paris, and married an heiress of a larger neighbouring county, Perche. Pierre was given nothing, but when he was on Crusade in 1147 with his brothers Louis VII and Robert of Dreux, he met Renaud de Courtenay, and soon married his daughter, heiress of large estates in the Gâtinais. He took on her name—as was customary at the time, even for sons of kings—and her arms, three red balls, or bezons, on gold. Pierre went on Crusade again in the 1170s, and died in Palestine.

Pierre I, from a Capetian family tree

Pierre and Elisabeth restarted a dynasty in great style: they had five sons, and many daughters who married the cream of the French nobility. One of these, Alix, married the Count of Angoulême, and their daughter would become Queen of England (Isabella of Angoulême, wife of King John). Of the sons, the eldest, Pierre II, made a spectacular marriage to the heiress of the counties of Nevers and Auxerre (conveniently adjoining Courtenay lands), and then another, to Yolande of Flanders, which lead to much grander things, as we shall see. Robert was given the family lordship of Champignelles and acquired the important court office of Grand Butler of France, which kept him close to his cousin the King, whom he accompanied in his abortive invasion of England (1217), then in the conquest of Languedoc and other territories in the far south of France (1226). He married an heiress of lands in Berry (again, not far from Courtenay lands), but not such a major one, and founded the secondary line of Courtenay-Champignelles.

Pierre II de Courtenay earned his spurs on the battlefield, first fighting against the Albigensian heretics in France in 1210, then at the major European confrontation involving France, England, Germany and the lords of the Low Countries, the Battle of Bouvines, 1214—at which Philip II of France crushed all of these allied opponents. In 1216, Henry of Flanders, Latin Emperor of the East, died, and the remaining Crusader elites in Constantinople looked to Henry’s brother-in-law, Pierre de Courtenay. He was duly elected as emperor, and travelled east with his wife and children in 1217, stopping in Rome to be crowned by the Pope on the way. But he never made it to Constantinople—pausing to try to help the Venetians take the city of Durazzo (today’s Durrës in Albania), he was captured by the Despot of Epirus and died in his prison in 1219. His wife, Empress Yolande, had arrived in Constantinople in 1217 and ably set up the family’s rule there, until she too died in 1219, leaving their sons as successors. The eldest declined to take up the imperial throne (choosing to focus on claiming his mother’s lands in the Low Countries instead), so the second son, Robert, became Emperor of the East.

Pierre II,. Latin Emperor of the East

I should step back a moment and explain what this title meant. The Fourth Crusade was launched to try to help those Christian lords and their troops remaining in Palestine retake the city of Jerusalem. Financial troubles and a willingness to get involved in internal Byzantine dynastic power struggles led them to Constantinople instead, which led to the deposition of emperors Alexios IV and Alexios V in quick succession in Spring 1204, and the takeover of the city and its empire by the Crusaders themselves. This was a major blow to Christian unity—east and west had already been at each other’s throats for two centuries—and it never recovered. The new rulers called their state the ‘Empire of the Romans’, while the Greeks called it the ‘Frankokratia’. The Latins (or ‘Franks’) ruled most of modern Greece and northwest Anatolia.

The Latin Empire of the East

Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was chosen to be emperor in 1204, but he died just a year later, defeated in battle by the Bulgarians. His brother Henry ruled for a decade, continually battling the Bulgarians and the rival state the Greeks set up in Anatolia based in the city of Nicaea. The throne then passed as we’ve seen to Henry’s brother-in-law, Pierre de Courtenay, and a regency by his sister, Yolande. Their son Robert was in France in 1219, and didn’t arrive in Constantinople until 1221, when he was crowned in Hagia Sophia. He was immediately engulfed in war on two fronts, versus Nicaea in the east and Epirus in the west; and he died in 1228. His younger brother, now Emperor Baldwin II, was a minor until 1237, so the Empire was ruled by regents. With all of its neighbours now allied against him and seizing ever more bits of his territory, Baldwin (or Baudouin) was forced to travel extensively in western Europe, begging for financial or military support. At the court of his cousin Louis IX of France, he sold him one of the greatest of Byzantine treasures, the Crown of Thorns, but obtained only weak promises for support. In desperation, the Emperor made an alliance with the Turks in Anatolia (enemies of the Greeks), and raised funds by selling the lead on the roof of the Great Palace in Constantinople. By 1247, his rule extended really only to the city itself, and by 1261 the Latin Empire was forced to yield when a small force of Greek soldiers easily retook Constantinople and installed Michael Palaiologos, ruler of Nicaea, as the new Emperor of the (once again Byzantine) East. The exiled Baldwin de Courtenay continued to visit courts of various Mediterranean kings seeking new alliances (even ransoming his son Philip to some Venetian merchants to guarantee a new loan). He very nearly convinced Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily and Naples to launch a new Crusade, but he died, in 1273, in Naples, with this plan unfulfilled.

