The name of Edward Courtenay always comes up during the reign of Queen Mary I, mostly as a possible husband for Queen Mary herself or for her sister Elizabeth. Although he was born of royal blood, he spent his early years imprisoned in the Tower of London and when he was released, he was ill-equipped to navigate the politics of the era and the perils of court intrigue. I’ve always been curious about why he was not considered a proper prospect as a husband for the two Tudor princesses and also what happened to him.
Edward was born c. 1526, the son of Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, nobleman and courtier and Gertrude Courtenay, daughter of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy. He was a great grandson of King Edward IV whose daughter Katherine married his grandfather William Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon. During his early years, he occasionally spent time in the household of Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. After her death in 1533, he returned to his family’s household. He was tutored privately by Robert Taylor of Oxford.
Edward’s father was in favor with King Henry VIII early on but during the divorce crisis, his mother supported Katherine of Aragon. He was also associated with the alienated families of the Poles and the Nevilles. Edward’s father was suspected of plotting a Roman Catholic uprising with the self-exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole, including a plan to marry Edward to King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary. This connection of Edward’s father with the Pole family would create trouble later in Edward’s life.
In November 1538, Edward’s parents were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Edward joined them there. His father was executed on December 9, 1538 and both Edward and his mother were attainted. His mother was released in 1540 but he remained in the Tower for the next fifteen years. Edward was given £4 per month for his maintenance and the services of a tutor. While in the Tower, he spent a lot of time with rebels, doomed politicians and resentful aristocrats. Edward cultivated a friendship with Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester who was also in the Tower and thought of him as a second father. Because Edward was considered a threat to the Tudor dynasty, he did not receive a pardon when Edward VI became king.
Edward may have been suspected of involvement in the summer rebellion of 1549 but the rebels did not request his release from prison so it is unlikely he participated. At the end of 1549, his freedom may have been considered when a conservative faction of the government gained ascendancy. There is evidence Edward sought favor with Protector Somerset. He translated a volume of “The benefit of Christ’s Death” and dedicated it to Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset.
He collaborated in the translation with Reginald Pole and the book was one of the most influential works of the evangelical reformers within the Catholic Church. The work would put those who translated it under suspicion of Catholic authorities. But his hopes of release were dashed when the Duke of Somerset fell from power and the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley expanded his own role on the ruling council. And when King Edward VI died and Northumberland was preparing to put Jane Grey on the throne, Edward was told to prepare to die.
But Mary Tudor prevailed and became Queen. When Mary reached the Tower Gate, the Duke of Norfolk, Bishop Gardiner and Edward awaited her, kneeling to ask her pardon which she gave. Because his family had supported her mother, Queen Mary was more amenable to rehabilitation and at the behest of his mother, Courtenay left the Tower on August 3, 1553 and was created Earl of Devon on September 3. He was made a Knight of the Bath on September 29. The Queen gave him a grant of lands worth over £1242 per annum and restored him to most of the Courtenay patrimony on September 28 although he was unable to inherit the title of Marquess of Exeter. There were rumors Mary would make him Duke of York.
Edward must have been optimistic about his future. He had the gracious accomplishments of a courtier and an excellent education. He knew the classics and could play several instruments. He had a regal bearing and refined features. He was praised for his comportment, his civility, and his intellectual accomplishments and for his interest in music. Reginald Pole found him to be the “flower of English nobility” and he was very popular with the Londoners. The Imperial ambassador Simon Renard called him “the last sprig of the white rose”. Edward bore the sword of state at Queen Mary’s coronation.
Talk of Edward marrying Mary began as soon as she became queen. Edward’s mentor Bishop Gardiner was the new chancellor and while he didn’t personally promote Edward as a husband, he argued against foreign entanglements. Many of the nobility, as well as some of Mary’s closest household officials were sympathetic to Edward’s cause. But Mary remained deeply skeptical.
She had observed Edward’s behavior in the first few weeks of her reign and didn’t like what she saw. She thought he was dissipated. It became obvious he had no martial skills, no knowledge of armor or riding. His manners were uncouth, he was arrogant, impetuous, unstable, obstinate, inexperienced and vindictive. He gained a following of the most unprincipled courtiers who were banking on him marrying the queen. He was counting on the influence of his mother on the Queen to become her husband.
The earl of Pembroke sought the preference of Queen Mary shortly after her accession to the throne. He approached Edward, asking him to persuade his mother to speak to the queen in his favor. He sweetened the deal by giving Edward a sword and poniard, a basin and ewer and several horses. All this was worth over three thousand pounds. Edward did convince his mother and the earl received a place on the Queen’s council.
He soon became more than a nuisance. When Reginald Pole came to court, Edward threatened vengeance on him and his family, considering Pole and his brother Geoffrey responsible for the death of his father. There were some who believed Edward was hatching a plot with the French ambassador and Elizabeth that directly threatened the Queen. Although many were promoting the match with the Queen, she had no intention of marrying him. Mary said Edward was a man of small power and authority and she knew of his intrigues with the French ambassador. She said England needed money which was another reason not to marry him.
