In a week long programme of events, this summer, we will bring to life Henry VIII's visit in 1533. 

For this blog, we would like a moment to introduce you to two of the key characters in our story...

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Henry VIII's hosts

Henry Courtenay - Marquess of Exeter

In 1533, Henry Courtenay was thirty-five and the head of an influential aristocratic family which had been active in England’s public life for nearly three centuries.

The Courtenays first claimed the earldom of Devon in the fourteenth century and Henry Courtenay's father, Earl William, had married a daughter of King Edward IV. So Henry Courtenay was a first cousin of Henry VIII. He was also the direct descendent of three further kings of England, Edwards I, III and IV. 

When he invited his cousin to West Horsley Place, Courtenay was high in favour and had been for many years. He was, in fact, the longest-lasting court favourite of Henry VIII, by his side for eighteen years. Henry VIII made Courtenay the wealthiest and most influential figure in the south-west of England.

By 1533, the friendship was founded on many experiences and memories. In 1520 Courtenay attended the king at the grand pageant in the Pas-de-Calais known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In the jousts with their French counterparts, Henry highly impressed the king and was named as England’s champion.

Henry Courtenay was chosen to accompany Henry VIII at his historic meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in June 1522.

Records reflect a close brotherly intimacy between the two Henrys. At the king’s revels in November 1527, they wore matching costumes, including bonnets decorated with ostrich feathers and Henry Courtenay received New Year presents from Henry VIII. In 1528 and 1533 these were gilt goblets weighing nearly 28 ounces.

Henry VIII showed his special favour in 1524 by elevating his cousin from earl to marquess. The next year he match-made a marriage for him with Gertrude, daughter of Queen Katharine’s chamberlain, William Blount.

Gertrude Courtenay - Marchioness of Exeter

Gertrude was of a similar age and would have been in her early thirties in 1533. The couple had a son, Edward, who was six in that year. 

Gertrude was also born into an aristocratic family at the heart of the Tudor court. Her father, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, was chamberlain to Queen Katharine of Aragon. Before her marriage Gertrude had served as one of Katharine’s Ladies-in-Waiting.

Not only was she a fitting wife for Courtenay in rank, she would have been an excellent host at those times when her husband entertained the king. Henry VIII is known to have loved hunting and music and Gertrude would have filled the visit with both activities. 

Gertrude Courtenay loved hunting herself: she kept a large collection of crossbows and arrows tailor-made for different targets and a richly decorated quiver to carry them. In her West Horsley Place bedchamber her coverlet carried a design of wild beasts.

Also recorded to be at West Horsley Place was a mass of instruments; 2 virginals, 4 regals (portable organs), two large and two small, and 9 viols.

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The fall of the Courtenay couple 

The friendship of Henry VIII was a fickle thing however. 

Even in that summer of 1533 there were tensions that were starting to show and secrets that were being kept.

One of the guests in the country party would have been Thomas Cromwell. A rival to the Courtenays, he was looking for an opportunity to wrench them from the king's favour. 

Gertrude had recently housed at West Horsley Place Elizabeth Barton, a twenty-seven year-old nun who, for nearly a decade, had been claiming she experienced visions and revelations directly from God. At West Horsley Place, in the company of the Courtenays, it was suggested that Barton spoke a prophecy of Henry VIII’s downfall, that he ‘should flee the realm one day’. Therefore, during all the hunting and merry-making in 1533, the Courtenay's were already hiding a treasonous secret. 

In the years that followed the Courtenays allowed themselves to be drawn into further controversial affairs. 

The distance between the Courtenays and Henry grew and it seems that by the summer of 1538, the Marquess and Marchioness were associating themselves with known opponents of the king, Cromwell and the advancing assault on the Church. In the winter, the Courtenays were suddenly arrested at West Horsley Place, implicated in a conspiracy with the Yorkist Pole family. 

Henry Courtenay was executed almost at once, while Gertrude and her young son were imprisoned.

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