COURTENAY, John (1738-1816).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1780 - 1796
1796 - 1807
9 Oct. - Dec. 1812

Family and Education

b. 22 Aug. 1738, 2nd s. of Henry Courtenay, a revenue officer in Ireland, by Mary, da. of Rev. William Major, prebendary of Ballymore, Armagh. educ. Dundalk g.s. m. c.1765, 2s. 5da.

Offices Held

Ensign 29 Ft. 756, lt. 1759; sold out 1765.

Commissary of the musters [I] 1765-9; barrack master of Kinsale 1772; first sec. to the master gen. of the Ordnance 1773-82; surveyor gen. of the Ordnance Apr.-Dec. 1783; ld. of Treasury 1806-7.


In 1765, after selling his army commission, Courtenay purchased an appointment as one of the six commissaries of musters in Ireland.1 But in 1769, in order to pay increasing debts, he sold his office, and began writing for the Batchelor, a pro-Castle Administration journal. This brought him to the notice of Lord Townshend, the lord lieutenant, who obtained for him the sinecure place of barrack master of Kinsale, and when Townshend returned to England to become master general of the Ordnance, Courtenay accompanied him as his secretary.

In London Courtenay, who in 1773 published The Rape of Poloma, an elegiac poem, was introduced to the literary group frequented by Johnson and Boswell. He became a close friend and adviser of Boswell, who admired his work and found ‘his conversation ... excellent; it has so much literature, wit, and at the same time manly sense in it’, and years later wrote of him as ‘a friend to whom I have been much obliged’.2

At the general election of 1780 Courtenay was returned free of expense for a seat at Tamworth which Townshend had sold to Administration. ‘Mr. Courtenay’ wrote North in 1782, ‘returned this favour to Government by supporting them always with great abilities and zeal’3—though from an unorthodox and highly personal viewpoint. He ‘never was, nor never would be an advocate for the justice, wisdom, and expediency of the American war’,4 but the American alliance with France had convinced him of the necessity for its vigorous prosecution, and he urged this in the House on several occasions. Yet, he said, 28 Nov. 1781:5

If there was a hope, a gleam of hope, that by acknowledging the independence of America, she could be detached from France, it would demand the serious attention of the House whether such terms should not be granted ... great commercial and national advantages would be derived from a union between people naturally connected by the same language, manners, and religion ... great and essential benefits might be mutually received by both countries connected by a federal union and Britain on such a liberal and enlarged system of policy might again become a great and flourishing nation.

In the House Courtenay was a frequent speaker, witty, and uninhibited. Wraxall writes6 that he

possessed a very uncommon and eccentric species of humour, original, classic, even Attic, allied to, and sustained by learning, inexhaustible and often irresistible, in its effects on the muscles, but always coarse, frequently licentious, or at least indecorous, and rarely under a becoming restraint. His wit seemed indeed more adapted to a tavern or to a convivial board than to the grave deliberations of such an assembly as the House of Commons.

He attacked the Opposition scathingly: during the debate of 26 Feb. 1781 on the bill for regulating the civil list revenue he ridiculed their proposals and threw doubts on their motives.7 Horace Walpole writes that in reply Sheridan ‘demolished Courtenay who old George Cavendish said well, is deputy buffoon to Lord North’.8 Courtenay was undeterred—on a subsequent occasion he told the House that ‘neither his temper, disposition, nor country inclined him to be intimidated, embarrassed or easily put out of countenance’,9 and on 8 May 1781, expressing his strong disapprobation of Sir George Savile’s motion for diminishing the influence of the Crown, he said ironically that ‘as the dangerous influence of the Crown would be increased by our victories, and diminished by our defeats, it was perfectly consistent ... to hope for the improvement of the constitution, and the extinction of corruption by the ruin of the Empire’. Another example of Courtenay’s ‘usual quaint style of serious ridicule and solemn jesting’ was his speech of 31 May 1781 on Lord Beauchamp’s bill to amend the Marriage Act, when he attacked the principle and tendency of the Act while elaborately pretending to defend it: ‘the framers of the act ... wisely threw as many obstacles as possible in the way of matrimony, and considering the miseries usually attending wedlock, the obvious purport of the act was judicious, salutary, and laudable’.10

Courtenay remained loyal to North till the end, and on 20 Mar. 1782, while the House was in an uproar, with the Opposition clamouring for the removal of ministers, he obstinately persevered in delivering a warm tribute to North, acknowledging11

the unfeigned respect he should ever bear for him ... He could not form a more sanguine wish for the happiness of his country, than that in this day of difficulty, in this hour of calamity and distress, an Administration might be formed, as able and disinterested, as upright in their intention but more fortunate in the event than the noble Lord’s.