a gold coin for Emperor Baldwin II

Thus the great empire of the Courtenays in the East died with a whimper. Baldwin’s son, Philip, continued to call himself emperor, married the daughter of the king of Naples, and even organised a new crusading alliance in 1281, but he too died before it could launch, in 1285. His daughter, the titular ‘Empress Catherine’, was raised at the court of Naples, and was sought in marriage by various princes, including a son of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos. In 1300, she married Charles de France, Count of Valois, brother of King Philip IV, and donated the lands of the lordship of Courtenay to her new husband. Their eldest daughter, ‘Empress Catherine II’ took her claims to the Empire of the East to her husband, Philippe, Prince of Tarento, son of the King of Naples. Their descendants continued to claim the imperial title until about 1430, when the very last of the Crusader principalities in Greece, Achaea, finally succumbed to Byzantine rule (and then soon after, Ottoman). Meanwhile, the lordship of Courtenay passed into the royal domain when the Count of Valois’s son became King Philip VI. It was given to various and sundry princes in the 14th and 15th centuries, until it was erected by Charles IX as a county for the Boulainvilliers family in 1563, and then on and on passing to other noble families Rambures, La Roche-Fontenilles), for the rest of the old regime.

Empress Catherine II

With the death of Philip of Courtenay, titular emperor, in 1285, the senior male representative of the family became Robert de Courtenay-Champignelles, a cleric (and future archbishop), and Pierre, Lord of Champignelles. This estate was a bit to the south of Courtenay, towards the Loire. These lands were fertile, so the family prospered, though as mere ‘lords’, not counts or even viscounts, as you might expect cousins of the king to be. Indeed the first generation of the Champignelles branch, Robert and Pierre’s uncles, was quite prominent. Several accompanied kings on trips to the Holy Land or to North Africa. Raoul accompanied Charles of Anjou in his conquest of Naples, 1269, and was given the County of Chietti in Abruzzo. The fourth and fifth sons, Robert and Jean, became bishop of Orléans and archbishop of Reims, respectively. Both accompanied Saint-Louis on his expedition to North Africa in 1270, where Archbishop Jean died. finally, it was the sixth son, Guillaume, who married and continued the lineage. Robert and Pierre came from an impressive first marriage to the daughter of the Count of Burgundy; and Robert leveraged this association to succeed to his uncle’s former post as archbishop of Reims in 1299—he became one of the leading powers in the reigns of several Valois kings of the early 14th century.

Their half-brother Jean took over in Chempignelles, married and carried on the lineage, but the subsequent generations struggled to keep up a princely lifestyle or reputation. Three of his sons were set up as canons in Reims Cathedral, ready to succeed their uncle and great-uncle, and although the youngest, Etienne, was elected in 1352, he died before he could take up the post. The eldest two sons served the monarchy as regular noblemen, not magnates ‘of royal extraction’ (as one legal document defined them). The elder was Lord of Champignelles and acquired the neighbouring lordship of Bléneau in marriage, while the younger was given the lordship of La Ferté-Loupière (also nearby) in a family partition. Two branches then ran parallel for the next century, with a third emerging at Bléneau.

The lands of the lordship of Champignelles were devastated by the English armies that frequently passed through this area in the Hundred Years War. They served their by now distant royal cousins in the wars of the 14th and 15th centuries—occasionally being recognised formally in feudal documents as ‘cousin’ by the French king. In the 1450s, Jean IV de Courtenay-Champignelles dissipated most of his fortune in equipping himself to fight in the wars in Italy, and sold most of his properties (earning the name ‘Jean Sans Terre’) and died with no legitimate direct heirs. Part of the lordship was bought back by the next branch of the family, but a significant portion passed to other families and was raised to a marquisate in the late 17th century for Charles-Louis de Rogres de Lusignan. The castle was destroyed during the French Revolution, but today there remains the fortified manor house of the ‘Old Park’ (Parc Vieil), which was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is private.

