COURTENAY, John (1738-1816), of 11 Duke Street, Portland Place, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1780 - 1796
1796 - 1807
1812 - Dec. 1812

Family and Education

b. 22 Aug. 1738, 2nd s. of Henry Courtenay, revenue officer, of Newry, co. Down by Mary, da. of Rev. William Major, preb. of Ballymore, Armagh.1 educ. Dundalk g.s. m. c.1765 (his wife committed suicide c.1795), 3s. 5da.

Offices Held

Ensign 29 Ft. 1756, lt. 1759; sold out 1765.

Commr. musters [I] 1765-9; barrack master of Kinsale 1772; first sec. to master gen. of Ordnance Apr. 1783-Dec. 1783; ld. of Treasury Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807.


An erudite Irish wit ‘of the school of Diogenes’, Courtenay had graduated from ‘deputy buffoon to Lord North’ to a Foxite opponent of Pitt’s administration. He owed his public career to George Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend, who returned him for Tamworth and who, when he rallied to Pitt in 1787, ‘acted very handsomely by continuing Courtenay in his seat ... though they differed in their politics’. The fact was (as his patron knew) that he was in financial difficulties and needed the security of a seat in Parliament. Townshend could not be expected to bring him in again in 1796, if only because there had for two years been a threat of opposition to Courtenay at Tamworth on political grounds, and this time Fox induced Lord Thanet to come to his rescue by securing his return for Appleby.2

Courtenay had joined Brooks’s Club, 15 Feb. 1788, and the Whig Club on 2 Dec. following. He was a staunch attender in the Parliament of 1790, listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791, and laboured to make his opposition biting in his occasional sallies in debate. In 1795 he was described as ‘the most pleasant man in opposition’, though his wit owed too much to Jo Miller and his chief role was ‘lying in ambuscade and firing off his grapeshot at ministers’. In this he did not always achieve his aim: Pitt’s view was that Courtenay should be ignored, but even he sometimes let himself be drawn and the young Canning, ridiculed by Courtenay, gave as good as he got, dismissing contemptuously his contributions to political verse. Apart from an ironical attack on the malt tax, 21 Dec. 1790; a defence of the abolition of the slave trade, 19 Apr. 1791, which he further supported in speeches of 22 May 1793 and 18 Feb. 1796; and a defence of lotteries (‘private vices, public benefits’) 4 Apr. 1792, Courtenay attempted no major speech until 25 May 1792, when he rebuked Pitt for abandoning parliamentary reform. He was then, as he confessed, a Friend of the People; but ten days later seceded with four other Members. This was in deference to Fox.3 He remained a Friend of the Liberty of the Press. Apart from his Philosophical reflections on the late revolution in France (1790), addressed to Dr Priestley, Courtenay, a manager of Warren Hastings’s impeachment, assailed Edmund Burke* in A poetical and philosophical essay on the French revolution (1793). He had already done so in the House, 15 Dec. 1792. There was clamour on the other side when he reminded Burke ‘how he exulted at the victories of the rebel Washington’:

he did not wonder at the clamour, because it proceeded from the inarticulate Members, who, never affording any information to the House, adopted this as the only method within their power of causing themselves to be heard.

He then paid tribute to the ‘noble ardour’ inspired by ‘the genius of liberty’ in France. He went on to propose a frivolous amendment to the aliens bill, 31 Dec. 1792; to ridicule the number of general officers now gazetted, 21 Feb. 1793, and next day to wax ironical over the purpose of barracks; to deplore the inadequacy of the preparations for the expedition to Holland, 15 Mar., and to criticize the traitorous correspondence bill, 26 Mar., 9 Apr. Only the Ordnance, which he had served under Townshend, was exempt from his criticisms, 10 June 1793 (also 28 Mar. 1797).

