In the quest to find one’s origins, the starting point is the very surname thrust
upon us from birth. As we grow older, perhaps we hear stories of famous people who
also bore our name and who were thought to be our ancestor. But because a historical
figure shares our surname (and maybe lived in a certain area) does this necessarily
mean he is our forebear? Or is it a case of wishful thinking – of believing (with
absolutely no proof) that we are part of the family of the mighty and good?
The genealogist Anthony Camp in his book, Everyone Has Roots, spent the first twenty
pages debunking the fanciful thinking that a shared surname is evidence of a shared
genealogy. He noted that the gullible were fair game for vendors of dubious family
crests and coats of arms and encouraged approaching “the subject with an open mind,
eager to know the truth whatever it may be....”. He added that “traditions of descent
from some famous person of the same surname probably based solely on speculation
about the subject two or three generations ago will exist...in practically every
family of that name you come across. That is not evidence of a relationship to them...A
pedigree goes as far as the evidence will take it, and then it ends”.
I have spoken to people who thought that they were related to a well-known footballer
or an intrepid aviator because they had a common surname, but when their tree has
been compiled, there was no substance to their belief. As Anthony Camp noted, stories
passed down by relatives have also muddied the pond. In my own family, my maternal
grandmother was christened ‘Dee’. She had been told she descended from Doctor Dee
(1527 – 1608/09) who was an alchemist, mathematician, astrologer and occult philosopher
in the court of Elizabeth I. However, with the best will in the world, I can trace
my Dee ancestors back only to a William Dee who was born in around 1715 - about six
generations away from the good Doctor. This chain of pedigree is certainly not complete.
And so we come to the Courtney family – a well-known name of antiquity in Devon.
There is a family tree at http://www.powderham.co.uk/our-stories/family-tree which
postulates that the Courtenays descended from Athon (AD 1000) of Chateau Reynard
in France. Sir Reginald de Courtenay came to Britain in 1152 and his family settled
in Devon, notably Powderham Castle. A descendent, Sir Philip Courtenay (1430 –1489),
was Sheriff of Devon in 1470. He was the second son of Sir Philip Courtenay (1404–1463)
of Powderham and lived at Molland, a small village in Devon.
I have heard claims that Sue’s family have descended from these Courtenays. Others
have asserted that because her great grandfather lived at Molland for a couple of
decades, he was therefore descended from the aforesaid Sir Philip Courtenay. One
Courtney descendent also wrote, ‘I think also that our branch was sprung from an
illegitimate line by what she (another Courtney) said - Philip de Courtenay’. This
may or may not be true – but where is the proof that these theories are factually
correct? It is significant that the given name, Philip, does not appear in any of
the trees that follow.
I have traced Sue’s Courtney ancestors back to the parish of Landkey in around 1600.
And there the trail stops.
May I illustrate how easy it is to construct a totally unsupported notion of the
origin of the Courtney family. Sue’s Courtney ancestors in 1605 were living in the
small Devon parish of Landkey which lies near the sea, two and a half miles from
Barnstaple. It is generally thought that the surname ‘Courtney’ is of French origin.
There was a strong Huguenot (French Protestants) influence at Landkey. They crossed
the English Channel to trade at Devon ports such as Barnstaple. Likely Huguenot merchants
met Landkey folk at the nearby Barnstaple market. A sign of this Huguenot influence
at Landkey is that it is renowned even today for its mazzard cherry trees – in the
early twentieth century there were more than 100 acres of cherry orchards. These
cherry trees were imported by the Huguenots. In addition, many of the field names
at Landkey have a Huguenot ‘flavour’. Finally, the surname Courtney is the anglicised
version of the Huguenot Landkey name, ‘de la Cour’.
So did the Courtneys descend from Huguenots? Maybe, maybe not - but I write this
to illustrate how a myth can arise, complete with historical facts to support it.
These pages lay out the ancestry of my wife, Susan Mary nee Courtney.