The Parc Vieil at Chempignelles

The cadet branches of La Ferté-Loupière and Bléneau were both based in the district called La Puisaye, to the southeast of the Gâtinais. Pierre de Courtenay built a new château at La Ferté in the late 15th century (leaving the remains of the medieval fortress at the top of the nearby hill). In the middle of the next century, this castle passed into the hands of another local family.

the remains of the castle at La Ferté-Loupière

Another cadet line, based at Bontin, close to La Ferté, held yet another medieval Courtenay castle. In the Wars of Religion there were interesting divisions: François de Courtenay de Bontin was a Protestant, whereas his cousin Louis de Courtenay de la Ferté-Loupière was a Catholic and a follower of the Duc de Guise. As a Protestant stronghold, the castle of Bontin briefly made a mark in national history as the site of the marriage of Henry of Navarre’s top advisor (and future premier minister), Maximilien de Béthune, Marquis de Rosny (the future Duc de Sully), in 1583, and it was his residence in the years leading up to the accession of his patron Navarre’s accession to the throne as King Henry IV. The castle seen at Bontin today, however, was built by another family in the late 17th century.

the castle of Bontin

The castle at Bléneau was a bit more significant, guarding a key crossing point on the river Loing, useful to both French and English troops in the Hundred Years War, notably Joan of Arc in 1428. Several centuries later, it was again a key crossing point, and the site of an important battle at the end of the civil war known as the Fronde where the rebel prince, Condé, successfully evaded the royal army, in 1652. Today a moated manor house remains on the edge of the village.

the castle at Bleneau

The branch of Courtenay-Bléneau tried to re-attach itself to the French court in the early 16th century. François, seigneur de Bléneau, served with King Francis I at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, married the daughter of one of the King’s favourites in 1527, and was named to a top household position of the new queen, Eleanor of Austria in 1530, then governor of the children of King Henri II. His younger brother, Edmé, held a senior post in the royal stables and a Gentleman of the Chamber. Yet neither was raised to a higher rank like count. François’ son from a second marriage, Gaspard, as an old man decided to press harder for his family’s position within the French royal family, partly inspired by his family’s poverty—they were too poor to appear at court or hold offices there, and desired the significant pensions the new Bourbon king was handing out to those who qualified as ‘princes of the blood’. In 1603, he and his sons commissioned a historian to publish a grand genealogical history, and a few years later (1608) they sent a formal legal request to King Henry IV. He and his cousins from the Chevillon branch stopped using qualification ‘noble seigneur’ and instead used ‘illustre prince du sang royal’ on official documents. They now quartered the Courtenay arms (the three red bezons) with arms of France (differenced with an indented red border) and topped with a princely crown. But Gaspard died in 1609 without having any decision from the King; his son Edmé had a more pressing need: he had killed another nobleman in a duel and fled France. He claimed he could only be tried as a prince of the blood, and sent this formal demand to Parlement of Paris where the King’s Attorney-General refused to accept the case. The King himself was assassinated the following year. Edmé joined up with another prince of the blood, the Prince of Condé, who was then in rebellion, and when this prince rebelled against the new Regent (the Queen-Mother, Marie de Medici) in 1616, Courtenay joined him—but was ‘forgotten’ in the list of demands Condé presented when reconciling with the Regent. Edmé went to England and was well received by the court of James I. He continued to send requests for recognition to the Chancellor of France in the 1620s, and hoped to win the favour of Cardinal Richelieu, a fairly close cousin (their grandmothers were sisters). But no luck. he died in 1640, and his son Gaspard II died with no legitimate heirs in 1655.

the new royal arms of the Courtenays of the 17th C

The lordship of Bléneau passed to the next cadet line, Chevillon, which took up the cause for princely recognition of the Courtenay family later in that decade. The castle and town of Chevillon was also just around the corner from La Ferté-Loupière—it is interesting to see how a noble family often stays roughly in the same spot established as a base by their ancestors, six-hundred years before. There was a very nice moated castle at Chevillon, built in the 14th century, which actually survives today, and is now used as a holiday rental.

