The Exeter Conspiracy?

Many historians have condemned King Henry VIII for beheading his Plantagenet first cousin, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter, on 9 December 1538. On the surface the odious act looks to be the result of paranoia and cruelty and heartlessness . But was it? And was Henry the prime motivator of Courtenay’s death?

God knows the king was by now mentally unstable, either from McLeod Syndrome or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Not long before Courtenay’s arrest and death another of his cousins, Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, wrote a letter warning that the king would “be out of his wits one day  … for when he came into his chamber he would look angrily, and after fall to fighting”. The monarch’s angry gaze turned on his maternal cousins in November of 1538, and a few short weeks later they were all dead, starting with Baron Montagu himself.

Enough cannot be said about how much Henry VIII’s decision to murder his cousins indicates his changed personality. Henry Courtenay was the king’s maternal first cousin and had “been brought up of a child with his grace in his chamber”. Courtenay remained a friend and favourite of Henry’s until shortly before his death. This means that the king seems to have spuriously ordered the legal murder of a man who had been raised as though he were Henry’s brother, and had been a member of Henry’s intimate circle all his life. Contrast this to the fact it took months of arm twisting and direct evidence of treason to get Henry to order the execution another of his cousins, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1521, even though the king was not nearly as emotionally close to him.  King Henry VIII was clearly a different man in 1538 than he was in 1521.

There may have been a good reason for the king’s behaviour, though. For one thing, King Henry was trying to protect his toddler son, the future King Edward VI, from become another disappearing heir vis-a-vis the Wars of the Roses. For another thing, Courtenay MAY have turned on the king by 1538. Or at least Henry’s first minister, Thomas Cromwell, wanted the king to think so.

Cromwell was an utter asshat, and well versed in talking the mentally impaired king into killing anyone who interfered in Cromwell’s plans.

Courtenay was fighting Cromwell over the excessive Dissolution of the Monasteries because it was causing intense suffering for the people on Courtenay’s lands. This may have pushed Courtenay into joining a planned rebellion in 1538.  Certainly the people of Devon and Cornwall thought the Marquess of Exeter was on their side. At “St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula of Cornwall a painted banner was reportedly created which was taken around local villages and called for the population to revolt. The stated demand was that Henry VIII should name Courtenay as his heir apparent to the throne” over the infant Prince Edward.

Courtenay knew this sort of demand was as dangerous to him as it was for people rebelling against the king, and the Marquess wisely made his will on 25 September 1538. 

Whether or not Courtenay was an active member of the insurrection, or whether he was actually plotting with the self-exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole, we cannot say for sure. What we do know is that Cromwell convinced King Henry VIII that Courtenay was part of it. Cromwell ‘examined’ Cardinal Pole’s youngest brother, Geoffrey Pole, who provided lots of information about the Roman Catholic conspiracy and Courtney’s part in it. Was Courtenay really driven “into a treasonable conspiracy with the Pole family” because Cromwell’s “measures … became so obnoxious to him”? Or did Cromwell set him up in order to get rid of a political rival for the king’s ear?

Cromwell went out of his way to assure imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys that:

As to the execution of the marquis of Exeter and two accomplices, their treason had been fully proved since their death by certain copies in the hand of the Marchioness of letters between him and card. Pole, of which the originals had been burned; which copies had been found in a little coffer of the Marchioness along with some letters of the late Queen and Princess. Cromwell said, moreover, that it was clear the Marquis had designed to usurp the kingdom by marrying his son to the Princess and destroying the Prince; and that the Marquis and his wife had before this suborned the Princess, putting in her head various opinious and fancies and encouraging her to persist in her obstinacy against her father and refuse to swear to the statutes made here. He further said the Marquis and his accomplices had intelligence with me, and that they must have revealed everything to me, for it had been found several times that your Majesty was informed beforehand of their intentions; and also they must have had intelligence with some other ambassadors or agents of your Majesty and with card. Pole, and it could not but be that their intrigues were known.

If Cromwell manipulated Henry VIII and provided false evidence then the Marquess of Exeter wasn’t wantonly slaughtered by the cousin whom he had played with as a little boy. It would mean that Henry was a victim, too.

Then again, the king may have thought he had good reason to murder his cousin even without Cromwell’s poisonous whispers. King Henry was in mortal dread of the possibility of a foreign invasion. The king’s biggest enemies, France and the Holy Roman Empire, had formed an alliance. The French king and the Imperial emperor were loyal to Catholicism, and Henry knew there was a chance they would invade England and give the throne to his eldest daughter, Princess Mary Tudor, who remained a zealous adherent to the old faith. Moreover, France was closely allied with Scotland and the Scots would have gladly allowed the French to amass troops along the Scottish-English border. There was therefore a very real chance that England could be invaded on multiple fronts by a Franco-Scots alliance from the north and by the armies of Charles V from the south. Henry’s kingdom would been chewed up between these foreign jaws. England needed clear leadership and a clear succession. Was the king displaying mental instability when he executed alternative heirs? Or was he acting rationally to secure his throne for his son?

Thankfully, the king’s worried didn’t extend to murdering (or being convinced to murder) Courtenay’s son, Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon. The eleven year old boy was, however, thrown into the Tower. Although he wasn’t mistreated, the poor kid had to grow up there. He was released until 1553, when Henry’s son King Edward VI died and Edward Courtenay wasn’t considered to be a threat to the very Catholic Queen Mary I’s throne, although he was suggested as a bride groom for her.

Sadly, Edward Courtenay was never “okay” again after having spent his youth in the Tower in constant fear for his life. He became Earl of Devon under Mary, but unlike his queen the new earl was Protestant and had no desire to see England become Catholic again. When Mary realised this the Earl of Devon was exiled to Venice in  1555, where his fellow Protestant sympathizers tried to arrange a secret marriage between him and his cousin, Princess Elizabeth, but Courtney died in 1556 in Padua before he could wed anyone and produce heirs. Rumour had it that Mary or Catholics loyal to her had him poisoned.

With the death of Courtney, the Plantagenet male decedents were all but eradicated as a potential alternative head to wear the English crown. Nonetheless, the Plantagenet bloodline lives on in His Grace, David Somerset, 11th Duke of Beaufort, who can trace his line directly back to King Edward III. So if we ever want to go back to the Plantagenet’s for the monarchy, we theoretically could.

2 thoughts on “The Exeter Conspiracy?


    1. I did indeed make a mistake (a typo in fact) when I wrote Mary instead of Margaret. I will correct it. However, notifying me of the error could have been communicated with less rudeness.

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