The white rose of the House of YorkHenry Courtenay,  1st Marquess of Exeter was gifted West Horsley Place in the early 1530s by Henry VIII.  In his biography of Courtenay, J. P. D. Cooper writes that lineage ‘proved to be both his blessing and his curse.’ (1.) His ancestry was both royal and noble: his paternal grandfather was Edward Courtenay of Boconnoc, who changed sides from York to Lancaster in 1485, supporting Henry Tudor against Richard III.  When Henry Tudor became king he made Edward Earl of Devon, granting him large estates in that county, which established  the Courtenay family’s base in the West Country. Edward was made a Knight of the Garter in 1490.  In 1497 Edward and his son William, Henry Courtenay’s father, defeated the Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck at Exeter.  Sir William Courtenay was married to Princess Katherine Plantagenet, youngest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville and sister to Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII.  Henry Courtenay - born c. 1498 - was  cousin to Prince Henry,  heir to the throne, and Margaret and Mary, who became Queens of Scotland and France respectively.


 Henry VII was a usurper, which gave rise to many of the problems that ensued. Just two years after he came to the throne Henry faced the first Yorkist challenge when Lambert Simnel became a pawn in conspiracies to restore the Yorkist line.  It was claimed that he was Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick. The rebellion was organised by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. It was crushed by King Henry and Simnel was employed in the Royal house first as a scullion, and later a falconer. Perkin Warbeck was the second Yorkist pretender to the English throne.  He claimed to be Richard of York, the younger son of Edward IV – one of the Princes in the Tower – who had disappeared, presumably murdered. He posed a significant threat to Henry VII from 1491, representing the Yorkist faction until he was defeated and hanged in 1499. The Yorkist White Rose faction was to haunt both Henry and later, his son Henry VIII. 

William Courtenay began to make his mark at Court: in 1487 he was made a Knight of the Bath and then became brother-in-law to Henry VII with his marriage to Katherine. But in April 1502 he was accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the king with Edmund Pole, Earl of Suffolk, a Yorkist pretender. Some historians view this as Tudor paranoia about threats to the succession, but this, along with their adherence to the Catholic faith and their close relationship with the Pole family and other Yorkist nobility, would return to haunt the Courtenays. William Courtenay was attainted – the historic term for a judgement of disgrace and dishonour which entailed loss of land and title - and imprisoned, first in the Tower and then Calais. Queen Elizabeth did all she could to support her sister’s family, and the privy purse of 1502 records sustenance payments for the child Henry and his sister Margaret. The Queen died in 1503, so Henry Courtenay’s early memories would have been of his father’s fall from grace. He did receive a courtly education, along with his cousins Arthur and Henry: he is described as ‘the king’s near kinsman, and hath been brought up of a childe with his Grace in his chamber.’ (2.)


In 1509 his cousin Henry succeeded to the throne and life changed again for the Courtenays. William was released and his title of Earl of Devon reinstated. He took a prominent role in the coronation of Henry VIII. He died in 1511 and the following year the attainder was reversed; the  young Henry Courtenay became 2nd Earl of Devon and his title to the Boconnoc lands in Cornwall and Devon was restored. But the more substantial Devon estates were granted to his mother Katherine for her lifetime; Henry VIII had an affectionate relationship with his aunt.

Henry Courtenay began to enjoy his life at the Court with his cousin’s kind patronage. In 1513 when he was about sixteen as second captain of a man-of-war, he took part in a naval campaign. Two years later, he married Elizabeth, daughter of John Grey, Viscount Lisle, but she died, aged only fourteen.  In October 1519 he married Gertrude, daughter of William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, Chamberlain to Queen Catherine of Aragon. The relationship between Henry VIII and Henry Courtenay was close and cordial. Courtenay became prominent in the royal household in immediate attendance upon the king. There are records of his participation in shuffleboard, indoor tennis, jousting and winter sports at Greenwich Palace, including a snowball fight. The Court was the real centre of political power, and as such, the focus of power struggles: ‘Every  man here is ffor hymselff,’ wrote John Hussey, Lord Sleaford in 1530. As events unfolded Henry Courtenay was certainly to discover this. (3.)