Mary was determined to marry her Hapsburg cousin, King Philip II of Spain. When the news broke, it aroused anxiety in the country and in Parliament. In November, a delegation was sent to Mary to beg her not to marry a foreigner. Mary refused to listen and many men were driven to intrigues in the hope of delaying or even halting the Spanish wedding. A conspiracy was hatched by Sir James Croft, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Peter Carew and the duke of Suffolk which consisted of simultaneous uprisings in the west country, Hertfordshire, Kent and the midlands. The plotters main concern was the threat of Spanish domination.
The conspirators plans were vague and there seemed to be little consensus regarding their true objectives. Some were probably planning to depose Mary and replace her with her sister Elizabeth, supposedly married to Edward. Mary’s marriage to Edward was also discussed. The French ambassador Noailles did everything in his power to promote Courtenay, short of offering military help to the rebels. Some may have viewed Edward as the key to the rebel’s plans but it is unknown how involved Edward actually was in the rebellion. This lack of clarity from him may explain why the rebellion was disorganized and not effective.
Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was supported by some on the Queen’s council who viewed it as a way to neutralize opposition to Mary’s marriage to King Philip. Edward’s mentor, Bishop Gardiner warned him not to marry Elizabeth because he considered her a heretic. Queen Mary’s cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had already rejected the idea.
Edward was in contact with Carew and he had an intermediary who delivered messages to Wyatt. The French ambassador noted that Edward was unstable and reported that he had a plan to flee England and to murder Paget and Arundel, his political opponents on Queen Mary’s council. Edward’s mother tried to curb her son’s behavior but he was already compromised. The conspirators began to doubt his courage and suspected he would give them up. The French ambassador warned the plotters to not give him too much information.
The Queen’s government became apprised of the conspiracy, forcing the plotters to act before they were ready. Because of Gardiner’s affiliation with Edward, he was concerned he would be implicated. He confronted Edward on January 21, 1554 and compelled Edward to reveal what he knew about the plot. The rebellions in the west country, the midlands and Hertfordshire dwindled but Sir Thomas Wyatt posed a genuine threat to London. Wyatt eventually surrendered but Edward was still in trouble. He was imprisoned in the Tower on February 12.
All this strife convinced the Imperial ambassador Simon Renard that Mary would never be safe until her sister Elizabeth and Edward were removed. Renard worked assiduously to bring Edward and Elizabeth to trial after the fall of the Wyatt rebellion. Gardiner did just the opposite and worked to shield Edward from conviction. There was some evidence found against Edward. There was a great quantity of armor at his house and some peculiar costumes were found which could be considered disguises. It was alleged he used a secret cypher to communicate with Carew. He had organized a relay of post horses to transport him to Devon.
But none of this was enough to convict. Edward’s involvement in the conspiracy seriously compromised Bishop Gardiner and the chancellor was forced to suppress the revelation of Edward’s participation. Notes on Gardiner’s interview with Edward were “lost”. All Gardiner’s work to shield Edward was successful as he was never brought to trial.
Wyatt implicated Edward in a confession possibly obtained under torture and in hope of being pardoned. On the day Wyatt was executed, the sheriffs of London witnessed an exchange between Wyatt and Edward. Wyatt supposedly asked Edward’s forgiveness for falsely accusing him of being part of the plot. As Wyatt spoke from the scaffold, he absolved Edward and Elizabeth of any involvement, to the embarrassment of Queen Mary’s government.
Edward was moved from the Tower to Fotheringhay on May 25 where he remained until April 6, 1555. The Queen believed she was pregnant and her council decided to send Edward to Brussels in May where he experienced the hospitality of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. But there were brawls between his servants and the Spaniards of the court which he believed were encouraged by the authorities and he may have been justified in his suspicions.
He requested safe conduct to Italy and by the time he received it, Philip II’s adviser Ruy Gómez had formulated a plot to have him assassinated once he arrived in Italy. Gómez offered a Dalmatian soldier one thousand crowns to murder Edward. Edward departed from Brussels on November 7 and travelled through the Holy Roman Empire, reaching Padua by the first of the year. The hired assassin defected to the Venetian authorities and Edward was spared.
Edward decided to work on furthering his education and refining his courtly accomplishments. He enrolled in the University of Padua but his real occupation was to cultivate his connections with the opponents of Queen Mary’s government. He established and maintained contacts with Sir Philip Hoby who was deep in a conspiracy against Mary which was being organized by Sir Henry Dudley. Dudley’s plan included robbing the exchequer, murdering Queen Mary and replacing her with Elizabeth and Edward. There was also talk of making Edward king.
Edward never did overtly commit to this plot. But his associations with the earl of Bedford and Sir Henry Killigrew made him suspicious in the eyes of Mary’s government. King Henri II of France pressured Edward to conspire against Mary and even offered to arrange a marriage for him with Mary Queen of Scots. By this time Edward certainly knew something was afoot but he had learned to be cautious. All the plotting came to an end when Edward died on September 18, 1556. He had contracted a fever after getting caught in a storm while hawking three weeks before. He was buried in the church of Sant’Antonio in Padua.
Further reading: “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, “Two Tudor Conspiracies” by D.M. Loades, “Bloody Mary” by Carolly Erickson, entry on Edward Courtenay, first earl of Devon in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Ian W. Archer