Gertrude Courtenay (nee Blount) and her husband Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, lived in West Horsley Place during the 1530s.  Their tenure was short, but they were powerful and interesting personalities at the centre of the religious and political upheaval at the Tudor Court of Henry VIII, which followed the Dissolution of the Monasteries; the split from Rome and the divorce and remarriage of the king.  


Gertrude was the daughter of William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, and his wife Elizabeth Saye. William Mountjoy studied in Paris and became patron of the great Erasmus, who corresponded with Blount and dedicated writings to him.  The date of Gertrude’s birth, in various sources, is somewhere between 1499 and 1504.  However, not all list Elizabeth Saye as mother of Gertrude:  Antonia Fraser (i) and Alison Weir (ii) cite Inez des Venegas, a Spanish lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine as her mother, and as wife to Lord Mountjoy, who was actually married many times.  But this would place Gertrude’s birth date around 1509: she married in 1519, making her court appearances as a young woman immediately afterwards.  This would not have happened if she had been an arranged child bride. Baron Mountjoy enjoyed an illustrious court career, and was Chamberlain to Queen Katherine from 1512 to 1533.  


On 25th October, 1519, Gertrude became the second wife of Henry Courtenay (c1498-1538) Earl of Devon, son of William Courtenay and Princess Katherine Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV.  Courtenay was first cousin to King Henry VIII, and prominent member of the privy chamber. On the occasion of the marriage, the king paid 200 pounds four shillings and nine pence for celebratory jousts. (Henry VIII had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy – who became Duke of Richmond  with Elizabeth Blount, who was a cousin of Gertrude.)     

Gertrude’s first appearance as Countess of Devon was at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, where she participated in courtly pageants with the king’s sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France, Mary and Anne Boleyn, while her husband took part in jousting. In 1521, Courtenay became a Knight of the Garter, and in 1525, he was made Marquess of Exeter: King Henry was very generous to his cousin, with grants of land and gifts.  In 1526, the couple had a son Edward: they had previously lost an infant son, Henry.  


The Courtenays appear regularly in the New Year’s Gift Rolls, and in 1527, Gertrude was chosen to lead Princess Mary by the hand when she was presented to the French Ambassador in 1527. Gertrude fell ill of the Sweating Sickness, in 1528, along with members of the Boleyn family.  This was the time when the king was seeking to invalidate his marriage to Queen Katherine.  Although Courtenay signed the petition of the English nobility to the Pope, seeking an annulment of the marriage, both he and Gertrude had sympathy for the Queen.  They were close to Sir Thomas More and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and in dangerous opposition to the religious reforms of Thomas Cromwell. Both Henry and Gertrude participated in the christening of the Princess Elizabeth: in the confirmation ceremony afterwards, Gertrude acted as godmother.


Thomas CromwellThe Courtenays  took great risk by becoming involved with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, whose visions predicted that the king would die if he divorced Katherine and married Anne Boleyn. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Biographythe Courtenays  were already living in West Horsley Manor early in the 1530s.  Henry VIII had seized the Manor and estate upon the death of Baron Berners (John Bourchier,) who was heavily in debt to the king, who then gifted the Manor to Courtenay.  The date varies in different sources, but the Oxford Dictionary of Biography notes that Gertrude travelled in disguise to meet Elizabeth Barton, and took her to ‘the Courtenay house in West Horsley’ where Barton experienced a trance.(iii) Gertrude was cited in subsequent investigations, and was obliged to seek forgiveness from the king. Elizabeth Barton was executed for treason in 1534.  Gertrude was accused by some courtiers of being involved in the plot to bring down Queen Anne.  She became a friend and confidante of Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador, and enemy of Queen Anne. All these factors must have been grist to Thomas Cromwell’s mill, when the couple were later tried for treason, along with Henry Courtenay’s royal blood and staunch Catholicism: Courtenay was no match for the machinations of Cromwell.  


Courtenay was particularly attached to West Horsley Place – then called Horsley House – and the couple lived there in some style.  The marquess was fond of music and was no mean singer himself. There is a delightful story – sadly, difficult to verify historically – of Cromwell coming upon Courtenay in the Tudor garden at Horsley House, singing rather risqué songs about the king’s amours, which supposedly contributed to Cromwell’s determination to destroy Courtenay.  The same story mentions  the Lady Marques’s garden,’ which may refer to the  Tudor style topiary and little box hedges which perhaps Gertrude laid out. Courtenay employed a singer, William Boothe and a fool, named William Tremayle: he also patronised a troupe of players.  Courtenay loved music:  in 1538, when King Henry seized Horsley House, there was record of a double virginal; three pairs of regals – a small organ – and nine viols.  The house was served by 103 gentlemen waiters and grooms of the chamber, not to mention menial servants. King Henry visited the Courtenays, and a record exists of the splendid dinner which was served to the king and his entourage.  