 In 1520 he and Gertrude played a prominent part in the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold: a magnificent gathering of the English and French Courts near Calais. Courtenay took part in jousting tournaments with Charles Brandon, Earl of Suffolk and other courtiers. Henry made Courtenay a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and in 1521 he became a Knight of the Garter, replacing the disgraced Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He also gained Buckingham’s London residences at Pountney and All Hallows. In that same year, he was chosen by the French king to accompany Queen Mary of France on a diplomatic mission. Throughout the 1520s the Courtenays appear regularly in the New Year Gift Rolls. In April 1525 Courtenay became Constable of Windsor Castle and in June of that year Henry made him Marquess of Exeter, with the manors of Dartington in Devon, and Restormel in Cornwall. Then in 1527 his mother Princess Katherine died and he finally acquired his full Devon inheritance, with a fine castle at Tiverton and other considerable residences.  The Marquess’ power in the west of England was now virtually supreme, though both he and his father had chosen the role of courtier rather than nobleman of the provinces. He was despatched to France by Henry VIII, as the king’s envoy to sue for the release of the French king, Francis I, who had lost the Battle of Pavia and was a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.  The 1520s were the decade when Courtenay’s relationship with his royal cousin seemed secure, and he enjoyed many privileges at Court. In the early years of the 1530s, with the royal divorce, dissolution of the monasteries and the religious rift with Rome, the stakes were high for Catholic noblemen of royal descent.  Supporters of Princess Mary, also known as the ‘White Rose Faction’ had become a political group, and soon Exeter was fighting to retain the king’s favour.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary MantelTHE DESCENT FROM GRACE

Exeter’s committed Catholicism did not prevent him supporting Henry in his proceedings for divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon; his signature is on the letter to Pope Clement VII demanding divorce in 1531. Yet both he – and certainly Gertrude – had sympathy for the rejected Queen. They were also close to Sir Thomas More and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Then, in 1531, the king removed Exeter from the Privy Chamber. Gertrude describes this as an event which caused him much heartbreak. Apparently the reason for this may have been reports of unrest in the west country, where Exeter was referred to as ‘heir to the throne.’ Exeter denied all allegations of involvement; he had simply become involved in a dispute concerning his father-in-law, Lord Mountjoy. He was exonerated and was paid considerable damages, but the king’s suspicions were aroused. However, in 1533 Exeter was appointed Commissioner for the deposition of Queen Catherine – was the king calling his bluff? - and both Exeter and Gertrude participated in the christening of Princess Elizabeth; indeed in the ceremony Gertrude acted as godmother.

In that same year – 1533 – Gertrude took a great risk by becoming involved with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, whose visions predicted that the king would die if he divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. The couple were now spending much time at West Horsley Place, then known as ‘Horsley House.’ Henry VIII had seized the house upon the death of John Bourchier, Baron Berners, who was heavily in debt to the king, and gifted it to Henry Courtenay. 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.  (4.) The dates here are of interest, as it would appear that the Courtenays were in residence in 1534, just one year after the death of John Bourchier. This suggests that his widow, Katherine had left the house, or been ordered to do so, directly after Bourchier’s death. Katherine’s death certificate is dated March 1536,in Suffolk.  As Bourchier died in Calais, where they lived in 1533, it is possible that Katherine never returned to Horsley House.  Gertrude was cited in subsequent investigations, and she was obliged to seek forgiveness from the king. Elizabeth Barton was put to death in April 1534.  Gertrude was also accused by some at Court of plotting the downfall of Anne Boleyn.  She became a friend and confidante of Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador, a sworn enemy of Queen Anne.  All this must have been grist to the mill for Thomas Cromwell, when he later sought Exeter’s downfall.  In The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s third historical novel on the life of Thomas Cromwell, she depicts  Gertrude as ‘the man of the household, a bold and enterprising woman…’. (5.) When the proceedings for the suppression of the monasteries commenced in 1535, Exeter was made steward of many abbeys and priories in the south west. Was the king testing his loyalty?     

Tudor banquetHORSLEY HOUSE

Henry Courtenay was not blind to the sufferings the dissolution of the monasteries was causing to his tenants in the West Country. He thoroughly disliked Thomas Cromwell and his religious injunctions of 1536. He had a strong sense of gratitude and loyalty to the king, but not to Cromwell, now Lord Privy Seal. Cromwell, in his turn was deeply suspicious of the Courtenay’s religious commitment to Catholicism, as well as their royal – and Yorkist – lineage; he would use the latter when persuading the king to try them for treason. The relationship between the two – one pre-eminent in the privy council, the other Lord of the Privy Seal – became increasingly strained.  But in a world of faction and politics, Courtenay was no match for the guile of Cromwell. As Cromwell’s power and influence over the monarch increased, Exeter turned away from the Court and retreated to Horsley Place, which became the Courtenays’ favourite residence. Crown records – when the house reverted to Henry VIII’s ownership – offer a picture of life there and of Henry Courtenay’s tastes.  He loved music, and possessed a double virginal, three pairs of regals – a small organ – and nine viols.  He employed a singer, William Boothe, and a jester called William Tremayle as well as a troupe of players.  The house was tended by a hundred and three yeoman, including grooms of the chamber and waiters, as well as menial servants. A record exists of a feast (modest by comparison with some of the king’s feasts), which was served to Henry VIII and his entourage when he visited Horsley House:

