Francis Courtenay, 4th Earl of Devon, MP

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Francis Courtenay, 4th Earl of Devon

Death: Died in Powderham, Devon, UK
Place of Burial: Powderham, Devon, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Sir William Courtenay, de jure 3rd Earl of Devon and Elizabeth Courtenay
Husband of Elizabeth Courtenay and Margaret or Mary Courtenay
Father of Sir William Courtenay, 1st Baronet, MP; Elizabeth Courtenay; Edward Courtenay; Francis Courtenay and James Courtenay
Brother of Sir William Courtenay; Thomas Courtenay; Sir George Courtenay, 1st Baronet of Newcastle (Ire.); Bridget Fitz; Elizabeth Wrey and 4 others

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About Francis Courtenay, 4th Earl of Devon, MP

Family and Education

b. c.1576, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir William Courtenay† of Powderham and his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Henry, 2nd earl of Rutland; bro. of Sir William†. m. (1) 7 Nov. 1606, Mary, da. of Sir William Pole† of Colcombe Castle, Devon and wid. of Nicholas Hurst (admon. 1 Aug. 1604) of Oxton, Devon, s.p.; (2) by 1628, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Edward Seymour* of Berry Pomeroy, Devon, 4s. 1da. suc. fa. 1630.1 d. 5 June 1638.2 sig. Fr[ancis] Courtenay.

Offices Held

Capt. ft. [I] by 1600.3

Capt. militia ft. Devon by 1613,4 col. by 1633;5 commr. piracy, Devon 1619-24, 1637,6 Forced Loan 1627;7 dep. lt. Devon by 1630-at least 1635.8


Courtenay’s ancestors settled in England during the twelfth century, acquired the earldom of Devon in 1335, and regularly represented that county in the Commons from 1377. Although the peerage became extinct in 1556, and much of the family’s property was dispersed among co-heirs, the residual male line at Powderham remained a major force in Devon society.9 Courtenay’s father, Sir William, a leading figure in local government under Elizabeth and James I, served three times as knight of the shire, and owned over 21,000 acres at the time of his death.10 However, he experienced serious debt problems from the mid-1580s. Moreover, his thinly disguised Catholic sympathies led to his removal from the Devon bench for several years early in James’s reign and the temporary resignation of his militia commands in 1614.11

Courtenay did not attend university, unlike several of his brothers, and apparently inclined towards a martial career. He served in Ireland prior to June 1600, possibly under his kinsman Lord Mountjoy (Charles Blount†), then turned his hand to privateering, capturing a French ship laden with Spanish goods in 1602. Three years later his elder brother’s death rendered him heir to the family estates, but he played little part in county affairs before the end of the following decade, apart from taking up a militia command.12 His father’s recusancy presumably blighted his career, but Courtenay was perhaps also handicapped by a certain simplicity: in around 1609 he was tricked by a London goldsmith into paying £800 for semi-precious stones that he took to be diamonds, and the fraud was exposed only when his brother-in-law, Sir Warwick Hele*, became suspicious and intervened.13

On 1 Apr. 1624 Sir William made over almost his entire estate to Courtenay and another trustee. Ostensibly this move was intended to ease the payment of his debts, which now stood at more than £10,000, but it may also have been designed to protect his property as, with war with Spain now looming, tougher measures against recusants seemed likely. Indeed, Sir William was presented by John Drake in the Commons as a Catholic office-holder on 27 April. Indicted in the following July at the Devon assizes, Sir William subsequently lost his major local offices again, though he was not actually convicted of recusancy until March 1626.14

Despite these disadvantageous circumstances, Courtenay successfully stood as a Devon knight of the shire in 1625, displacing his father’s nemesis, Drake, who had represented the county in the three previous parliaments. His election was effectively a personal endorsement by the Devon establishment, offsetting Sir William’s disgrace, and perhaps also an acknowledgement of his new role in managing his family estates. However, beyond this symbolic triumph, Courtenay achieved little in the Commons, being named to just one bill committee, concerning the punishment of petty larceny (25 June).15 He is not certainly known to have sought a seat again. The Francis Courtney elected in 1626 at Grampound was most likely a Cornish namesake, although Courtenay’s distant kinship with one of the borough’s patrons, John Mohun*, means that he cannot be entirely ruled out.16

In 1627 Courtenay persuaded the Crown that as he himself conformed, those lands transferred to him before his father’s indictment were not liable to recusancy fines.17 His marriage around this time to a daughter of Sir Edward Seymour, another of Devon’s greatest landowners, further confirmed his local standing. He became a deputy lieutenant prior to his father’s death in 1630, but never served as a magistrate. It was possibly Courtenay, rather than Sir William, whom the antiquarian Thomas Westcote described as ‘a noble heart that keeps bountiful hospitality like his honourable ancestors, and gives kind and courteous entertainment to all comers’.18

Courtenay reportedly went blind in later life.19 His will, conventionally Protestant in sentiment, was drawn up on 3 June 1638. He left £5,000 to his four younger children, and provided generous additional allowances for their education. As executor he named his eldest son William†, who was still a minor. Courtenay died two days later, and was buried at Powderham. His will was proved in January 1639 by his widow, who purchased William’s wardship. William first entered the Commons in 1660, and sat for Devon as a prominent Whig during the Exclusion parliaments.20

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Tim Venning / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 247, 603.
  • 2. C142/569/136.
  • 3.CSP Ire. 1600, p. 278.
  • 4.HMC 15th Rep. vii. 63.
  • 5. T. Westcote, View of Devonshire, 72.
  • 6. C181/2, f. 348; 181/3, f. 130; 181/5, f. 84v.
  • 7. C193/12/2, f. 14.
  • 8. SP16/163/53I; 16/291/14.
  • 9. Westcote, 201; Vivian, 243-7; CP, iv. 324, 332; OR.
  • 10.HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 664-5; WARD 7/86/294.
  • 11. J. Roberts, ‘Sir William Courtenay’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxxxviii. 180, 185-6; C66/1662, 1748, 1898, 1988; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 254; APC, 1615-16, pp. 371-2.
  • 12.Al. Cant.; CSP Ire. 1600, p. 278; HMC Hatfield, xii. 404-5, 427; Vivian, 109.
  • 13. C78/168/2; Vivian, 462.
  • 14. C66/2417/8; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 179v.
  • 15.Procs. 1625, p. 245.
  • 16. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 107, 324-5; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 247, 464.
  • 17. C66/2417/8.
  • 18. Westcote, 200.
  • 19. E. Cleaveland, Genealogical Hist. of Courtenay Fam. (1735), p. 302.
  • 20. PROB 11/179, ff. 76v-7; C142/569/136; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 247; WARD 9/163, f. 92v; HP Commons, 1660-90, ii. 145.



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