COURTENAY, Sir Philip (d.1406), of Powderham, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Feb. 1383
Feb. 1388
Jan. 1390

Family and Education

5th s. of Hugh, 2nd earl of Devon (d.1377), by Margaret, da. of Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex and Elizabeth, da. of Edward I. m. c.1378, Anne, da. of Sir Thomas Wake of Blisworth, Northants. by Alice, da. of John, Lord Pateshulle, and aunt and coh. of Thomas, Lord Grandison, 3s. 2da. Kntd. 1367.1

Offices Held

Admiral of the western fleet by 28 Mar. 1372-aft. Oct. 1380.

Commr. of oyer and terminer, s. coast July, Dec. 1374, Devon Aug. 1376, July 1380, Nov. 1381, Calais Nov. 1382, Cornw. Dec. 1395; inquiry Devon Nov. 1375, Aug. 1376 (mines and stannaries), Apr., Aug. 1381 (seizure of a ship), May 1383 (expenditure of subsidies for the safekeeping of the sea), Devon, Cornw. Mar., July 1391 (concealments), Devon June 1391 (a complaint by the Franciscan friars, Plymouth), Devon, Cornw. Mar. 1393 (concealments), Devon Aug., Nov. 1400 (concealment of alnage); array Apr., July 1377, Feb. 1379, Mar. 1380, Dec. 1399, Aug., Sept., Oct. 1403, July 1405; to make proclamation against unlawful assemblies June 1381; put down rebellion Dec. 1381, Mar., Dec. 1382; hear appeals from the admiral’s ct. Nov. 1382, Feb. 1383; of arrest Nov. 1382; Devon Feb. 1392, Cornw. Nov. 1392; to survey mines, Devon, Cornw. Aug. 1391; requisition fishing vessels Nov. 1394; make proclamation of the King’s intention to govern well, Devon May 1402.

Tax surveyor, Devon Aug. 1379; collector Mar. 1404.

J.p. Devon 20 Dec. 1382-c.1385.

Lt. of Ire. 1 July 1383-Jan. 1386.

Steward of duchy of Cornw. in Cornw. 15 Nov. 1388-24 Feb. 1392.2

Member of the King’s Council c. Jan. 1405.3


The family of Courtenay produced three prominent figures at the end of the 14th century, distinguished for their colourful personalities if not always for their restraint. If William, archbishop of Canterbury for a large part of Richard II’s reign and distinguished for his harshness towards lollardy, was the most able, and Sir Peter†, Richard’s chamberlain, constable of Bristol and Windsor castles, captain of Calais and famous jouster, was the most flamboyant, Sir Philip was remembered for acts of gratuitous savagery and vindictiveness, occasionally tempered with some real skill in military and naval affairs. As befitted the son of a family known for its interest in the profession of arms, Courtenay’s career began in the service of the Black Prince, from whom he received the honour of knighthood after the battle of Najera in 1367, at the same time as his brother Peter, and his nephew Hugh, Lord Courtenay, who was heir to the earldom. By March 1372 Philip was admiral of the west and in the following year had to convoy ships to Gascony and, in August, was to take the castle of Gurry. Three years later he was ordered to ‘cease every excuse and with all possible speed to be before the King and other nobles and lords of England in the present Parliament assembled at Westminster, in order to give information to the King ... touching certain matters on which they wish to be informed’. This summons may have been in connexion with petitions against extortion in the stannaries of Devon and Cornwall, or perhaps one dealing with the defence of the coast. In April 1378 Courtenay was involved in a naval expedition under the earls of Arundel and Salisbury. The fleet was attacked by Spaniards off the Breton coast, and Courtenay and his brother Sir Peter were captured. Subsequently two Bristol burgesses ‘in consideration of their great expenses and losses in their suit for the deliverance of Philip de Courtenay and other knights ... lately prisoners in Spain’ were exempted from payment of customs at Bayonne. How far this disaster was Courtenay’s responsibility as admiral is not clear.4

On his first appearance as a Member of the Commons, in February 1383, Courtenay, together with his brother Sir Peter, was prominent in urging the acceptance of the offer of Bishop Despenser of Norwich to lead a crusade on behalf of Pope Urban VI in Flanders. According to the Westminster chronicler this plan was accepted, despite the opposition of John of Gaunt, largely as a result of the Courtenays’ efforts in persuading the Commons — ‘insistentes pro eo maxime’. Their attitude must partly have been conditioned by their kinship with Archbishop Courtenay, leading them to support the ‘clerical’ party against Gaunt, but neither was necessarily on bad terms with the duke. Indeed, some years before, Gaunt had ordered the ‘gardeyn de forsboys’ of his manor of Somborne (Hampshire) to deliver to Sir Philip ‘deux deyms de grece’ and to provide him with all the sport he required. Furthermore, he was credibly reported to have been one of the six knights who, at Salisbury in the spring of 1384, viciously tortured the Carmelite friar who had dared accuse the duke of a treasonable plot against the King’s life, his sadistic cruelty leading directly to the friar’s death.5