First Course: salads of damson, artichokes, cabbage, lettuces, purslane and cucumbers. Cold dishes of stewed sparrow, carp, capons in lemon, larded pheasants, duck, gulls, brews, stuffed rabbit , pasty of venison from fallow deer and pear pasty. 

Second Course: Stork; gannet; heron; pullets; quail, partridge, fresh sturgeon; pasty of venison from red deer, chickens baked in caudle and fritters. 

Dessert: Jelly; blancmange; apples with pistachios; pears with carroway, filberts, scraped cheese with sugar, clotted cream with sugar, quince pie, marzipan; wafers and hippocras. (iv)

But the good times did not last long: Henry Courtenay, powerful, of royal blood and opposed to religious reform, often did not guard his tongue.  In 1536, he is reported as saying to Henry Pole, Lord Montague: ‘I trust ones to have a faire day upon these knaves which  rule about the kyng, and I trust to see a mery woreld one day.’ Another version has Courtenay threatening to give the knaves – surely  Cromwell and Cranmer – ‘a buffett'. (v.)


In 1538, Cromwell struck against Courtenay and other staunch Catholics, who were indicted for treason and found guilty by their peers on 3rd December.  Courtenay and Lord Montague were beheaded on Tower Hill on 9th December, 1538. The king sequestered all the Courtenay properties.  Gertrude was also imprisoned in the Tower after an Act of Attainder, sharing a cell with Margaret Pole, Lady Montague. Edward Courtenay, aged twelve was also  imprisoned.  Cromwell reports of his efforts to extract a satisfactory confession from  Gertrude:  ‘I shall never cease until the bottom of her stomach may be clearly opened and disclosed…..’ (vi)  The senior warder at the Tower, Thomas Philips wrote pleadingly of the Lady Marchioness ‘wanting raiment and hath no change'.  (vii)


Gertrude was pardoned and released on 21st December, 1539, but her son Edward remained in the Tower until Queen Mary ascended to the throne in 1553.  Mary restored him to the family title of Earl of Devon.  There was even a suggestion that he might marry Mary, but she had set her heart on Philip of Spain.   The years following Gertrude’s release from the Tower were lean, as all the Courtenay estates were forfeit to the crown.  Princess Mary was aware of how the family had suffered, and summoned Gertrude to court, where she is described as the queen’s ‘bedfellow.’ (viii)  She held an important place in the coronation procession.  Then Edward was involved with Sir Thomas Wyatt’s plot, and ended up once again in the Tower.  This soured Gertrude’s relationship with the queen, but she was recalled to the court in 1555.  Gertrude  made her recorded will in 1558, just before she died.  She requested a traditional Catholic burial Mass, and is buried at Wimborne.  Historians and writers interpret her character very differently.  A. L. Rowse paints her as pious, but sad and foolish, whereas Garrett Mattingly depicts her as a woman of energy and spirit, willing to risk all for her Catholic faith.  Horatia Dunant sees her as a woman seeking power in an age when women were virtually powerless.  King Henry held ‘Horsley House’ from 1538/9 – 1547, when he gave it, along with Hatchlands and other estates, to Sir Anthony Browne, whose second wife Elizabeth FitzGerald – the Fair Geraldine – was another strong female ‘survivor’ in the story of West Horsley Place.  


King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1537 © National Portrait Gallery

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1532

Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, English School c. 1555

Queen Mary I, Master John, 1544 © National Portrait Gallery


i)  Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, p. 195

ii)   Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, London: Random House, 2011  p, 253

iii)  J. P. D. Cooper, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

iv)  Pam Bowley, West Horsley Place, Alton: Image Print 2001 Ltd, 2007

v)   TNA:PRO  KB 8/11/2 source J.P.D. Cooper, ibid

 vi)  Diane Holcombe Wltshire, The Accidental Thespian: An Actor in Search of a Character; Gertrude Blount Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter, http://theaccidentalthespian.blogspot.cpm/2012.04/actor-i n-search-of-character-gertrude.html

vii)  ibid


Pam Bowley, West Horsley Place, Alton: Image Print, 2007

J.P. D. Cooper, Courtenay, Henry, marquess of Exeter, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Horatia Durant, Sorrowful Captives: The Tudor Earls of Devon, Pontypool, The Griffin Press, 1960

Bamber Gascoigne, West Horsley Place: A Personal History and West Horsley Place: A New Start

Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, New York, Knopf,1992

Garrett Mattingly, Catherine of Aragon, New York, AMS Press, 1960

David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, London: Chatto & Windus, 2003

Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, London: Random House, 2011

Diane Holcombe Wiltshire, The Accidental Thespian: An Actor in Search of a Character: Gertrude Blount Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter,