23 May 2018
How the Courtenay family
convinced their peers they
were the Earls of Devon
I was writing earlier today about how one working-class member of the Stafford family was deprived of his right to the family’s title in 1639 because of his poverty and his ‘lowly birth’ so that the Stafford titles could pass by sleight of hand through obscure lines of descent to his distant cousins who were seen as being more socially acceptable.
Contorted genealogical constructions robbed one line of descent of its inheritance, but supported the claims of another branch of the family despite its associations with the Titus Oates plot and with Jacobite exiles in Paris.
When I was visiting Newcastle West, Co Limerick, recently, I was fascinated to learn the story of the former local landlords, the Courtenay family, and how they managed to convince the House of Lords two centuries ago to allow them to assume the title of Earl of Devon, although the title had died out and for centuries had been considered extinct. Once again, contorted genealogical constructions conveyed an ancient inheritance through an obscure line of descent.
Following the suppression of the rebellions by the Earls of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, the Courtenay family acquired the former Desmond castle that gives its name to Newcastle West, as well as large tracts of the surrounding countryside.
Local lore claims the Courtenay family were Roman Catholics throughout the late Tudor and early Stuart periods. But many prominent members of the family were Anglican priests, and the title of Earl of Devon was recovered through a clever genealogical sleight of hand by one family member who was the son of an Anglican bishop.
Although their house was burnt down during the War of Independence, the Courtenays and the Earls of Devon were regarded as benevolent landlords in west Limerick, building bridges, roads and courthouses and donating sites for churches, schools and hospitals.
Newcastle West first came into the hands of the Courtenay family in 1591 when the castle and lands were granted to Sir William Courtenay (1553-1630) of Powderham Castle in Devon. His grandson, Sir William Courtenay (1628-1702), was a 10-year-old boy when he inherited these vast estates in west Limerick, including the castle at Newcastle West, after the death of his father, Francis Courtenay, at Powderham Castle in 1638.
This younger Sir Francis Courtenay lived at Powderham Castle, but his castle at Newcastle West was often referred to as Courtenay Castle. During the English Civil War, he was a supporter of King Charles I, who rewarded him with the title of baronet in 1644. However, Courtenay disdained this newly invented title, which had the appearance of an hereditary knighthood, and his name was not included in the list of baronets.
When he died in 1702, the title of baronet, along with Powderham Castle, Newcastle West and his estates in Co Limerick, passed to his grandson, Sir William Courtenay (1676-1735), 2nd Baronet. He, in turn, was succeeded in turn by his son, Sir William Courtenay (1709-1762), third baronet, who became a peer with the title of 1st Viscount Courtenay, and by his grandson, William Courtenay (1742-1788), 2nd Viscount and fourth baronet.
This last William Courtenay had a large family of 14 children – 13 daughters, who were excluded from succession to the family estates and titles because of their gender, and one son. The only son, William Courtenay (1768-1835), was known from infancy as Kitty, and was sometimes referred to as the most beautiful boy in England. At the age of 10, he began a long, gay affair with the art collector William Beckford of Fonthill Abbey, who was eight years his senior.
Courtenay’s lifestyle brought notoriety and infamy. Facing prosecution and certain imprisonment, he fled England, living in exile first in New York and then in Paris.
Shortly before he died, his extended family realised that the title of Viscount Courtenay would die out, because there were no sons or brothers to inherit it, and that the title of baronet would pass to his second cousin, William Courtenay (1777-1859), who had been MP for Exeter (1812-1826).
This William Courtenay was the eldest son of Henry Reginald Courtenay (1741-1803), Bishop of Bristol and later Bishop of Exeter. When he resigned as MP for Exeter in 1826, William became clerk-assistant to the House of Lords, with the then-princely annual salary of £4,000. In addition, his large estates in Ireland gave him £90,000 a year. But he was a generous landlord and a conscientious and liberal-minded politician, supporting Catholic Emancipation and opposing the death penalty.
With his position in the House of Lords, Courtenay was well placed to advance fresh claims that his shamed and exiled cousin was the rightful 9th Earl of Devon, although it was long believed that the title was extinct since 1556.