As for the war, he insisted that Britain was the aggressor against France and was encompassing her economic ruin by prosecuting it, especially under Pitt, who was no match for his father, 21 Jan. 1794. He ridiculed idolatry of the ancien régime in his The present state of the manners, arts, and politics of France and Italy, which went into a second edition that year. He advocated the release of General Lafayette, 17 Mar. 1794, and blamed Pitt and his cabinet for the failure of the Dunkirk expedition and of the occupation of Toulon, 10 Apr. He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, 17 May. Both in April 1794 and March 1795 he was a forthright critic of the Lord’s Day observance bill and, with more levity, of the hairpowder bill in the latter month. He called for investigation of prisoners under sentence from ecclesiastical courts, 31 Mar. 1795, after previous attempts to raise the subject. He complained that the privilege of franking letters was abused more by clerks in the public offices than by Members, 13 Apr. On 18 May he contrived to amuse the impatient House by protracting his seconding of Macleod’s motion until the secretary at war (who was to reply to it and was late) had arrived. He championed the cause of Governor Des Barres of Cape Breton, who like him had served under Townshend, 15 June. He was an opponent of the bills against sedition, 12 Nov. 1795, and attacked the cavalry augmentation bill a week later: ‘to support these bills, these cavalry were designed. That is ... to perform military execution on the people of this country, in support of these bills.’ He criticized the unconstitutional sentiments expressed by the pamphleteer John Reeves, 26 Nov., and thought, 14 Dec., that Reeves should be made to burn his own works. Observing that the Queensferry petition in favour of the sedition bills was signed first by one styling himself ‘chife magistrate’ he asked Henry Dundas (whose ability to speak English he had questioned on 22 Jan.) ‘whether that was the orthography of Scotland?’, 10 Dec. He opposed the tobacco duty as a tax on the poor, 14 Dec. He deplored the cruelty shown to the Maroons in Jamaica, 20 Mar. 1796. On 8 Apr. he was in his element, criticizing the confiscation by the War Office of the dung of the dragoon horses, hitherto ‘a douceur and prerequisite of the soldiers’, for the profit of the state: ‘Why was not this extended to the infantry—then a standing army in time of peace would be of the greatest utility’. It was in similar vein that he assailed Dent’s proposal for a tax on dogs, which Pitt was obliged to amend, 25, 27 Apr. On 2 May he supported, on the evidence of the court martial, the expulsion of John Fenton Cawthorne from the House.

Courtenay was steady in opposition in the first session of the Parliament of 1796. On 1 Mar. 1797 he chaffed the elephantine Dr French Laurence, Earl Fitzwilliam’s spokesman, on the question of the Bank stoppage. During the debate on Ireland, 23 Mar., he defended the county of Down against imputations of Jacobinism. Of Members’ attendance on the county rate bill, 3 May, he remarked that it was ‘much more numerous than usually attended upon the trifling business of voting away 2 or 3 millions of money’. After voting for parliamentary reform, 26 May 1797, he seceded with Fox, returning next session only to oppose the assessed taxes by speech and vote, 14 Dec. 1797, 3, 4 Jan. 1798, and to censure the Irish government by vote, 22 June. On 21 Dec. 1798 he reappeared on a mission of his own: to draw attention to the plight of his friend, Edward Marcus Despard, a state prisoner ‘in the Bastille in Coldbath Fields’ visited by Courtenay in Sir Francis Burdett’s company, who was allegedly being treated like a convicted felon. He bullied William Wilberforce into replying that day, but failed to make good Despard’s case on 26 Dec. and found the House reluctant to accept Despard’s petition, 20, 25 Feb. 1799. On 21 May he blamed the conduct of the prison governor and complained of the credit given to informers under the suspension of habeas corpus. Two votes only survive from the session of 1800: against the refusal to negotiate with France, 3 Feb., and against the effects on the House of the Irish union, 21 Apr.; but he was credited with the authorship of a satirical poem published that year, The Campaign, an attack on the Dutch expedition.4 When the Irish contingent arrived, he complimented them on their patience with the Irish martial law bill, 16 Mar. 1801, and advocated Catholic relief to complete the Union. He supported Grey’s censure motion, 25 Mar.

He had far less to say under Addington’s administration, but hinted, in supporting the opposition candidate for the Speaker’s chair, 10 Feb. 1802, that Addington had never appeared to greater advantage than in the Chair. He opposed him on the civil list and the Prince of Wales’s finances, 29, 31 Mar. Soon afterwards he applied for his son Kenneth to be appointed a chaplain to the Prince, which came to pass. He distinguished himself on several occasions as an advocate of public reward for scientific discovery, 29 Apr. 1793, 28 Feb. 1796, 2, 24 June 1802. William Windham’s defence of bull-baiting (24 May 1802) evoked his strongest sarcasm. The fact was that Windham, his former crony, had recently revoked Courtenay’s qualification, of which he had made him a gift before his first election to the House in 1780. Courtenay’s Whig associates hoped that this would not be publicized, or that the 6th Duke of Bedford might ‘be tempted to add £100 to the gift of his brother and by giving landed security for it make it a qualification’ for him. It seems that the duke felt unable to do more than continue his late brother’s legacy of £200 p.a. and that Courtenay’s patron Thanet came to his rescue.5