the castle at Chevillon

Louis de Courtenay-Chevillon started to take the title ‘Prince of Courtenay’ in the later 1650s when he became head of the family. He legitimately acquired a higher title than Lord of Chevillon by marrying the heiress of the County of Cesy, located, conveniently, just a few miles to the northeast (today’s Cézy). This marriage also brought him within the orbit of the powerful Parisian parliamentary family of Harlay, which could only be a good thing. The man running the government for the young Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin, contemplated formalising Courtenay’s status as a prince of the blood, but only gave vague promises for future action. According to the famous memoir writer the Duke of Saint-Simon, Prince Louis offered to marry his son to Mazarin’s niece Hortense Mancini (knowing that this was a sure manner to gain the Cardinal’s favours); the memoirist also describes a scenario in which the younger Courtenay (Louis-Charles) was taken by Mazarin in his carriage to Saint-Jean de Luz on the border with Spain for the peace talks for the Pyrenees—but did not know how to behave as a grandee and spent his time with the pages.

In February 1662, a strange diplomatic event occurred that placed the Courtenay status claim on the table again. By the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659 between France and Spain, Louis XIV agreed to restore the Duke of Lorraine to his territories which had been occupied by France since the 1630s. But Louis really didn’t want to lose control of the strategic duchy of Lorraine so he proposed that the Duke and his entire family could be ‘merged’ into the House of France, and would be in line for the throne if all of the current princes of the blood—meaning the Bourbons—became extinct. The Duke of Lorraine was poised to accept this (and to enjoy retirement and a huge pension), and the Prince of Courtenay, seeing his family potentially pushed to the back of the line behind several Lorraine and Lorraine-Guise princes, sent a alarmed letter directly to the King reminding him that his family had recently been confirmed (they hadn’t) in their status as princes of the royal house, legally able to succeed the Bourbons, as direct male line descendants of King Louis VI. He also reminded him that his grandfather, Henri IV, had himself succeeded to the throne based on claims of patrilineal descent stretching across ten degrees, suggesting that the ‘ancient and natural laws of the kingdom’ were not concerned with how far the gap might become, as long as the patrilineage remained unbroken. The Treaty of Montmartre of February 1662 collapsed almost immediately, as other significant people protested, including the people of Lorraine themselves and the Chancellor of France who quipped that the king of France could only create princes of the blood in bed, with his wife the queen. The urgency for the Courtenay case was again dropped—though another large-scale book was published only one year later, at great expense, to once again demonstrate the proper place of the Courtenay family within the court hierarchy of France. The volume was dedicated to the King, who smiled and ignored it.

Prince Louis was succeeded in 1672 by his son Louis-Charles. He served Louis XIV in various military campaigns of the 1660s and early 1670s. He was quietly tolerated by the King, but still denied formal status of prince of the blood. His status is notable in his two marriages, both good, and useful in solidifying alliances in his family’s traditional base on the borders between Burgundy and the Orléannais, but not what one would expect of a prince of the blood. Nevertheless, in a formal document from 1675, we can see him style himself ‘très-haut & très-illustre Prince du Sang Royal de France, Monseigneur Louis de Courtenay’. Saint-Simon wrote about him that he even made a point of paying the capitation tax at the level of a prince du sang, despite it being financially crippling for him to do so. Having a keen interest in history, and in an aristocratic family’s longevity in particular—and notably being very much obsessed with his own—Saint-Simon considered that the Courtenay had suffered from having nothing for centuries but poverty and mésalliance, but should be considered honourable due to their descent from the crusader emperors in Constantinople in the 13th century. The one signal of hope the family got in the later decades of the 17th century was when Louis-Charles’ eldest son, Louis-Gaston, was killed at the siege of Mons in 1691, and the King paid a visit of condolence to Louis-Charles, something the Sun King only did for princes of the blood.