Close kinship with the King rather than political activity accounted for the advancement of the Courtenay family. This is best illustrated in Sir Philip’s case by Richard II’s wedding gift to him of two drinking cups and two gilded silver ewers, purchased from a London goldsmith for the sum of £22 17s.4d. — a considerable present. The King also promised Sir Philip and his bride land at Wallingford worth £40 a year, but was rather slow in authorizing the grant. Annuities, however, were frequently and generously bestowed: the Black Prince had granted him two of £50 each from the duchy lands and the stannaries in Cornwall, which were paid until 1393 when the sum was doubled in favour of Courtenay and his wife. Edward III had granted him £100 a year for life from the Exchequer, which was confirmed in 1378 after Richard II had ‘retained [Courtenay] to stay with him’, and which two years later also became payable from the stannaries. Such an arrangement was not always ideal, and, in 1380, payments were in arrears. Courtenay also received several grants of land: he became keeper of the forest of Dartmoor after the Black Prince’s death, and in the next decade he received custody of substantial estates in Devon, including, in March 1388, four parks forfeited by a judgement of the Merciless Parliament (which he himself attended), as well as the royal manor of Haslebury Plucknett, Somerset, allocated for six years at £43 6s.8d. p.a. In 1391 he and his wife received the manor of Dartmoor and the borough and manor of Bradninch, Devon, valued at £39 a year, as recompense for the lands promised them at the time of their marriage. This involved him in litigation, but these lands and his annuities were confirmed to him by Henry IV. However, in December 1404, Courtenay lost Dartmoor and Bradninch to Henry, prince of Wales, because they belonged to the duchy of Cornwall.6

Meanwhile, soon after his first appearance in Parliament, Courtenay had been appointed lieutenant of Ireland. His term of office was not uneventful, and seems to have brought out the worst in his already deeply flawed character. His indenture, appointing him in July 1383 for ten years, declared that he should receive £1,152 from profits and issues, including taxes, tallages and subsidies, for which he was not required to account. He duly left for Ireland with a body of troops, and apparently came into friendly contact with James Butler, the young earl of Ormond. Courtenay’s wife probably accompanied him, and she received the manor of ‘Cromelyn’ rent-free while her husband remained lieutenant. As already noted, he was at Salisbury when Parliament met there in April 1384, and in July his duties had to be taken over by deputies. Another visit to England early in 1385, led to his being given considerable powers over members of the Irish administration. He arrived back in Dublin on 6 May, but by the end of the year his position had become untenable. He was then being widely accused of extortion, and was forced to demand, at a great council in December, that such accusations be inquired into so he might clear his name. At the beginning of 1386 he was dismissed, and on 26 Mar. a strict order for his arrest was issued by the Crown. Courtenay was to be kept in honourable custody until his successor, Robert de Vere, newly created marquess of Dublin with quasi-regal powers, could send a lieutenant to make inquisition ‘concerning intolerable oppressions, duresses, excesses [and so forth] committed ... against great numbers of the King’s lieges of Ireland, to which no remedy is applied’, and his goods and chattels were seized.

Nevertheless, Courtenay was able to secure election to the Parliament which assembled that October. Inquiries into his conduct were still proceeding in January 1387, but in the following month Courtenay petitioned the King against the treatment accorded him, complaining that de Vere, now duke of Ireland, had taken money and property due from his office, that his indenture had been unlawfully superseded by de Vere’s appointment, and that the latter had seized Easter rents to which he himself was entitled. As a result the duke was ordered to make recompense, and Courtenay received £66 13s.4d. in part-payment of 1,000 marks damages agreed because of his losses and strict imprisonment. Doubtless he was in accord with the Lords Appellant in their proscription of de Vere at the end of the year, and fully endorsed his attainder in the Merciless Parliament. He had no further administrative connexion with Ireland — indeed, from November 1388 to February 1392 he was duchy steward in Cornwall — but in September 1394 he was preparing to go there again, this time with the King himself. Richard II spent the following Christmas in Dublin, and Courtenay may well have been concerned with arrangements for the royal household. Certainly, he was commissioned to recruit fishermen from Devon and Cornwall to provide the Court with fish.7

