Facts of life

William Courtenay was born at Powderham in England on 30 July 1768. He was the only son of Frances lady Courtenay and her husband William lord Courtenay. They already had four daughters when William was born and nine more followed.

Ten of William’s sisters married and he had more than 50 nieces and nephews, not all of them legitimate. He had ten or more aunts and uncles, and more than 30 cousins. Although his grandparents had died before he was born, some of his great-aunts and great-uncles were still living at that time.

William attended Westminster School from 1779 to 1784. He was 13 when his mother died on 25 March 1782, and 20 when his father died on 14 December 1788. William then became the third viscount Courtenay, and the owner of large estates in both the English county of Devon and the Irish county of Limerick. On 14 August 1789, shortly after his coming-of-age, William was presented to king George III at a levee held in Exeter at the Bishop’s palace. As viscount Courtenay he took his seat in the British House of Lords on 12 March 1790. William became the earl of Devon (lord Devon) on 14 March 1831.

After the death of his father and before he became an earl, William was known as lord Courtenay. Although it has now become normal to call him Kitty, it’s not clear that his contemporaries used that name. His heirs presumptive were descended from his father’s uncle Henry Reginald: firstly his father’s cousin, another Henry Reginald Courtenay who was bishop of Exeter from 1797 until his death in 1803; then the bishop’s eldest son, another William Courtenay.

Until he was 42 William resided mostly at Powderham Castle in Devon and his London house (in Grosvenor Square, then in Portman Square). In 1811 he emigrated to the United States of America and lived for a few years at Claremont in New York. During the war of 1812 he was detained at Poughkeepsie as an enemy alien. In 1814 William left America to settle in France where he lived in Paris and at the Château Draveil (between Paris and Fontainebleau) until his death.

At the age of 44 he was described as being 5 feet 7½ inches in height (1.71 metres), with a fair complexion, grey hair and fair eyes.

William was 66 when he died at the Place Vendôme in Paris on 13 May 1835. At the time of his death, six of his sisters were still living. His aunts and uncles had all died before him. He had no legitimate children and had not married; it is very unlikely that he ever became a father.

William was succeeded in his French estates by the family of Hester and George Woods, his steward in France. He was succeeded as earl of Devon by one of his second cousins, William Courtenay (1777-1859), and in his British and Irish estates by this second cousin’s eldest son, William Reginald Courtenay (1807-1888), who in turn became earl of Devon.

‘The remains of the late Earl of Devon lay in state at Powderham Castle on the 11th of June. A large number of persons from Exeter and the surrounding neighbourhood visited the mournful pageant. The funeral, which it was intended should be as private as circumstances would permit, took place the following day, the body being interred in the family vault in Powderham Church. The procession from the Castle consisted of the relatives of the deceased Nobleman, and some of the immediate friends of the family, together with several hundreds of the tenantry of Powderham and the adjoining parishes.’

Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1835, p.89


William Spreat: Powderham Church from Picturesque sketches of the churches of Devon, 1842. South West Heritage Trust: Local Studies Catalogue

Page history

  • 2018 May 30: first published online.
  • 2020 April 1: reviewed; no changes.
  • 2022 June 10: 1789 presentation to king added.

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