Ten things you didn’t know about Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter

Ten things you didn’t know about Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter

Written by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

  1. Great by birth, greater by marriage. 

Gertrude’s father, William Blount, Fourth Baron Mountjoy, was an influential member of the Tudor court, a respected humanistic scholar and patron of learning. He served as chamberlain in the household of Queen Katharine of Aragon, married four times and corresponded with Erasmus. 

In October 1519, Gertrude married Henry Courtenay, the King’s first cousin. Born c. 1498, Henry was the son of William Courtenay, First Earl of Devon, and Katherine Plantagenet of York, Queen Elizabeth of York’s younger sister.

2. She took part in the Chateau Vert masque in 1522.

If the Chateau Vert rings any bells it’s probably because it was the masque that saw Anne Boleyn, freshly returned from France, debuting at the Tudor court in March 1522.

A little-known fact is that Gertrude Courtenay (then known as the Countess of Devon) also took part in it, playing the role of Honour. 

3. She was involved with the Nun of Kent scandal. 

In April 1534, Henry VIII had Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, executed for treason. At first, she was famous for receiving divine prophecies, but as soon as Barton’s prophecies turned political, Henry VIII arrested her and her associates.  Barton claimed that if Henry married Anne Boleyn he would lose his crown or die a villain’s death; she also claimed she saw a special place in hell reserved for Henry. Barton had lent her support to Katharine of Aragon and Lady Mary, the King’s elder daughter, and spoke against William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. She naturally attracted supporters who were staunchly Catholic and anti-Boleyn. 

Gertrude invited Barton to her home at West Horsley Place in Surrey, where the young nun experienced one of her trances. 

Following Barton’s arrest, Gertrude wrote an apologetic letter to the King, arguing that she was only a woman and that was the reason why she listened to Barton, whom she initially believed to have been a holy prophetess. 

4. She was a staunch Catholic, loyal supporter of Katharine of Aragon and an enemy of Anne Boleyn.  

Gertrude and Henry Courtenay strongly opposed the idea of reading the Bible in the vernacular and would dismiss their servants if any of them were caught reading the Scriptures in English. Their religious views put them at odds with Anne Boleyn, who favoured the idea of translating the Bible into English. 

Gertrude was Katharine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting and loyal supporter. Anne Boleyn dismissed Gertrude from court in 1530, but Gertrude remained loyal to the Queen. As a member of the conservative faction, Gertrude perceived Anne as “a harlot and a heretic”.

5. She was Eustace Chapuys’s informant. 

Following Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Gertrude took part in Anne’s coronation, but she remained Katharine of Aragon’s supporter. 

She kept in touch with Charles V’s ambassador Eustace Chapuys, exchanging letters with him, sending her servants to convey sensitive messages, and she even visited him in disguise on one occasion.

6. She was involved in Anne Boleyn’s downfall and the rise of Jane Seymour.

As a member of the conservative faction at court, Gertrude was heavily involved in plotting Anne Boleyn’s downfall and the rise of Jane Seymour. It was Gertrude who informed Chapuys in January 1536 that Henry VIII was considering the repudiation of Anne, and she reported that Jane turned down the infamous letter and money from the King, telling him she would accept such gifts after her marriage. 

Gertrude went on to serve as Jane Seymour’s lady-in-waiting following Anne Boleyn’s execution. 

7. She was godmother to two Tudor monarchs.

In September 1533, Gertrude was one of the godmothers to Princess Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s only child with Anne Boleyn. 

Four years later, in October 1537, she was also a godmother of Prince Edward. 

8. She was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

The so called ‘Exeter Conspiracy’ was as shocking and brutal as the execution of Anne Boleyn and the five men accused as her lovers. 

In 1538 and 1539, Henry VIII purged the court of its male Plantagenet members, including his cousin and Gertrude’s husband, Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, who was executed on 9 December 1538. 

Accusing them of plotting with Cardinal Reginald Pole, the King sent many of the Catholic nobles to their deaths based on bits and pieces of their private conversations. 

Gertrude was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London but made it out alive. 

9. She served as Mary I’s “bedfellow”.

Following her husband’s execution in 1538, Gertrude lost her position at court. Little is known about her life between 1538 and 1553.

When Lady Mary, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, became Queen in her own right in 1553, she immediately sent for Gertrude and appointed her as her lady-in-waiting.

Queen Mary also released Gertrude’s son, Edward, from the Tower, where he had lived since 1538. 

The Queen made Gertrude one of her “bedfellows”, which meant that Gertrude slept in Mary’s bedchamber: it was the highest privilege a woman could attain since it put her in closest proximity with the Queen. 

10. She wanted to see her son married to Queen Mary I. 

After years of staunchly supporting Katharine of Aragon and Lady Mary, Gertrude expected that once Mary became Queen she would reward her. 

Mary released Gertrude’s son from captivity soon after her accession and gave him the title of Earl of Devon. 

Rumours spread at court that the Queen would marry Edward Courtenay, an idea that appealed to Gertrude.

However, the Queen had no such plans and rejected Edward Courtenay, choosing her Habsburg cousin Philip of Spain instead.

Offended, Gertrude left the court but was eventually reconciled with Queen Mary, joining the Privy Chamber again.  

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