The claim to the title was allowed on flimsy grounds by a decision of the Lords in 1831. Of course, fearing imprisonment, his disgraced cousin never returned to take his seat among the peers. Instead, he died in Paris in 1835 at the age of 66. His kinsman, William Courtenay, now succeeded as 10th Earl of Devon and to Powderham Castle and the expansive family estates in Ireland that he already controlled. The Courtenays became the largest landlords in Co Limerick, owning up to 85,000 acres in the south-west of the county.
But were these Courtenay cousins truly entitled to the title of Earl of Devon? And how flimsy were the claims advanced in the House of Lords by the landlords of Newcastle West? After all, legal experts had presumed the title of Earl of Devon had died out in 1556, and even the Courtenay family tree on the website for Powderham Castle avoids providing a clear line of descent for the title. [http://www.powderham.co.uk/our-stories/family-tree]
In the past, there have been four, if not five or even six versions of this title, and this has created confusion in numbering the earls. This confusion has been compounded by other factors over the generations and down the centuries.
After the Norman conquest of England, Baldwin de Redvers (died 1155) became the 1st Earl of Devon. When Baldwin de Redvers, 7th Earl of Devon, died in 1262 without leaving any children, the title died with him, and his estates passed first to his sister and then to her distant cousin, Hugh de Courtenay (1276-1340), who declared himself Earl of Devon. Whether he was the first earl in a new line of succession or the ninth earl through an obscure line of descent depends on your reading of the family tree.
The Wars of the Roses proved disastrous for the Courtenay family. Thomas Courtenay, 6th (or 14th) Earl of Devon, fought on the Lancastrian side at the Battle of Towton in 1461, was captured and beheaded, and all his titles and estates were forfeited.
As far as the Courtenay family was concerned, that might have been the end of the line for the title. Eight years later, in 1469, Edward IV gave the title of Earl of Devon to one of his leading Yorkist supporters, Humphrey Stafford (1439-1469), a kinsman of the Stafford family I was discussing this morning. But Stafford was captured three months later and was beheaded. He became known as the ‘Three Months’ Earl,’ and the Devon title died out yet again.
With another Lancastrian victory in 1471, Henry VI was restored in 1471. The attainders were reversed, and the title of Earl of Devon was now given to John Courtenay, 7th (or 15th) Earl of Devon, the youngest brother of the 6th (or 14th) Earl. Edward IV and the Yorkists returned to power later that year, John Courtenay lost all his honours and titles, and he died a few weeks later at the Battle of Tewkesbury.
But the see-saw of the Wars of the Roses continued. Sir Edward Courtenay, a great-nephew of the 3rd (or 11th Earl), fought on the winning side at Bosworth in 1485. Two months later, the new Henry VII gave this Edward the title of Earl of Devon.
He died in 1509, but his son and heir, William Courtenay, had lost all rights to succeed to the new (or old) titles. William had married Princess Catherine of York, a younger daughter of Edward IV, and his loyalty to Henry VII fell under suspicion. William was accused of conspiracy and was jailed. Under Henry VIII, he recovered his lands in 1511 and was given a new title, once again as Earl of Devon, this time as 1st Earl of Devon. But he died suddenly a month later.
His son, Henry Courtenay, had the decisions against his father reversed in 1512, and so became 3rd Earl of Devon as his grandfather’s heir, and 2nd Earl of Devon as his father’s heir. In 1525, Henry VIII also made him Marquess of Exeter. However, he too lost royal favour and in 1538 he was beheaded for conspiracy and all his titles were forfeited.
Henry’s only surviving son, Edward Courtenay, was a prisoner in the Tower of London for 15 years. He was released when Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, and was made Earl of Devon. Once again, this was a new title, but it was claimed later that this time the letters patent granted the earldom to his heirs male.
He was considered as a prospective husband for Queen Mary. But she married Philip II of Spain, and when he was mentioned as a possible husband for her sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I, he became a threat to Mary. He was implicated in a rebellion, and once again he was locked away in the Tower. In 1555, he escaped to Italy and died in Padua in 1556, probably by poisoning. With his death, his male line died out and the title of Earl of Devon died with him – or so it was believed for almost 300 years.
James I presumed there was no Earl of Devon, and in 1603 gave the title to Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy. When he died three years later, James I then gave the title to William Cavendish, ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire who made their Irish home at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford.
And so matters rested until 1831, when William Courtenay persuaded the House of Lords that when the title of Earl of Devon was granted by Queen Mary to Edward Courtenay in 1553, the title was granted to the heirs male (haeredibus masculis). Because of the limited Latin words, it was argued this meant any male heirs forever, and not merely his male descendants.