Courtenay was on form in his speech in defence of the naval commission of inquiry, 15 Dec. 1802. Recalling the abuses he had eliminated at the Ordnance when in office, he said that he had desired then that government might award him a small percentage of the resulting savings and that it was not too late for this administration to do so. He voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar. 1803. On 21 Mar. and 4 Apr. he assisted Sir Frances Burdett in his campaign against the St. Pancras workhouse bill. He preferred a farming clergy to one dependent on increased bounty, 22 June 1801, 15, 18 July 1803. He was in the opposition to the adjournment, 24 May 1803, and on 3 June likened Addington’s resumption of hostilities with France to Hippocrates’s remedy for a broken leg that did not respond to surgery: ‘having discovered the error in this peace, [he] had now broken it, in order to set everything right again’. On 22 July, satisfied that ministers had not acted upon the plan of defence recommended to them by Pitt, he advocated a council of general officers to superintend it, though he was not present for Fox’s motion to that effect on 2 Aug. On 21 July he had favoured the compensation of labourers who served as volunteers, and on 12 Dec. he objected strongly to Windham’s cavalier attitude to that corps, particularly to his dread of their democratic implications; if the French landed, he assured Windham ironically, he would now offer his services to Pitt, not to him. On 15 Mar. 1804 he supported Pitt’s naval motion, and was a steady voter with the combined opposition that overthrew Addington. He commented: ‘We are the pioneers digging the foundations; but Mr Pitt will be the architect to build the house and to inhabit it’. This was so; and Courtenay resumed opposition with the Foxites, though his votes with them were now silent, 8 June 1804, 12, 15 Feb., 6 Mar., 8 Apr., 12 June 1805. They raised that year ‘a small annual fund to render Courtenay easy for the remainder of his life’. The annual subscriptions, headed by Earl Fitzwilliam with £50, had realized £425 by December 1805 and it was hoped to raise £500. When his friends came to power on Pitt’s death, he was further rewarded with a place at the Treasury board. Fox had offered him the option of the Ordnance, but ‘a high personage’ closed that door. He did not complain and there was evidently some relief that he did not press for a privy councillorship; but Lord Grenville admitted that Courtenay, on his own merits, would probably not have been his choice for the office he obtained. He resumed his seat on 3 Mar. 1806 and on 21 Mar. criticized the spoilsport election treating bill. He voted for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. He visited Fox on his deathbed and imparted Fox’s gloomy views on peace prospects.6

In January 1807, the treasurership of the Ordnance becoming vacant, Courtenay was offered it. He assured Lord Grenville that it was what he would have preferred the year before and, having ‘at least saved £50,000 to the public’ in that department, felt a claim to it which was readily acknowledged by others qualified to judge. Now his ‘embarrassed situation’ precluded him from accepting any reduction in his ‘present annual income’ and that was the only snag. Grenville assured him that it was intended to make his Ordnance emolument (which had been raised the year before and at present stood higher than the Ordnance treasurer’s) equal to that of a lord of the Treasury. Then a fresh problem arose: Lord Thanet, to whom Courtenay was indebted for having ‘unsolicited behaved to me with the same flattering and liberal attention since Mr Fox’s death for which I was originally indebted to my noble and ever lamented friend’, had to secure his re-election for Appleby. Before that, Courtenay was anxious to assist in the abolition of the slave trade. So he did, and on 24 Feb. 1807, in his last notable speech, paid tribute to the eloquence expended in that cause by the immortals, Pitt and Fox. On 11 Mar. Thanet wrote to Lord Lowther practically inciting him to make a show of opposing Courtenay’s re-election for Appleby, as ‘the arrangement proposed is by no means an advantage to my friend’. If Lowther complied, Thanet would be able to try to frustrate Courtenay’s transfer to the Ordnance.7 Before this was put to the test, the Grenville ministry was dismissed.

Courtenay, who paired in favour of Brand’s motion against their successors on 9 Apr. 1807, was not anxious to be in Parliament again. He was in Scotland pressing William Adam* for a place or pension for which his maternal grandfather’s Scottish birth might qualify him when Lord Lonsdale’s vagaries obliged him to put in an appearance at Appleby. In the event Lonsdale decided not to interfere and Thanet, to quote the diarist Farington,

behaved very handsomely to Mr Courtenay, who being very poor, and tired of Parliament, his lordship who had before brought him [in] for Appleby, now gave him leave to dispose of a seat for that borough, which accordingly Courtenay has done ... for £4,000.

