COURTENAY, Sir William I (1553-1630), of Powderham, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. June 1553, 1st s. of Sir William Courtenay of Powderham by Elizabeth, da. of John Paulet, 2nd Mq. of Winchester. educ. M. Temple 1578. m. (1) lic. 18 Jan. 1573, Lady Elizabeth Manners, da. of Henry Manners, 2nd Earl of Rutland, 7s. inc. Sir William II 3da.; (2) Elizabeth (d.1598), da. of Sir George Sydenham of Combe Sydenham, wid. of Francis Drake; (3) Jane, da. of Robert Hill of Yarde, Som. suc. fa. 1557. Kntd. 1576.1

Offices Held

J.p. Devon from c.1561, j.p.q. Som. by 1601; sheriff, Devon 1579-80, dep. lt. 1586.2


After the death of his father in France, Courtenay became a ward of his great-grandfather, the 1st Marquess of Winchester, who was granted some of Courtenay’s lands in return for his services. The influence of the Catholic Paulet family no doubt partly accounts for Courtenay’s own later conversion. Though his religious views would have been repugnant to the 2nd Earl of Bedford, Courtenay was named as a deputy lieutenant in Bedford’s unissued commission of 1585. He thrice represented Devon. On 14 Dec. 1584 he was named to a committee for the confirmation of letters patent to (Sir) Walter Ralegh, and he may have attended the subsidy committee on 24 Feb. 1585 to which he was appointed as knight of the shire. In 1589 he was eligible to attend the subsidy committee on 11 Feb. as first knight of the shire. In 1601 he was named to a committee on the penal laws (2 Nov.); as knight of the shire he was on the committee considering the order of parliamentary business (3 Nov.) and the monopolies committee (23 Nov.); as one of the knights for Devon he was on a procedural committee (11 Nov.); and as a knight for a maritime county he was appointed to a committee on 3 Dec. to consider measures against pirates.3

While in London in 1584, Courtenay quarrelled with Richard Champernown, Lady Courtenay appealing for help to her brother, the 3rd Earl of Rutland. Lord Burghley and the lord chancellor investigated the matter and, wrote Courtenay:

In fine, we were made friends and my lords have promised me a letter of their good opinion of me, and justifying my innocence in this cause.

Soon afterwards, both he and Champernown were undertakers in the Munster plantation, which may explain how Courtenay got into the hands of moneylenders, for in 1588 he was one of 12 knights ‘of great possessions’ suggested for baronies. At this time he commanded 3,000 men in Devon, and a defence force in Dorset. He was one of the deputy lieutenants appointed by the Privy Council to ‘advise’ the young lord lieutenant of Devon, the Earl of Bath, who was under the thumb of his ex-tutor Thomas Hinson. Bath’s opinion of Courtenay is interesting:

a man who, though he gives himself out to all vice, as drinking, whoring etc., yet he neither wants wit to devise, nor might to practise how to strengthen himself and weaken others.4

By 1586 Courtenay’s Catholic religious views were becoming embarrassing. Yet, although his third wife was a Catholic, it was not until James’s reign that he resigned his military offices and surrendered his arms. It may have been some compensation that he became deputy warden of the stannaries. Sales of his lands continued throughout his life, but his inquisition post mortem showed that he still retained a score of manors in Devon. He died in London on 24 June 1630, and was buried at Powderham.5

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. T. Westcote, View of Devonshire, 573-4; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 247; Roberts thesis; Trans. Der. Assoc. lxxxviii. 179.
  • 2. PRO, Index 4208, p. 42.
  • 3. Wards 9/138/237; Cam. Misc. ix(3), p. 56; Cath. Rec. Soc. xiii. 89; Lansd. 43, anon. jnl. f. 171; D’Ewes, 431, 623, 624, 635, 649, 666.
  • 4. SP12/179/58; HMC Rutland, 163, 183; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 343; Lansd. 104, f. 51 seq.; 134, f. 196; APC, xiv. 239.
  • 5. CSP Span. 1580-6, pp. 601-4; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 181; 1591-4, pp. 209, 246; 1611-18, p. 254; 1625-6, pp. 342, 394; Reynold, Ancient Diocese of Exeter, 233; G. Oliver, Coll. Illus. Catholic Rel. in South West, 18; Devon RO, Tingey 1614; E. W. Cleaveland, Hist. Courtenay Fam. 301.