            FIRST COURSE

         Salads of damsons, artichokes, cabbage, lettuces, purslane’ cucumbers ; served with cold dishes of stewed sparrows, larded pheasants, carp, capons in lemon, duck, gulls, stuffed rabbits, pasty of venison and pear.


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


         Jelly, blancmange, apples with pistachios, pears with carraway, filberts, scraped cheese with sugar, clotted cream with sugar. quince pie, marchipan, and wafers.

The house was the centre of events leading to the arrest of Exeter, Sir Edward Neville and Henry Pole, Lord Montague – the so called ‘White Rose Group ‘-  who would gather there to eat, drink, be merry and lament the Old Faith. They all hated Cromwell and longed for a change in policy, but arguably they were not actively plotting revolt. They could, however,  be dangerously indiscreet. When Exeter was rebuked by fellow Catholics  for accepting stewardship of former abbey lands, he replied: ‘Good enough for a time, they must have all again one day.’ (6.)  On another occasion, after entertaining Cromwell at Horsley House and giving him a ‘summer coat and a wood knife' Exeter is reputed to have remarked: ‘Knaves rule about the kingI trust to give them a buffet one day.’ (7.)  There is an apocryphal story, which has proved difficult to verify, that Cromwell actually came upon Exeter, in Gertrude’s Tudor box garden at Horsley House, singing risqué songs about the king’s love life.


In 1536 he was a Commissioner at the trial of Anne Boleyn and later that year, he was sent with the Earls of Norfolk, Suffolk and other nobles to put down a Catholic rebellion in the north of England, known as ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace.’ Both Exeter and Norfolk were suspected of sympathy with the rebels. But Exeter held his command, even advancing payment to his men, while awaiting Treasury money. When the payment arrived, Norfolk contrived to obtain it, and Exeter had ‘not a penny to convey himself and his train toward my Lord Steward.’ (8.)  He eventually received funds while at Ampthill.  There is historical dispute as to whether he left the campaign, and also as to whether he departed for the Court or the west country. But Gertrude carried Prince Edward to his christening at Hampton Court, and some sources list Exeter as present in an official capacity. ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’ unsettled the king and earlier in 1536, he had had a serious accident in a joust, which had rendered him unconscious and unable to speak. He recovered, but his insecurity over the succession began to verge on paranoia.  This has led some recent Tudor historians to question whether the accident had caused brain damage. An historical television documentary in 2009 examined the effect of this and other illnesses and injuries sustained by the king. (9.) The French Ambassador, Sieur de Castillon quoted the king as saying that he wanted to exterminate the ‘White Rose’ families such as the Poles, and Castillon feared for the Marquess of Exeter. Exeter was a close friend of Henry Pole, Lord Montague, whose brother Reginald (later Cardinal Pole), had left England in self- exile after the religious upheavals. He wrote a highly critical text  De Unitate accusing the king of tyranny.  Another brother, Sir Geoffrey Pole, visited Reginald in exile and carried messages between the brothers and their mother Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Thomas Cromwell was diligently searching for a means of disposing of these last Yorkists, and saw his opportunity. Geoffrey Pole was arrested and placed in the Tower.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing once more in the west country. At St. Keverne in Cornwall a painted banner was carried around the villages calling for rebellion, and reputedly declaring Exeter heir-apparent to the throne. Then, incriminating letters were found belonging to Gertrude, and Exeter was accused of being in correspondence with Reginald Pole. In the Tower, kept in a small, dank cell and under intense duress, Geoffrey Pole implied that Montague, Neville and Exeter were insulting the king and his policies. Cromwell convinced the king that the Poles, Nevilles and Courtenays were all part of a Catholic uprising.

Two significant events also occurred: in May 1538 King Henry became seriously ill with a floating thrombosis in the lung and there was panic over the succession; Catholic Princess Mary, or baby Prince Edward? In July of that year, Emperor Charles V and King Francois of France signed a treaty, and considered cementing it with an invasion of heretic England. By the end of the summer, Geoffrey Pole had become virtually deranged as a result of the brutal interrogations in the Tower and had given Thomas Cromwell all the pretext he needed to implicate his enemies.