Most families can trace their ancestors back to around 1800 – but then it becomes
increasingly difficult to locate forefathers. Even if they are discovered, research
often amounts to mere ‘ancestor spotting’ as only details of baptisms, marriages
and burials are found with little information about how they lived. This is particularly
true of the poorer labouring classes.
Satisfyingly, the Courtney family (from whom my wife, Susan, has descended) can be
traced back with certainty more than 400 years to 1605!
For two centuries, five generations of Courtneys were yeoman farmers who meandered
around the small rural parishes of North Devon, near Barnstaple. Many of them had
sufficient assets to justify leaving a will. They were pillars of their small local
communities and as such some left a ‘footprint’ in documents which provide a glimpse
into their lives.
Then, just after 1800, a branch of the Courtneys fell upon hard times. Four generations
were labourers in the Devon town of South Molton. Towards the end of the nineteenth
century, five brothers moved to Pontypool in South Wales to find work.
Here my wife, Sue, was born.
Map of parishes in which Sue’s Courtney family lived from 1605 until 1900
Of Landkey, North Devon
Sue’s Courtney kin can be traced back more than four centuries to the Devon parish
Landkey is two and a half miles south-east of Barnstaple. It is situated at the mouth
of a valley which leads to South Molton and is on a trade route between these two
towns. The soil is loamy and ideal for agriculture.
A wooden church was founded here by the Celt, St Cai – indeed, ‘Landkey’ may mean
‘the enclosure of St Cai’. This church was replaced by the parish church of St Paul’s
which was built in the fifteenth century (shown right). Here, the Courtneys were
christened, married and buried.
The original parish records for Landkey do not survive, but there are a transcriptions
from the early seventeenth century.
William and Mary (nee Lewes) Courtney - married 1605
The surviving transcriptions of the parish records of Landkey begin in 1602. Three
years later, on 1 August 1605,
William Courtney (Susan’s great x9 grandfather) married Mary Lewes at Landkey church.
Probably he was born in around 1587.
William and Mary had seven children, but Mary died in 1622 – a few months after the
birth of their last child. Two years later William married Jane Hutchings on 12 January
1624 at Landkey. The couple had one child. William probably died when he was aged
in his late sixties. He was buried in the graveyard of Landkey church on 31 May 1646.
William was of sufficient means to leave a will which was proved at Exeter. Unfortunately
this will, like many Devon wills, was destroyed during World War II so that we do
not know its contents. From the location of the family and their relative apparent
affluence, it can be inferred that William was a farmer and not a labourer.
Although we do not know details of William’s parents, the records show that there
were other Courtneys at Landkey and that the family was quite large. A Christian
Courtney married there in 1622 and the following Courtneys (who were probably William’s
relatives – perhaps two were his parents) were buried there between 1604 and 1629:
Mary, wife of William
Hugh, son of William
William, son of William
Grace, dau of William
23 April 1604
28 May 1605
04 Feb 1610/11
14 Jan 1613/14
13 Dec 1615
05 Jan 1621/22
03 Sept. 1622
05 April 1624
07 Nov. 1628
23 July 1629
To discover so many burials of one family’s members in twenty-five years indicates
that it had a sizeable presence in the parish by this time. However, although there
are records from the sixteenth century of taxes paid and militia lists at Landkey,
few Courtneys are mentioned. The Muster Roll of 1569 lists only the archer, William
Courtney jnr. Neither do Courtneys appear among the forty-eight names in the Lay
Subsidies (Tax) records of 1525, nor among the eighty-three names of the 1544 Lay
Subsidies lists (although there is a William Colle? and a Richard Colle? whose names
cannot be read).
Perhaps a conclusion from the available facts is that the Courtneys were a farming
family who moved to Landkey in the latter part of the sixteenth century.
Although our focus moves now from Landkey, it is worth noting that the Courtney name
has survived there. There is a listing of monumental inscriptions at St Paul’s church
which includes fourteen Courtneys from 1841 - the most recent is dated 1982. In 2006,
there were two Courtneys still living in the village.