Tierney informed Lord Holland, 20 May 1807:

I sent [Thanet] the names of Lord Lismore and Ridley Colborne and pledged myself that £2,000 should be paid by whichever of them he chose to return. I also took it upon myself to pledge Lord Grenville and Lord Howick that Courtenay should not be the less thought of hereafter on account of being out of Parliament.8

It would appear that the Whig scheme of 1805 to pension Courtenay had been converted into a pension of £300, but ‘to avoid the vacating of his seat, it was made to his three daughters and ... they were to assign it to him for his life’. One of his daughters, the wife of Richard Johnson*, added her husband’s financial problems to her father’s. In 1808 he published his Characteristic sketches of some of the most distinguished speakers in the House of Commons since 1780. About January 1810 he informed William Adam, ‘I have been left a legacy in Jamaica—a year ago—but there is some strange delay about it’. He had recently been encouraged to publish his Incidental Anecdotes in a further bid to recoup his finances. In 1811 he addressed fulsome Verses ... to H.R.H. the Prince Regent. In September 1812 he applied to Adam for a loan of £150. On 12 Oct. he informed him:

Lord Thanet ... has offered to bring me in for Appleby; and I am very sorry that my present situation (owing to disappointments and unexpected incidents) has induced [me] to accept his generous proposal, unsolicited in the slightest degree by me, or event a hint given ... This doubles and trebles the obligation ...9

This seat was immediately afterwards solicited for George Tierney whom Courtenay informed that he needed to be in Parliament ‘only because of some demands upon him which the sum he had received upon the last arrangement had not been sufficient to cover’. In short, he was to be brought in ‘not as a stopgap, but to secure his person’. A plan was at once hatched by Lords Holland and Grey whereby Lord Ossulston should buy Courtenay out for £2,500 and vacate Knaresborough for Tierney, who at that time jibbed at Appleby. It was at first frustrated by Courtenay, whom Thanet could not induce to part with his berth:

His poverty or rather his apprehension of its consequences is certainly his main plea against retiring but from what has passed I can discover at the same time a strong desire not to forego his chance of dying in the field which is certainly a good one as he is fully resolved to attend.

Tierney for his part assured Courtenay that ‘in the event of any change taking place he should be as much considered by [Lord Grey] as if he was in Parliament at the time’. To Grey, Courtenay admitted, 5 Nov. 1812, that he regretted the appearance of keeping Tierney out: ‘I am almost worn out ... At best I was only an occasional skirmishing Cossack (as your lordship knows) and now I am not fit even for that light inferior duty.’ In the event a subscription being organized by Lord Holland was fully met by the Duke of Devonshire and Lord George Cavendish and, soon after Parliament met, Courtenay vacated in Tierney’s favour. In 1813 he suffered an apoplectic stroke. He died 24 Mar. 1816. In his will, dated he doubted ‘whether what I die possessed of will answer all demands’.10

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. J. Courtenay, Incidental Anecs. and a Biog. Sketch (1809), cf. DNB; N. and Q. (ser. 10), ix. 313; Gent. Mag. (1816), i. 467. Courtenay’s father seems to have written his name ‘Courtney’ and, before 1790 at least, Courtenay himself was often so described. His parents were married at St. Michan’s, Dublin, 28 Nov. 1734.
  • 2. Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, iii. 453; Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xxix. 116; Farington, i. 132; Townshend mss, Mq. Townshend to Courtenay, 25 Mar. 1790; Sheridan Letters ed. Price, ii. 36.
  • 3. Parl. Portraits (1795), i. 24; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 17 May; Canning to Rev. Leigh, 16 May 1794, 2 Jan. 1799. The mss of Courtenay’s political verse, bequeathed to his daughter Emma are in the Campbell Preston (Ardchattan) mss. Windham summed it up as ‘a long joke’, Diary of Madame d’Arblay ed. Dobson, iv. 403; Minto, ii. 11. 41; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, ii. 301.
  • 4. Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin ed. Edmonds (1854), 65; Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 320; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 59-60.
  • 5. Blair Adam mss, Blair to Adam, 23 Mar., Courtenay to same, 11 Nov., Thanet to same, 21 Nov. 1802, Bedford to same, 28 Dec. 1812.
  • 6. Colchester, i. 496-7; HMC Fortescue, viii. 15; Add. 41852, f. 231; 51595, Adam to Holland, 16 Dec. 1805; Leveson Gower, ii. 232.
  • 7. Fortescue mss, Courtenay to Grenville, 30 Jan., 17 Feb., Grenville to Courtenay, 1 Feb.; Lonsdale mss, Thanet to Lowther, 11 Mar. 1807.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Courtenay to Adam, [?Mar.], 17 May; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 20 May 1807; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), viii. 3058; Add. 51584.
  • 9. Blair Adam mss, Blair to Adam, 13 Jan., 5 Apr., Courtenay to same, 1, 3, 5 Apr. 1808, [?Jan. 1810], 12 Oct. [1812].
  • 10. Grey mss, Thanet to Grey, 12, 28 Oct., Tierney to Grey, 14, 16, 19 Oct., Grey to Brougham, 20 Oct., Courtenay to Grey, 5 Nov., Grey to Holland, 11 Nov., 13 Dec.; Add. 51545, Holland to Grey [7 Nov.], 10 Dec.; 51571, Thanet to Holland, 11 Oct. 1812; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 184; PCC 353 Wynne.