In September 1538, fearing the worst, Exeter made his will and awaited the inevitable.  On the 4th of November Exeter, Montague and Sir Edward Neville were arrested and sent to the Tower, followed by their wives and families. Thomas Cromwell wrote to Sir Thomas Wyatt that they were being charged of  ‘sundry great crimes.’ (9.)  Nothing serious could be proved against them; there was no written evidence, just hearsay. A show trial by other nobles followed for Exeter on the 4th December. All the accused knew it was hopeless, and their fates were sealed. Exeter made a stand, accusing Geoffrey Pole of ‘frenzy, folly and madness.’ (10.)  The only evidence given against him in court was his familiar reported statement: ‘I trust once to have a fair day upon those knaves that rule about the king, and I trust to see a merry world one day.’

There were no derogatory words about the king, nor any crimes under the Treason Act, but along with the others accused, he was found guilty. On the 9th December 1538 – a windy day with driving rain – Exeter, Montague and Neville were executed on Tower Hill. Gertrude and son Edward were kept in prison, together with her companion Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury. In 1540, the Tower gaoler appealed to the king about the distressed condition of the two ladies. Henry’s response was to execute the sixty-seven year old Countess, without trial, in May 1541. Gertrude was pardoned and released, but Edward remained in the Tower until Queen Mary ascended to the throne in 1553, when she restored his title of Earl of Devon. There was a suggestion that he might wed the queen, but she had set her heart on Philip of Spain, and he was on the list of possible suitors for Elizabeth.

Sadly, there is only a sketchy picture of the Marquess of Exeter, in procession with the Garter Knights, but a portrait exists of his son Edward, who is described as a handsome young man – the Plantagenets were a good looking brood – so perhaps the Marquess shared his son’s looks. ‘Horsley House’ – then still a medieval hall house - must have been full of life during the short sojourn of the Exeters.  It would have been filled with music and laughter – with a resident jester – as well as theatrical entertainment: the Marquess himself loved to sing.  His troupe of players would surely have performed in the great stone hall, with music in the Minstrel’s Gallery above. 


  1. J.P.D. Cooper, Courtenay, Henry, marquess of Exeter, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. p.1., 23rd, September, 2004. online. https://oxforddnb/com/view/1093
  2. H. Miller, Henry VIII and the English Nobility, Oxford: Blackwell,  1986,   p. 85
  3. R. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001,         p. 97
  4. J.P.D. Copper, op cit
  5. Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, London: 4th Estate, 2020, p. 600
  6. Autumn 1538: ‘The Exeter Conspiracy,’ p.3. secret-wars-of-the-tudors/30
  7. J. P. D. Cooper, op cit, p.4. (TNA:PRO, KB 8/11/2)
  8. Madelaine Hope Dodds & Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and The Exeter Conspiracy 1538, Vol.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915,  p.142
  9. Inside the Body of King Henry VIII. History Channel Documentary, 2009, Robert Hutchinson, Catherine Dodds and Lucy Worsley
  10. Desmond Seward, ‘The Exeter Conspiracy’ of 1538: The Extermination of the White Rose, History Today, Volume 61, Issue 1. January, 2011.  p.2.
  11. Autumn 1538: ‘The Exeter Conspiracy,’ op cit p.8.


Cooper,  J.P.D.       Courtenay, Henry, marquess of Exeter,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004  https://oxforddnb/com.view/1093

Dodds,  Mr. & R  The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and The Exeter Conspiracy, 1538. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915

Hoyle, R. W.           The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001

Hutchinson, R, Catherine Hood & Lucy Worsley, Inside the Body of Henry VIII, History Channel Documentary, 2009

Kramer, K.C.          Henry VIII’s Health, MadeGlobal Publishing, 2015

Mantel, Hilary,      The Mirror and the Light, London: 4th Estate, 2020

Miller, Helen          Henry VIII and the English Nobility:  Oxford,  Basil Blackwell, 1986

Seward, D.              The Last White Rose: The Spectre at the Tudor Court, London: Constable, 2010

Starkey, D.              Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics, London: Vintage Random  House, 2002


Banner: Field of the Cloth of Gold, unknown artist, in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court. 

1. The white rose of the House of York

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

3. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, published by 4th Estate

4. 16th Century Banquet

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