This argument meant the title could pass to his far-flung, distant cousins, the Courtenays of Powderham. In a legal fiction, William Courtenay (1527-1557), whose son was granted the Desmond lands in Newcastle West, became known retrospectively as the de jure 2nd Earl of Devon, although he was separated by centuries and by generations from the 1st Earl of the 1553 version.
At times, the title, as conveyed through this decision, has been in apparent danger of dying out, again and again. The 12th, 14th and 15th earls died unmarried in 1891, 1927 and 1931, but male heirs were found in their immediate families.
The legal ruling of 1831 is so absurd that it means any male Courtenay is potentially in the line of succession to this title without being descended from Edward Courtenay who died by poisoning in Padua in 1556.
The Earls of Devon lost their estates in west Limerick over 100 years ago. But while there is no longer an Earl of Devon in Newcastle West, it seems there will always be an Earl of Devon so long as there is a male Courtenay alive.
Ruined castles and lost
hopes of a title in
Stafford and Tamworth
I have always enjoyed the Ealing comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a memorable movie starring Alec Guinness. The plot revolves around Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class. After her death, Louis sets out to take revenge on the family by murdering the eight people ahead of him in succession to the title.
Eventually, he succeeds as the tenth Duke of Chalfont, but he is sentenced to death not for the murders that secured his peerage but for a murder he had never contemplated.
Alec Guinness plays nine members of the D’Ascoyne family: Ethelred, 8th Duke of Chalfont, the Revd Lord Henry, General Lord Rufus, Admiral Lord Horatio, Lord Ascoyne, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. He also plays the seventh duke in brief flashback sequences to his mother’s childhood.
Major themes in the film include class, sexual repression and love across the English class divisions. It has been listed consistently among the top British films in different polls.
The weak point in the plot is that, unlike other most other English titles, the title of Duke of Chalfont can descend through female heirs. It is an unlikely line of succession that would have destroyed one of the plots in Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes, now Lord Fellowes of West Stafford.
The story in this Bafta-winning blockbuster centres on the plight of the Earl of Grantham who has three daughters and no son. The estate and title are entailed exclusively to a male heir, and so both pass to a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
Like Kind Hearts and Coronets, the television drama series dealt not only with questions of aristocratic lines of succession, but also with class, sexual repression and love across the English class divisions.
These issues may be entertaining today, and they probably appear obtuse to most of us. But I came across a real-life case from the 17th century that could have inspired both of these storylines while I was trying to research some minor details of the Comberford family tree in Staffordshire.
At the Visitation of Warwickshire in 1619, the heralds allowed William Comberford of Comberford to use the coat-of-arms of the Parles family quartered with those of eight other families: Edgbaston, Beaumont, Cumming, Chester, Everingham, Heronville, Tynmore and Stafford (or, a chevron gules and in dexter chief a mullet gules).
There is no independent evidence to explain why William Comberford was allowed to include the differenced Stafford arms in his quarterings. This is the year Charles I, as Prince of Wales, was William Comberford’s guest in the Moat House, Tamworth. Perhaps William aspired to an eventual claim to a title from one of these families. If so, his hopes were misplaced.
But within the next two decades, the Stafford family title changed hands in what can only be described as a genealogical sleight-of-hand that would have fitted neatly into the story of the D’Ascoyne family and allayed the fears and anxieties of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
It is a tale of snobbery, class discrimination, and genealogical farce, and it is the very sad case of Roger Stafford, who was the rightful 6th Baron Stafford.
His ancestors, as Earls of Stafford, and for a while Dukes of Buckingham, had been one of the most powerful families in 14th and 15th century England. Roger was descended from English royalty through several lines of royal descent. But, partly because of this, Roger’s great-grandfather, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, fell foul of Henry VIII; he was attainted and was beheaded in 1521.
In 1547, the third duke’s son and heir, Henry Stafford (1501-1563), was restored in blood, but not to all his father’s peerages and titles. After recovering many of his father’s estates, he was declared to be Baron Stafford, with remainder (or rights of succession) to the heirs male of his body.
The succession then passed to Henry’s first and second sons, Henry Stafford (1534-1567), 2nd Baron Stafford, and Edward Stafford (1536-1603), 3rd Baron Stafford. Although Edward also inherited Stafford Castle along with a small parcel of land, he never regained the family’s wealth or status of earlier years. Stafford Castle had fallen into disrepair and in 1603, Edward Stafford wrote a letter in which he referred to ‘My rotten castle of Stafford.’