James and Ann Courtney (married c1640)
Sue’s line continues through William and Mary’s fourth son, James, who was baptized
at Landkey on 16 June 1613. He married Ann – although the date and place of the wedding
are not known with certainty. However, in 1640, there was a marriage of a James Courtney
to Ann Stanbury at Berrynabour which is eight miles from Landkey.
James and Ann had four children. Accordingly to his will, James was a yeoman farmer
in the parish of Bratton Fleming. He was evidently more prosperous than the average
‘husbandman’ and certainly was not a farm labourer.
Of Bratton Fleming, North Devon
Bratton Fleming is a parish on the fringe of Exmoor with a population of about 500
in 1800. It lies five miles north-east of Landkey and 7 miles east of Barnstaple.
The topography is ‘lumpy’ – the land level rises from 70 to 320 metres – and there
are several local farms (twenty-six in 1780), woods, springs, streams and valleys.
Even today the lanes that traverse the parish are narrow with high banks and even
higher hedges. To walk along the ‘high lanes’ could be a claustrophobic experience.
There has been a church at Bratton Fleming since at least 1212. St Peters (shown
right) was built in the perpendicular style with a tower, the base of which was built
in the fifteenth century.
The mobility of the Courtneys in North Devon
Now is an apt time to mention the mobility of the Courtney family. Members often
moved from parish to parish although they didn’t stray very far from home. For instance,
James although born at Landkey settled at Bratton Fleming which is five miles away.
One reason for their movements is that the family home could only be left to one
son. James, for example, left his home to his eldest son, John. Other sons had to
find suitable property elsewhere – perhaps in another parish.
Another factor was that the Courtneys of those days were some rungs above farm workers
on the social ladder and suitable marriage partners of the same status were not necessarily
to be found in the local parish. As a consequence, mates were sought in neighbouring
districts. So, James’ daughter Mary married a man from the nearby parish of Charles.
It is helpful to know that the rural parishes of North Devon were generally small
in area – a man could walk from one parish to another (possibly through yet a different
parish) in less than an hour.
Returning to James and Ann Courtney
In the latter part of their lives, James and Ann were living in a house at Haxton
which is to the south of the village of Bratton Fleming. According to the Land Tax
records of 1780 there was a property called, ‘Courtney’s Haxton’ or later just ‘Courtney’
which was owned by David Tucker with a Land Tax rating of £1 4/-. This is the first
of two astonishing coincidences involving the Courtney and Tucker families - members
of which were to marry at Pontypool in the twentieth century, they being Sues grandparents.
James died, aged about sixty, on 6 June 1673 at Haxton, Bratton Fleming. Five years
later, in 1678 there was a drive to rebuild St Pauls Cathedral in London. The parish
return for contributors at Bratton Fleming is held at the Guildhall Library, London
and it shows a contribution of 4d by the ‘widow Courtney’ (one of the smaller donations
– the widow’s mite?).
Ann Courtney died in 1683. Although the original documents have been destroyed there
is an epitome of both James’ and Ann’s wills which give details of their families
and convey an idea of their worth:
James Courtney – Will proved 5 June 1674. Residing at Bratton Fleming.
Bequests: to children: John, James, Charles, Lewes and Ann: £10 each – to be paid
within a year of my death. To daughter, Mary (wife of John Hawle of Charles) - £3.
Also, to children: James, Charles, Lewes and Ann: 20 shillings yearly ‘out of my
To: son John ‘all estates and term which shall remain on my house in Haxton wherein
I now live after the death of my wife, Ann.’
Tenement bequeathed to wife Ann for her life.
Witnesses Thomas Allen and William Huxtable who also compiled the inventory – chattel
lease:£60, farm stock and household goods: £204.1.6d.
Ann Courtney – Will proved 1682/3
Bequests: To son, John – 5s; to John’s children – 2/6d each; to daughter, Mary (Hawle)
- £3; to Mary’s son, John – 2/6d; to son, Charles - £9; to son Lewes - £25; to daughter,
Ann - £25 and ‘my spruce chest’; to daughters, Mary and Ann – all my wearing apparel
Residue of the estate to son, James.