Louis-Charles de Courtenay, by Rigaud, 1699

In 1714, Louis XIV, seeing multiple generations of his family decimated by smallpox, formally placed his bastard sons in the line of succession. Immediately following the King’s death the following year, the Prince de Courtenay protested to the Regent—again contemporary writers like Saint-Simon felt it was a real crime that they were continually ignored. Charles-Roger succeeded as head of the family in 1723. In 1703 he had finally made a marriage more suited to a member of the top court aristocracy, to Marie-Claire de Bretagne d’Avaugour. Coincidentally—or was it?—her family also had long association with the royal house of France, as offshoots (illegitimate) from the dukes of Brittany, themselves formally part of the House of France as descendants of the Count of Dreux: Robert of France, the immediate older brother of none other than Pierre, first lord of Courtenay. Like his father and brother, Prince Charles-Roger also served in the French army, and rose to the rank of Captain of the Dragoons of the Queen’s Regiment. Saint-Simon thought he was crazy, and he killed himself in 1730. His uncle Roger, abbot of Écharlis in the ancient Courtenay heartland (in fact, the family had provided its abbots continually for over a century), was the last male of the family. When he died in 1733, his niece Hélène took the princely title by marriage to the Bauffremont family, a family from eastern France already building themselves into a ‘princely’ house through other inheritances (and later would get a French duchy). Princess Hélène made a final remonstrance in 1737 to the King. Still today, her descendants boast the title ‘Prince of Bauffremont-Courtenay’.

In 1735, just after the family in France became extinct in the male line, a large book was published in England, similar to that of 1661 (and using it as its source), which aimed to demonstrate to the author’s Courtenay pupil that his family was quite ancient and connected to royalty. So let’s turn back to England.

As seen at the very start of this piece, Sir Reginald (or Renaud) de Courtenay married the heiress of the feudal barony of Okehampton. His wife, Hawise, was a cousin of the Norman kings of England, and brought with her the important administrative and defensive offices of the county of Devon, such as sheriff of Exeter Castle and sometimes ‘vice-count’ of Devonshire. The barony of Okehampton was one of the eight large feudal divisions of Devon, located on the northern edge of Dartmoor. The castle was built in the 1070s-80s to guard a crossing of the river Okement. It was redeveloped by the family in the 13th century as a hunting lodge, with a large deer park. After its confiscation by the Crown in 1538, the castle was left to ruin and the park rented out to various local magnates. It was formally given over the state’s care in 1967, and today is maintained by English Heritage, one of the top attractions of central Devon.

the ruined Okehampton Castle in Devon

Reginald’s son Robert also married well, in about 1215, to Mary de Redvers, daughter of the Earl of Devon. The Redvers family (aka Rivers or Reviers) had come over from Normandy at the Conquest, and became very rich through their support of King Henry I and then Henry’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, who raised them to the rank of Earl of Devon (circa 1141). The last earl, Mary’s great-nephew Baldwin, died in 1262, followed by his sister, Isabel, 8th Countess of Devon in her own right, in 1293. The Redvers estates were divided, but the bulk of the Devonshire patrimony came to Mary’s great-grandson, Sir Hugh de Courtenay of Okehampton. He already had a prominent position at court of Edward I, as maternal grandson of the King’s Justiciar, Hugh le Despencer (whose son would become more famous as the favourite of Edward II), and was soon created 1st Baron de Courtenay, 1299, and eventually, 9th (or some reckon 1st, a new creation) Earl of Devon.

Hugh’s descendants would quarter the arms of Courtenay (the three red balls on a golden field, with a blue three-point label to indicate they are the junior branch) with those of Redvers, a blue rampant lion on a golden field. From the Redvers family, they inherited their new principal seat, Tiverton Castle, which dominated the eastern part of the county, on the River Exe, as well as Plympton Castle, the caput of one of the other feudal baronies of Devon, this one in the far southwest of the county, near Plymouth. The Courtenays now dominated the east, west and north of Devon.

Plympton Castle

Tiverton had been built as a Norman motte by the Redvers in about 1106. It was turned into a more sophisticated defensive fortification, overlooking the River Exe (just north of the city of Exeter), in the 14th century. It became the principal seat of the Courtenays from the 1290s, who also built the church of St Peter’s which became their main place of burial. Towards the end of the 15th century, it was the chief residence of Princess Catherine, the daughter of Edward IV and sister of Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York. After her son’s attainder in 1538 (see below), the Courtenay properties were confiscated: Tiverton was given to various Tudor lords, then finally restored by Queen Mary to the 11th Earl. When he died in 1556, his estates were divided between his female cousins. Tiverton became the seat of the Giffards then the Wests—who added a more modern mansion house on the site in the early 18th century—then the Carews in the 18th and 19th centuries, and finally the Campbells since the 1960s. It remains in private hands and is open to tourists only on select days in the summer. Most of the defensive structures were dismantled in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, but some of the medieval walls and towers remain.