The deposition of Richard II in 1399 brought about a change in Courtenay’s fortunes comparable with that enjoyed by his brother, Sir Peter. An examination of Courtenay’s public work shows that he was not employed on any royal commission by Richard II after 1395, without doubt because of his earlier opposition to the King’s beloved favourite de Vere, not to mention his wilful abuse of authority in Ireland. Nor was he elected to Parliament between then and 1399. The change from four years’ complete absence from royal service to six years of intense industry was quite dramatic. For under Henry IV his military experience was called upon not only in local commissions of array, particularly important in the west during the Welsh revolt, but in such activities as superintending the assembly of ships for transporting soldiers serving with the King in Scotland in 1400 and helping to organize the fleet which sailed to Brittany in 1402. On this second occasion he complained to the royal council that the ships he had assembled at Southampton were lying idle, and pressed the councillors to name a date for their departure. Courtenay’s local prestige was particularly useful in the Welsh emergency, as the West Country was expected to provide both men and stores. Then, at the threat of invasion from France, the Council advised Henry IV to send special letters to the Courtenays and to other leading figures in the region, asking for their aid. Sir Philip’s experience of military matters as well as in local government also made his advice of value: he probably attended the great council of 1401; certainly he was summoned to another such meeting about four years later; and at the beginning of 1405 he was a member of the Council which discussed plans for an expedition under the earl of Somerset. Meanwhile, his practical support had taken another form when, in 1403, he had lent £200 to the Crown.8

The accusations of extortion and oppression made against Courtenay in Ireland were almost certainly not without foundation. Honesty and fair dealing do not seem to have been noticeable characteristics, and on more than one occasion his lawless activities in Devon, too, had serious repercussions. He defaulted on payment of a bond for 500 marks sealed in 1377, and in 1386 the receivers of the stannaries were instructed to pay his creditor (a Salisbury merchant) his annuities of £200 until the debt had been settled. Later still, in 1393, when sitting in his fifth Parliament, Courtenay came before the King and Lords and prayed to be discharged from his Membership of the Commons because of accusations and slanders brought against him by bill and by word of mouth, so that the complaints might be tried. He was accordingly exonerated for five days, only to be restored to his place ‘a l’instance et priere de la Commune’. Because he had been ‘bon et tretable’ towards the plaintiffs and had ‘condescendu a bone treite’, he was restored in full Parliament to his good fame. The Courtenay case raises, incidentally, an interesting constitutional point, being an early example of the parliamentary privilege of freedom from arrest in civil cases, by this time accepted as customary. Courtenay must have been quite sure of his ground, and of the support of his fellow Members, deliberately not to have claimed parliamentary immunity simply in order that the matter might be decided promptly, although it is possible that his hand was forced, and he had no choice but to step down. The actual complaints were that he had dispossessed of property two Devon men, who were helpless against him and could only petition Parliament because he was ‘si grant en pais, que null povere homme n’ose envers lui son droit pursuer, ne null povere homme encontre luy verite dire en mesme le counte’. Arbitrators, headed by Courtenay’s brother, Sir Peter, and Sir James Chudleigh*, were appointed to settle the disputes, and Courtenay promised that until a decision had been made he would not disturb the complainants by threats, chicanery or otherwise.9 Of even greater significance was a dispute some nine years later. Three petitioners, suffering the consequences of Courtenay’s rapacity and unable to stand against him because of his local power, appealed to the Parliament of 1402. Sir Thomas Pomeroy* complained of the loss of property in Exeter at the hands of a great number of armed men ‘by maintenance and sustenance of the said Philip’, and Nicholas Potyngton, one of the plaintiffs of 1393, renewed his complaints regarding the loss of his manor of Bickleigh. More dramatic was the situation of the abbot of Newenham, Devon, whose house had been attacked by Courtenay and some 60 men, he himself being taken, menaced with foul words and held to ransom for 15 days. Courtenay was summoned before the Council for this last offence, but ignored the order, even though under threat of a penalty of 1,000 marks. Furthermore, he and his men returned to the abbey, and prevented the visitor, the abbot of Beaulieu, from entering. The petitioner, having escaped, lived in hiding, but Courtenay took two of the other monks and ‘made them hunters and falconers against their Order and Holy Church’. Parliament therefore intervened where the Council had failed, and Courtenay was required to answer for his offences. This he was unable to do satisfactorily, and in November 1402 he was imprisoned in the Tower. After about ten days, however, and at the request of the Lords, he was set free, on condition of finding suitable sureties, and provided that he appeared before the King. Thus on 29 Nov. on recognizance of £100 entered into by (Sir) John Arundell I*, Sir John Herle* and Sir William Sturmy*, and on his own surety of £1,000, he was released. Such was his social position that offences of this nature went virtually unpunished.10