After North’s resignation he became an ally of Fox, with whom he had been on friendly terms for some time. He strongly disliked and distrusted Shelburne; in July 1782 rejected his suggestion for a meeting;12 on 11 Dec. 1782 referred to his ‘glorious, profitable, talent ... so to contrive his measures as to make them palatable to all, his language was at all times such that he could explain it either this way or that way, and that every other man might do so too’,13 and subsequently to his ‘specious, promising, deluding, janus-faced Administration’.14 Courtenay did not vote for Pitt’s proposals for parliamentary reform, 7 May 1783, though he had spoken in favour of reform on 7 May 1782, nor did he vote for it on 18 Apr. 1785.

He supported the Coalition, and after its dismissal was one of Pitt’s most vigorous opponents. On 4 Aug. 1784, declaring that ‘the public had very foolishly idolized’ Pitt, he said he ‘was determined in the most rapid possible manner to undeceive them’;15 and during the next few years harassed Pitt on numerous topics, particularly those concerning finance and the Ordnance. Drawing on his own experience in office, he discussed Ordnance affairs in minute detail, staunchly defended the measures of his former chief, Lord Townshend, while subjecting those of his successor, the Duke of Richmond, to vigorous criticism, repeatedly condemning his fortifications plans. Eventually, on 21 Apr. 1790, he moved for a committee to inquire into and report the expenditure of the money for the past four years, since ‘every estimate presented by the noble Duke had ... been false and fallacious’.16Though Courtenay’s caustic humour frequently ‘kept the House in a roar of laughter’17 he continually gave great offence, and on 9 May 1787, during a debate on the prosecution of Hastings, excelled himself in a speech which, writes Wraxall,18

as far as my parliamentary experience warrants me in asserting, stands alone in the annals of the House of Commons, exhibiting a violation of every form or principle which has been held sacred within these walls.

In it Courtenay referred to Hood (one of Hastings’s defenders) as a ‘spectator of the victorious feats of the brave Lord Rodney’; went on to lampoon Wilkes in forthright terms, and concluded with a hint that the King had taken bribes from Hastings. Though he retracted his words about Hood, Members were not satisfied, and on 14 May Pitt demanded a formal apology, pointing out that

those who knew the honourable gentleman would know that it was no very extraordinary supposition to be entertained that this explanation though it might appear an apology, might in fact be meant rather as an aggravation than an extenuation of the injury.19

Courtenay refused to be drawn that day, but on the next again averred that his words had been misunderstood, and concluded that Pitt

had said that it was hard to know when he was serious or ironical ... lest the chancellor of the Exchequer should be at a loss for the future ... Mr. Courtenay begged leave to assure him, whenever he paid him any compliments personally or politically, the right honourable gentleman might be persuaded that he was ironical.20

When, later in 1787, Courtenay’s old friend and patron, Lord Townshend, went over to Pitt, Courtenay remained in opposition. By this time his financial position, never very sound, was seriously embarrassed. Boswell noted in his journal on 23 Feb. 1788 that Courtenay had lately told him ‘that all that remained to him was an annuity of £40 a year which he was going to sell. I calculated it would yield him £240. It was wonderful to see with what spirit and serenity he lived with a wife and seven children, knowing his situation.’21 ‘He was in truth of the school of Diogenes’ writes Wraxall,

I never remember a more complete cynic in his dress, manners, and general deportment, all which bespoke that inattention to external appearances or forms characteristic of the philosopher of Sinope. But under this neglected exterior lay concealed a classic mind, an understanding highly cultivated and a vast variety of information, and a vigorous intellect ... Like Diogenes he was poor, but of a high and independent character, that seemed to despise wealth.22

He died 24 Mar. 1816.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Mary M. Drummond


  • 1. For Courtney's career see J. Courtney, Incidental Anecs. & a Biog. Sketch (1809).
  • 2. Boswell Pprs. (Isham), xvii. 86; xviii. 171.
  • 3. Fortescue. v. 466.
  • 4. Debrett, ii. 36.
  • 5. Ibid. v. 62-63.
  • 6. Mems. ii. 85.
  • 7. Ibid. ii. 36,
  • 8. Walpole to Mason, 3 Mar. 1781.
  • 9. Debrett, vi. 507-9.
  • 10. Ibid. iii. 227-31, 337-9, 451.
  • 11. Ibid. vi. 507-9.
  • 12. To Shelburne, 25 July, Lansdowne mss.
  • 13. Debrett, ix. 83-84.
  • 14. 4 July 1783, ibid. x. 276.
  • 15. Ibid. xvi. 340.
  • 16. Stockdale, xix. 256.
  • 17. Debrett vii. 135.
  • 18. Mems. v. 5.
  • 19. Debrett, xxii. 341.
  • 20. Ibid. 353-5.
  • 21. Boswell Pprs. xvii. 71.
  • 22. Mems. iii. 453.