When Edward Stafford died in 1603, his title passed to his son, Edward Stafford (1572-1625), 4th Baron Stafford, and then to his great-grandson, Henry Stafford (1621-1637), the 5th Baron Stafford, who died at the age of 16 in 1637.
When the fifth baron died, the Stafford family estates passed to his sister Mary, who soon after married William Howard (1621-1680), son of the Earl of Arundel. But the title was inherited – at least in theory – by Henry’s distant kinsman, Roger Stafford (1572-ca 1640). This Roger Stafford was the only known son of Richard Stafford, the youngest brother of the second and third barons and the youngest son of the first baron.
At the age of 65, Roger Stafford petitioned Parliament for the title. A commission was appointed to examine his claim, headed by Henry Montagu, 1st Earl of Manchester. Eventually the claim reached King Charles I who denied it on the grounds of Roger’s poverty and his ‘very mean and obscure condition.’
The judgment decided ‘that the said Roger Stafford, having no part of the inheritance of the said Lord Stafford, nor any other lands or means whatsoever … should make a resignation of all claims and title to the said Barony of Stafford, for his majesty to dispose of as he should see fit.’
Today, such a surrender would be deemed illegal. Charles I may have been applying the principles of Scottish peerage law, which allowed peers to renounce or surrender their titles to the Crown for regrant. But Scottish law could not have applied to a case in which the king deprived a legitimate heir of his English peerage.
Nevertheless, in compliance with the king’s wishes, Roger Stafford stepped down as the 6th Baron Stafford, signing a deed dated 7 December 1639 and confirmed in court early in 1640, in exchange for a payment of £800. Later that year, on 12 September 1640, King Charles bestowed the titles of Baron and Baroness Stafford on William Howard and his wife Mary Stafford, Roger’s distant but well-married cousin.
Roger Stafford died unmarried soon after. At the time, he was thought to be the last male member of the Stafford family. His sister Jane had married a man in in Newport, Shropshire, variously described as a a labour or joiner. She is said to have been a widow by 1637, and to have had a son who was a cobbler or shoemaker.
Roger Stafford failed to hold onto his title as the rightful 6th Baron Stafford, not because he failed to prove his ancestry, but because his failure to inherit any of the family lands meant he and his family lived what we might describe today as tradesmen or in working class lives.
Further descendants of this branch of the Stafford family have never been traced. But it is still possible many ordinary families somewhere in the West Midlands are descended from the once-noble Staffords.
As this branch of the Stafford family descended into obscurity, William Howard was given a new title as Viscount Stafford. He was implicated in the Titus Oates plot and executed for treason in 1680. But his widow’s Roman Catholic faith found favour with James II, and in 1688 Mary was given the title of Countess of Stafford.
The Stafford barony created for Mary Stafford is unusual, for – like the title of the fictious Dukes of Chalfont – it can descend to heirs general. The last Earl of Stafford in this line of descent, John Paul Stafford Howard (1700-1762), died in 1762. One of his daughters married, two of his daughters became nuns, and the line of descent of the new title of Baron Stafford was deemed to have descended through the children of his sister Mary Plowden, and her daughter, Mary Plowden, who married Sir George Stafford Jerningham.
The title has since passed through their descendants to the Fitzherbert family, who had actually intermarried with the Comberford family in the 16th century. Today the title is held by the current Lord Stafford. But, while he and his predecessors have claimed the ancient barony of Stafford once held by the mediaeval Staffords, these claims were never accepted by the House of Lords.
These obscure lines of genealogical descent that have allowed a peerage to descend in an obscure way that in the past has ignored the original male heirs would give credibility to the storyline in Kind Hearts and Coronets and would end the woes of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey.
Meanwhile, I have still to find out why William Comberford was anxious to assert his claims to descent from the Stafford family … and whether the title of the Dukes of Chalfont was an obscure point of humour, referring to the cockney rhyming slang that associates Chalfont St Giles with haemorrhoids. Perhaps Roger Stafford’s forgotten brother-in-law might have thought it all cobblers too.
The quartered arms allowed to William Comberford at the Visitation of Warwickshire in 1619, with the Stafford arms in the last quarter
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