Mark and Seal (heart pierced by arrows).
Witnesses – John Barwick, Mary and Antony Tallyn.
Inventory by Thomas Allice of Stoke Rivers (gentleman) and William Huxtable of Bratton
Farm stock and household goods - £87.16.3d.
Lewes and Thomasine (nee Huxtable) Courtney (married 1685)
Susan’s line passed through James’ son, Lewes Courtney. He married Thomasine Huxtable
at Bratton Fleming on 16 April 1686. His standing in the community can be gauged
as his wife was the daughter of William Huxtable (yeoman) who drew up the inventories
of Lewes’ parents estates (see above). Lewes and Thomasine had eight children.
From the evidence of the parish registers, Lewes and Thomasine lived initially in
the parish of Bratton Fleming, moved to Charles about 1688 and thence to High Bray
where they were buried on 20 August 1727 and 9 May 1733 respectively.
John and Mary (nee Lavercombe) Courtney (married 1727)
Susan’s parentage passed through Lewes’ first son, John. He was baptized at Bratton
Fleming on 30 January 1687. He married Mary Lavercombe at High Bray on 9 February
There is an impressive document (see right) that features John Courtney. It deals
with the restoration of land between the parishes of Bratton Fleming and Stoke Rivers.
It is elegantly written – in Latin! Its translation will have to wait a while.
John and Mary had five children who were all baptized at High Bray between 1732 and
1737. John died in 1740, aged 53.
About William Courtney (baptd 1688) - church warden of Bratton Fleming
An indication of John’s abilities is to be found in the records which have been left
concerning his younger brother, William. William was a leading member of the local
community of Stoke Rivers, often serving as a church warden. He regularly worked
on the fabric of the church for which he was paid (see example below from 1756).
He ‘mended and righted the churchyard hedge’, made up the wall, supplied a load of
turves and, on other occasions, provided a load of lime and sand and 2,000 stones.
He ‘stopped up the church’ after a storm and was paid for the ale he drank when he
did this. He maintained the church bells using leather and ‘oyle’ and supplied ‘collar
and keys for both bells’. He rode to Charles in 1730 to acquire a sleeve to repair
the bells. He often cleaned the church after the masons, took care of the cushions
and table cloths, washed the communion linen, cleaned the church plate and supplied
the bread and wine for communion. He ‘mended the table bearing the church Bible’
and repaired the binding of the Bible. He even wrote up the churchwarden accounts
(and the reports of the manorial court) so that there is a record of his beautiful
If William was thus educated the same was probably true of his older brother, John
Richard and Ann (nee Bennett) Courtney (married 1768)
Susan’s line passed through the second son of John, Richard, who was baptized on
19 December 1735 at High Bray, Devon. He married Ann Bennett of East Down, Devon
on 18 April 1768 at Stoke Rivers and the couple settled in this small village which
had a mere 225 inhabitants in 1801.
Like so many of his forefathers, Richard was a farmer – and a successful one, although
he was a mere ‘husbandman’ when he married. The Land Tax records of Stoke Rivers
for 1780 show that he was renting farms at BurchA (sic), which is just to the south
of Haxton (owned by James Hiern; tax £8.8/-) and WestgateB (owned by Philip Sydenham;
tax £4.4/-). His farms occupied the third largest acreage in a small parish.
In 1782 Richard increased his domain by renting a third farm – Higher DaviesC (tax
£5.40).The churchwarden accounts for Stoke Rivers reveal that he supplied ‘40 sheeves
of reed for the church house’ (roof?) in 1780 for eight shillings.
Outbuildings of Westgate today
Richard died at Stoke Rivers on 21 July 1792, aged 56. He was buried at St Bartholomew’s,
Stoke Rivers D (shown below) and his grave still stands in the churchyard (see below).
Richard left a will which was proved on 3 August 1792 although its contents are unknown.