The settlements of the Courtenay estates during the lifetime of Sir Philip’s father, the 2nd earl of Devon, were extremely generous to him and the other younger sons of the family. In his youth, in 1357, Courtenay had received the reversion of the manor of Moreton, Devon, after the death of his brother, Thomas. In 1374 according to the terms of an entail he was to obtain Broadwindsor, Dorset, and Cadleigh, Devon, along with, after the death of his brother Sir Peter, the reversions of Moreton and Milton Damerel, Devon. In the following year he was granted the reversion, also after Sir Peter’s death, of Honiton (Devon), Nuneham Courtenay (Oxfordshire) and East Coker (Somerset). The earl left him 100 marks in his will, and shortly after his death in 1377 Sir Philip granted the advowsons of Honiton and East Coker to Exeter cathedral for the maintenance of a chantry founded in his father’s memory. His mother, Countess Margaret, left him all the contents of her chapel, including vestments, books and candlesticks, along with various family heirlooms, and after her death in 1391 he became owner of seven manors and other property in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, including Powderham (the present seat of this branch of the family). In 1405 Courtenay succeeded to the lands of his brother, Sir Peter, so that by his own death, which occurred on 29 July 1406, he was holding one manor and a hamlet in Dorset, three and a half manors and three advowsons in Somerset and 17 manors and five advowsons in Devon, besides a considerable number of smaller properties in the same three counties. According to the inquisition post mortem these were worth about £140 a year, no doubt an underestimate. Courtenay’s estates descended to his son Richard, bishop of Norwich from 1413 to 1415, and after Richard’s death to the heirs of his second son, Sir John.11

Courtenay’s career reveals a man of energy and ability in national and local affairs whose prediliction for violence and thuggery was extreme even by medieval standards. Even so, and perhaps because of this unsavoury reputation, he provided the house of Lancaster with important support at a critical time.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. CP, iv. 324, 2335; vi. 68; x. 316; Chandos Herald, Life Black Prince ed. Pope and Lodge, line 2612; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 244-6.
  • 2. SC6/819/3.
  • 3. PPC, i. 246.
  • 4. Chandos Herald, line 2612; J. Froissart, Chrons. trans. Johnes, i. 736; CFR, viii. 207-8; CCR, 1369-74, p. 428; 1374-7, p. 318; CPR, 1385-9, p. 126; RP, ii. 334, 343-5; R. Higden, Polychronicon ed. Lumby, viii. 396-7; Rot. Gasc. et Franc. ed. Carte, ii. 111, 124; E403/465 m. 20, 475 m. 24, 481 m. 19; E159/161 recorda, Hil.; SC1/56/44; Add. 37494.
  • 5. Westminster Chron. 1381-94 ed. Hector and Harvey, 36, 70-74; Reg. Gaunt 1371-5, 229.
  • 6. Issues ed. Devon, 211; CPR, 1374-7, pp. 308, 386; 1377-81, pp. 112, 246, 457; 1385-9, p. 413; 1388-92, pp. 189, 395; 1391-6, p. 413; 1399-1401, p. 68; 1401-5, p. 478; CCR, 1377-81, p. 300; 1396-9, p. 2; 1399-1402, p. 140; 1402-5, p. 403; CFR, ix. 294; x. 172; SC6/812/20.
  • 7. Analecta Hibernica, ii. 200; CPR, 1381-5, pp. 288, 291, 293, 296, 539-40, 543; 1388-92, p. 349; 1391-6, pp. 522, 529; Cal. Ormond Deeds (Irish MSS Comm.) ed. Curtis, ii. 193, 202; Rot. Pat. et Claus. Hib. ed. Tresham, 119, 123, 127-9, 136; CCR, 1381-5, p. 532; 1385-9, pp. 49, 232; Issues, 241-2; E101/68/7/161, 70/9/221; E403/496 mm. 12, 13, 521 mm. 7, 9, 527 mm. 7, 9.
  • 8. CPR, 1399-1401, p. 350; 1401-5, p. 439; Letters Hen. IV ed. Hingeston, i. 104-7; PPC, i. 202, 233-4, 246; ii. 99; E28/23.
  • 9. CIMisc. iv. 87; CCR, 1385-9, p. 41; RP, iii. 300-2; T. Erskine May, Parlt. Practice (14th edn.), 68-69.
  • 10. RP, iii. 488-90, 493; C. Rawcliffe, ‘Parl. and Settlement of Disputes’, Parl. Hist. ix (pt. 2), 334-7; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 537; 1402-5, pp. 14, 127, 133; CPR, 1401-5, p. 133; J.F. Baldwin, King’s Council, 340; E28/11, 23, 27; SC8/1078.
  • 11. CPR, 1354-8, p. 516; 1370-4, pp. 415-16; 1374-7, p. 165; 1377-81, p. 101; 1405-8, p. 279; CCR, 1389-92, pp. 441-2; 1402-5, pp. 445, 453; Feudal Aids, vi. 623; C137/55/51; PCC 2 Rous; Vis. Devon, 244; Reg. Brantingham ed. Hingeston-Randolph, 381; Add. 49359, f. 6v.