Tiverton Castle, the medieval great tower and some of the newer buildings

About 20 miles to the southeast was another main property of the Courtenays, Colcombe Castle, acquired by marriage to the Bassett heiress back in the 13th century, with the manor and estate of Colyford, on the coast near the border with Dorset. The 1st Earl of Devon built a manor house here, and it remained a secondary residence until the 10th Earl turned it into a ‘magnificent’ Tudor residence following his rise in status as 1st Marquess of Exeter in 1525. Colcombe too passed to various female relatives in 1556 and was rebuilt by the Pole family, then completely destroyed in the Civil War. Little remains today but some farm buildings.

a watercolor of the ruins of Colcombe

The rise and fall of this senior line of the Courtenays in England is one of the great stories of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor era, so I will just summarise it here. Thomas, 5th Earl of Devon, married into the Beaufort family and was therefore allied by blood to the House of Lancaster (though not always loyal to them), and joined the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, at the first Battle of Saint-Albans, 1455, at the start of the Wars of the Roses. He died in 1458 and was succeeded by his son, Thomas, who fought with the Lancastrians at Towton in 1461, was captured and taken to York where he was beheaded. He was declared a traitor and his lands and titles attainted. His brother Henry was therefore only earl of Devon in name to the Lancastrians (and the earldom was briefly re-created by the Yorkists for Humphrey Stafford), and was also beheaded for treason, in 1469. The third brother, John, returned from exile with Queen Margaret and was restored as 8th Earl (or maybe 7th, or indeed the 15th if you count from the first Redvers creation which some genealogists do) in 1470, then killed a year later at the battle of Tewkesbury.

The last earl’s cousin, Edward Courtenay of Bocconoc (in Cornwall) continued the family support of the Lancastrian cause. He acted as a go-between for several royal exiles in the reign of Richard III, and served with Henry Tudor at Bosworth, 1485, for which he was restored, or perhaps created anew, to the earldom of Devon. He remained in royal favour in the new regime, and in 1495 secured for his son and heir the great prize of the hand of Princess Catherine of York, daughter of Edward IV and sister of the Queen,—part of Henry VII’s goals of reconciling the feuding factions of the Wars of the Roses. William of Tiverton was thus a member of the royal family and poised for great things. In 1504, however, he took part in the plot by Edmund de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, Yorkist claimant to the throne; so he was once again attainted and unable to succeed his father in 1509. But that was the year of the accession of Henry VIII, who restored William Courtenay to favour, though it is not clear whether he was fully restored to the earldom (paperwork, you know) before he died suddenly in 1511. His young son Henry therefore is called the 2nd Earl of Devon, or 10th or 18th. As a descendant of Edward IV, he added the royal arms to his own—not always a wise thing to do in the world of Henry VIII, but for the time being, he was one of the bosom buddies of his athletic cousin the King and his pals, like Brandon and Compton.

Courtenay and Royal arms together, Exeter Cathedral (the Redvers lion should be blue not black)

Henry Courtenay became a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and member of the Privy Council in 1520, and a year later was granted some of the lands of the recently executed Duke of Buckingham, and his place in the Order of the Garter. He was High Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall from 1523, and appointed Constable of Windsor Castle in 1525. Later that year he was promoted: Marquess of Exeter, to remind people of his family’s near complete dominance of the far southwest of England. Over the next ten years he was one of Henry VIII’s right hand men, participating in legal procedures for the annulment of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and of the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn. He was granted even more lands due to the dissolution of the monasteries. By the late 1530s, however, the Marquess of Exeter clashed with Thomas Cromwell, and began to associate more with the Pole family (who shared his Plantagenet blood) and with more conservative Catholicism. He was arrested in 1538, put in the Tower of London, and a few months later executed for treason (though scholars have found very little evidence of an actual ‘Exeter Conspiracy’).

