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William Courtenay

William Courtenay (c. 1342-1396), English prelate, was a younger son of Hugh Courtenay, earl of Devon (d. 1377), and through his mother Margaret, daughter of Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford, was a great-grandson of Edward I.

Being a native of the west of England he was educated at Stapledon Hall, Oxford, and after graduating in law was chosen chancellor of the university in 1367. Courtenay's ecclesiastical and political career began about the same time. Having been made prebendary of Exeter, of Wells and of York, he was consecrated bishop of Hereford in 1370, was translated to the see of London in 1375, and became archbishop of Canterbury in 1381, succeeding Simon of Sudbury in both these latter positions.

As a politician the period of his activity coincides with the years of Edward III’s dotage, and with practically the whole of Richard II's reign. From the first he ranged himself among the opponents of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster; he was a firm upholder of the rights of the English Church, and was always eager to root out Lollardry. In 1373 he declared in convocation that he would not contribute to a subsidy until the evils from which the church suffered were removed; in 1375 he incurred the displeasure of the king by publishing a papal bull against the Florentines; and in 1377 his decided action during the quarrel between John of Gaunt and William of Wykeham ended in a temporary triumph for the bishop.

Wycliffe was another cause of difference between Lancaster and Courtenay. In 1377 the reformer appeared before Archbishop Sudbury and Courtenay, when an altercation between the duke and the bishop led to the dispersal of the court, and during the ensuing riot Lancaster probably owed his safety to the good offices of his foe. Having meanwhile become archbishop of Canterbury Courtenay summoned a council, or synod, in London, which condemned the opinions of Wycliffe; he then attacked the Lollards at Oxford, and urged the bishops to imprison heretics.

He was for a short time chancellor of England during 1381, and in January 1382 he officiated at the marriage of Richard II with Anne of Bohemia, afterwards crowning the queen. In 1382 the archbishop’s visitation led to disputes with the bishops of Exeter and Salisbury, and Courtenay was only partially able to enforce the payment of a special tax to meet his expenses on this occasion. During his concluding years the archbishop appears to have upheld the papal authority in England, although not to the injury of the English Church.

He protested against the confirmation of the statute of provisors in 1390, and he was successful in slightly modifying the statute of praemunire in 1393. Disliking the extravagance of Richard II he publicly reproved the king, and after an angry scene the royal threats drove him for a time into Devonshire. In 1386 he was one of the commissioners appointed to reform the kingdom and the royal household, and in 1387 he arranged a peace between Richard and his enemies under Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester. Courtenay died at Maidstone on July 31 1396, and was buried in Canterbury cathedral.

See WF Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. iv. (London, 1860—1876); and W Stubbs, Constitutional History, vols. ii. and iii. (Oxford, 1895—1896).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.