Historical Women: Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter

Hello everyone and welcome to a post dedicated to Gertrude Courtenay, the first Marchioness of Exeter. Like me when I first read about her a few weeks ago, you are probably thinking, wait, who is she?! Well, wonder no more! Here we have a woman who was once a favourite of Katherine of Aragon. A woman who was imprisoned and interrogated by Thomas Cromwell. A woman who lost her fortune when her husband was executed for treason. A woman who clawed her way back into favour and into the service of Mary Tudor.

But most importantly we have a woman forgotten by history. Join me and read below to remember Gertrude Courtenay!

Gertrude Courtenay was the daughter of William Blount, the fourth Baron Mountjoy and his wife Elizabeth. As with most women, little is known about the early life of Gertrude but it is widely assumed that she was born around 1504. However come 1519 we know that she married Henry Courtenay the Earl of Devon. Following this marriage, Gertrude starts to come onto the historical scene through her close proximity to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. This is because her husband, Henry Courtenay was the first cousin of Henry VIII and the two were supposedly very close companions from childhood. It is believed that Gertrude entered the service of Katherine of Aragon and we know that she attended the queen at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. In 1525, Gertrude’s star was on the rise once again when her husband was created the Marquess of Exeter, making Gertrude a Marchioness, one of the highest positions in the land! In 1526 Gertrude had a son named Edward Courtenay (more about him later!) and things generally seemed to be going swimmingly for the couple.

Henry Courtenay; second from the left.
The image is depicting the procession of the Garter Knights from the Royal collection at Windsor.
Image taken from Wikipedia

But this is Tudor England after all, and under the reign of Henry VIII, anything could happen…

After 20 + years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn and started what would eventually become a six year campaign for divorce which would turn England upside down. During his quest for divorce, Henry had his lords write to Pope Clement VII in 1530, demanding that he grant the king an annulment. One signature on the document is Henry Courtenay, who realistically you would expect to sign it, after all the king was his family! However, although seemingly supportive of the divorce, Gertrude and her husband felt a lot of sympathy for Katherine and secretly supported her, staunchly opposing the new evangelical ideas that Cromwell and Cranmer were introducing. This opposition is what gets Gertrude into trouble. Around the time of the ‘Great Matter’ (the divorce) a woman called Elizabeth Barton comes onto the scene who apparently sees visions and hears the word of God. She enters a nunnery where word of her prophecies spread and she becomes a bit of a Tudor celebrity.

But with celebrity comes danger.

Elizabeth started to prophesy about the death of the king should he marry Anne Boleyn – not a smart idea really as this was considered treason. But, as Elizabeth supported Katherine, so too did Gertrude and the two women became embroiled with one another. Gertrude travelled in secret to meet Elizabeth and even invited her to the Courtenay family house in Surrey which was tantamount to harbouring a traitorous criminal under her roof. When Barton was eventually arrested for treason, Gertrude was cited in the investigation as being directly involved and as such hastily wrote to Henry VIII to assure him of her loyalty, feigning ignorance of Barton’s treasonous ideologies. How did she get away with it? She blamed it all on the fact she was a woman and that gullibility was the weakness of her deplorable sex- typical. Following this incident, all seemed well once more and for a while Gertrude stayed out of trouble. She did however maintain a close relationship with Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary throughout their years in exile and was called by the ambassador Eustace Chapuys the ‘sole consolation of the Queen and Princess.’ Henry VIII, aware of her close relationship with his now ex wife, had Gertrude preside at the christening of Princess Elizabeth forcing her to be one of her godmothers. Gertrude was thoroughly discontented by this and apparently ranted and raved about how much she didn’t want this ‘honour’ but eventually succumbed to the will of the king and showed public allegiance to Queen Anne through her acquiescence- sensible move if you ask me! Nontheless she maintained her friendship with Katherine and Mary and even passed on valuable information to Eustace Chapuys, acting almost one could say as a spy!

Katherine of Aragon. Image taken from Wikipedia

Following the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536, Gertrude remained a friend to Princess Mary and was hopeful that Mary would be reinstated at court and in the line of succession making her a Princess once more! However, when Mary was forced to sign the royal supremacy act and admit to her illegitimacy, these hopes were dashed. Henry VIII, again aware that Gertrude was supportive of Mary, had her carry Prince Edward at his christening, perhaps in another attempt to get this wily and obstinate woman to adhere to the new line of succession. Soon after this however Gertrude comes under suspicion once again. In November 1538 Gertrude was arrested along with her son Edward and imprisoned in the Tower of London on the charge of treason. Her past with Elizabeth Barton had come to haunt her and this time she was implicated in a much wider conspiracy. It turns out her husband had been in contact with exiled Catholics and there was talk of an uprising against the king. For 18 months Gertrude was held in the Tower, repeatedly professing her innocence. Once again she wrote to Henry repeatedly to convince him that she was innocent and that her opinions were easily swayed and her stupidity in being implicated in any plot was due to her being a woman and thus the weaker sex- yep that old chestnut again! It really helped her out though as eventually she was released. Her husband however, cousin and once close companion to Henry VIII, was beheaded.

Following the death of her husband and her release from the Tower, Gertrude lived a rather difficult life. As her lands were forfeit to the crown, she experienced relative poverty and her position of influence at court was all but lost. However, when Mary ascended the throne she looked kindly upon Gertrude and she summoned her to court as her close friend and rewarded her for the kindness and support she had provided throughout her life. Gertrude became a figure of influence once more in court and as a close friend of the queen exerted considerable influence over Mary herself, evidenced when Gertrude convinces Mary to save the life of the Marquess of Northampton. In 1553 Gertrude was reunited with her son who was finally released from the Tower after 15 years of imprisonment.

Edward Courtenay. Image taken from Wikipedia

The joy at this reunion was short lived as although initially being a favourite of Queen Mary, Edward was implicated in a treasonous rebellion alongside Princess Elizabeth. Gertrude once again found herself thrown out of court in disgrace as it was believed she was also loosely involved. Her son however was eventually released and exiled to Europe where in 1555, he died in exceptionally mysterious circumstances. Some say it was poison, some say he was stranded in a gondola in Venice where he caught a chill and some say it was malaria. Whatever it was, he died in Padua in 1556 and Gertrude was welcomed back into court with open arms. She served Queen Mary until late into 1558 until she became ill and died on the 25th of September. She is buried in Wimborne Minster in Dorset.

Although historical sources are thin on the ground for Gertrude, what we do know is this remarkable woman found herself directly involved in some of the greatest matters in English history. She was a direct witness and participant in England’s departure from Catholicism, was close friends with one of the strongest women in history and godmother to another; Princess Elizabeth. She witnessed the reign of two Tudor kings; Henry VIII, Edward VI and was close companion to the Queen we all know today as Bloody Mary. I believe her to be a wily, clever woman who knew how to work the machinations of the tricky and fickle Tudor court and for all of this, she should be remembered!

Happy history folks!

Ps. Sadly there are no images of her or I would have included one! The featured image is nothing to do with her sadly!

Bibliography

Cooper, J. P. D. “Courtenay, Gertrude, marchioness of Exeter (d. 1558).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press 2004. Online Edition January 2004

H. Miller, Henry VIII and the English nobility (1986)

C. Merton, ‘The women who served Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth: ladies, gentlewomen and maids of the privy chamber, 1553–1603’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1992

E. W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (1986)

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