The Marquess of Exeter in a procession of the Knights of the Garter, at left, identifiable by his arms on his cloak

As we have seen, Henry Courtenay’s estates at Okehampton, Tiverton and Colcombe were confiscated, but restored to his only son, Edward, in 1553. Following his father’s execution, young Edward had been considered too much of a threat to the Tudors due to his Plantagenet blood, and was kept in the Tower for the next fifteen years (not even benefitting from the general amnesty granted on the accession of his second cousin, Edward VI in 1547). Finally, Queen Mary, close to Courtenay’s Catholic mother Gertrude, released him from prison, restored him to the earldom of Devon, and may have considered marrying him, to best unify the two main royal bloodlines of England. She married instead Philip of Spain in 1554, an unpopular choice, so Courtenay considered his options with her younger half-sister, Princess Elizabeth. Both he and Elizabeth were caught up in Wyatt’s Rebellion later that year and he was incarcerated once more in the Tower. He was released in 1555 and exiled—first residing in the Low Countries, then Venice, where he died rather suddenly in 1556. Some suspected poison, others reported a severe illness brought on by hunting with falcons in the rain. Having no siblings or even near cousins, the main Courtenay properties were dispersed amongst the descendants of the sisters of his great-grandfather.

Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon

A cadet branch of the family remained however: that of Powderham Castle in Devon. The founder of this line, Sir Philip Courtenay of Powderham (d. 1406), was the fifth son of the 2nd Earl of Devon (of the Courtenay line; or 10th overall). He received this property near the mouth of the river Exe in Devon, from his mother, Margaret de Bohun, from whom he also received an earlier injection of royal blood (from her mother, Princess Elizabeth of England, daughter of Edward I). Due to this royal blood, his family were at this point as close to monarchical power as they would be until they again became so connected in the Tudor era (as above)—Philip’s older brother William was Archbishop of Canterbury under Richard II, while his son Richard of Powderham would become Bishop of Norwich and a chief advisor to Henry V. Philip himself was a skilled commander, especially on the sea, and he was appointed Admiral of the Western Coasts in 1372, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1383.

His sons and grandsons made Powderham Castle into another Courtenay (or sometimes spelled Courtney by this branch) stronghold in the southwest. It wasn’t really a castle in the usual sense, but a fortified manor house, on the flat lands where the river Exe broadened out before entering the sea. In fact, these flat, marshy lands, otherwise called a ‘polder’ (or ‘powder’) gave the settlement its name. The castle was built by Sir Philip in the 1390s, and maintained its basic form until significant rebuilding and landscaping in the 18th century. It was re-developed again in the 19th century, with a deliberate attempt to make it look more ‘castle-like’—with a very Victorian Gothic dining room which is a high point of a tourist’s visit still today. Since the mid-16th century it has been the main seat of the Courtenay family and the earls of Devon continue to reside here.

Powderham Castle
the heraldic fireplace at Powderham

In 1556, Sir William Courtenay of Powderham became head of the family, succeeding his by now quite distant cousin, the 1st Earl of Devon of the 1553 re-creation (aka the 11th Earl). But this claim was not put forward at the time, and none of the Courtenays of this line were recognised as earls until 1831, when an act of Parliament recognised Sir William retrospectively as de jure the 2nd Earl of the 1553 creation. At the time, however, his son William remained a commoner and served as an MP in the 1580s-90s—he was also involved in the plantation schemes for Ireland (to settle it with loyal Protestants), and was granted, in 1591, some of the lands of the defeated Irish lord, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond, including Desmond Castle in County Limerick. Over time, his descendants improved the estates here and built a new residence, ‘Newcastle’, sometimes called ‘Courtenay Castle’. By the late 18th century, the Irish lands—about 85,000 acres, the largest estates in Limerick—would bring the family £90,000 a year. There’s little left of their presence in Ireland, though: the new castle burned down in the War of Independence, circa 1920 (some of the ruins of the old castle were recently restored however), and the lands were sold off in the early 20th century. There remains a Devon Inn Hotel in West Limerick, and a Courtney’s Bar and Guesthouse across the border in County Kerry. Strange legacy of a French name from the Gâtinais!

The Courtenay legacy in County Limerick

Another William of Powderham was created baronet in 1644, as a supporter of King Charles I. He married an heiress of the Waller family of Devon, and took over their seat, the Jacobean manor Forde House, near Newton Abbot, since his own residence, Powderham, had been damaged during the Civil War. He threw a lavish reception here for William of Orange in 1688 shortly after he arrived at nearby Brixham, at the start of the Glorious Revolution. Once Powderham was restored in the 1750s, Forde House was let out to successive local families, and then sold outright in 1936. Today it serves as a conference and office space for the local council.

Forde House

Another William, 3rd baronet, after serving as an MP for nearly 30 years was created Viscount Courtenay of Powderham (1762). It was with his grandson, the 3rd Viscount, that the story starts to get really interesting again. This William Courtenay, known as ‘Kitty’, became involved in a public scandal as a teenager in the 1780s due to his homosexual affair with an older man (the art collector and novelist William Beckford). He lived abroad after that, first in New York, then in Paris and a castle to the southeast of the city.

William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay (‘Kitty’), later Earl of Devon

By the late 1820s, aging and unmarried, he realised the viscounty would become extinct, and seems to have hatched a plan with his cousin and heir William—a former MP who had a fairly senior post in the Houses of Parliament and thus access to records and legal officials—to revive the family’s claims to the title Earl of Devon. Most legal scholars would have said that the earldom was long extinct, and indeed it had been re-granted to different people in the intervening three centuries: Charles Blount in 1603, and William Cavendish in 1618 (this earldom, and the subsequent dukedom, is usually referred to as Devonshire, not Devon, to avoid confusion). But William Courtenay convinced the House of Lords that the letters patent of 1553 created the earldom of Devon for all heirs male of the grantee, not just his direct descendants, and so therefore, any collaterals, however distant, could claim it. So, oddly, Kitty Courtenay, living in France for so many years, became entitled to call himself the 9th Earl of Devon in 1831, and when he died four years later, his cousin William became the 10th Earl and took up his seat in the House of Lords.

William, 10th Earl of Devon

William’s son William, the 11th Earl (known as the ‘Good Earl’ for his devotion to charities in Devon and working to bring the railroad to the Southwest), became a prominent politician in the Conservative governments of the 1860s. His younger brother had previously held a role at court, as chaplain to Queen Victoria in the 1840s, and later a canon at Windsor. After this generation, however, the family played little role in political or social life. Several younger brothers succeeded as earl (often already holding posts as clergy), and the 14th, 15th and 16th earls were all in a row—and died inconveniently close together, between 1927 and 1935, causing great financial hardship for the family in covering death duties in such quick succession. Charles, the 17th Earl of Devon, considered giving Powderham Castle to the National Trust, but backed out in 1957, opening up the house to tourism for the first time himself. His son Hugh, who was known as ‘Lord Courtenay’ for many decades before becoming the 18th Earl in 1998, did much to improve the estates: rearing cattle, improving the Exe waterfront and developing a shellfish business, and hosting large pop concerts in the restored gardens, including big-name performers like Elton John and Tom Jones. He was the last of the hereditary peers to make a ‘maiden speech’ in the House of Lords, before the rights of the hereditary peerage were modified in 1999. Charles Courtenay is the current Earl of Devon, having lived in Los Angeles where he practiced law and married an American actress, before he moved back to the UK on the death of his father in 2014.

Hugh Courtenay, 18th Earl of Devon

As a postscript, we can return to the name Sutton Courtenay, and to another manor across the river, Nuneham Courtenay, to underscore the extent of how much this family left its mark on various landscapes, even though they only held these lands for a short time. Sutton had been a royal residence in the middle Thames valley since the 7th century, with a nearby royal endowed monastery. For centuries it was in Berkshire, but with the boundary changes of the 1970s, it became part of Oxfordshire. The Courtenays were granted the manor by Henry II in the 1170s, but soon after they succeeded as earls of Devon in the 1290s it was sold to the Brunce (or Brouns) family, and from them to different families. It is still a private residence; across the street is the old rectory of Abingdon Abbey, which since the 1980s has housed a prominent new age spiritual retreat.

Sutton Courtenay

Across the Thames is the village of Nuneham Courtenay. As ‘Newenham’ it was a manor of the Redvers family which passed to the Courtenays with the earldom of Devon. In the late 14th century it was sold to the Segrave family, and then passed through a number of eminent families, including that of Geoffrey Chaucer and later the La Pole dukes of Suffolk and Sir Charles Brandon. Finally, in 1710, it was acquired by the Harcourt family—an interesting coincidence considering they are the other great Norman dynasty who established long-lived branches on both sides of the Channel (dukes in France, earls in England). Today this property is owned by Oxford University, the gardens as part of the Botanical Gardens and the house (18th-century Palladian) occupied by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. The Courtenay name’s reach to the East now goes beyond Constantinople to India.


(images Wikimedia Commons)

Courtenay genealogy, simplified:

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: