Contrasting Emotions: The Baptism of Philip Courtenay, 18 January 1404

Michael Hicks explores an eventful day at Ashton parish church, Devon, as recorded in the proof of age of Philip Courtenay  (CIPM xxii.530).

Proofs of age certify that heirs have achieved their majority, by making reference to other events that happened on or near the day of the baptism. Unfortunately the marked similarities between proofs of age, the repetitive cases of suicides hanging themselves from beams and breaking limbs when falling from horses, demonstrate that some testimonies merely copy or adapt previous examples. [1. M.L. Holford, ‘“Testimony (in part fictitious)”: proofs of age in the first half of the fifteenth century', Historical Research, 82 (2009), 635-54.] However the formal inquisitions were indeed held, so the circumstances described had to be credible and therefore cast some light on what happened in churches, accidents that did sometimes happen, and so on. Some events were authentic in every sense. Undoubtedly the births of heirs were causes of celebration and unwonted extravagance. Without question  tragic premature deaths, of which there were so many, sometimes coincided with births and were as distressing to fifteenth-century people as they are today. Some proofs that are more circumstantial and so much more emotional that they bear the stamp of truth. One such is the proof of age of Philip Courtenay in 1425 (CIPM xxii.530).  Written testimonies may appear to be eyewitness  – but so too, often enough, does fiction.  Most probably Philip Courtenay was born during the night of 17/18 January. His maternal grandfather Sir Richard Champernown was informed at dawn and the baby was baptised between lunch and vespers on 18 January 1404 at Ashton church in Devon.

Philip Courtenay's proof differs from the general run because the memories are less stereotyped than usual, because of the emotionalism of the testimonies – grandfathers, fathers, and bridegrooms genuinely rejoiced, loved and lamented – and because they record traumatic experiences which could not be forgotten. Thus John Prescott lost his wife Werburgh in childbirth that day, their twin sons apparently surviving. He observed Philip's baptism because he was in the church to ask for the cross and holy water for the sprinkling of her body.  The parson, he reports, responded with ready kindness. Likewise Walkelina, the infant daughter of William Elyot, died of thirst by default of her wetnurse, causing Elyot to visit the church church to ask for a mass for her soul and thus to observe Philip's baptism.  Twenty-one years later, said Elyot, the memory of this misfortune had never left him.   John Schoolmaster married Christine that day, but he was already in the church again after lunch during Philip's baptism. Returning home, he found that Christine had died.  Still he suffered the bitterness of a distressed soul!. John Pyrin had been Christine's guardian and had accompanied her husband at the christening.  Unexpected deaths in the prime of life were not uncommon.

Sir Philip Courtenay of Powderham (d. 1406) had at least three sons. Richard the eldest was a cleric, bishop of Norwich (d. 1415) and therefore debarred from marriage. The Courtenay inheritance was scheduled to pass via him to his brothers Sir John (d. by 1415), and Sir William. As eldest son of Sir John Courtenay at birth in 1404, Philip was always expected to inherit. [2. HPT, ii.670. 673; CIPM xxi.342-3.] His maternal grandfather  Sir Richard Champernown survived until 1420. Both grandfathers were thrilled.  Sir Philip Courtenay was a godfather.  Champernown, though absent, sent a silver goblet not to the baby, but to the mother, his daughter. She was not of course in church for the baptism, but John Colle, the bearer of Champernown's gift, was there. This joyous occasion – the birth of a son and grandson and heir – was recognized by the boy's father Sir John, who gave £5 to the churchwarden towards repairs and by his paternal grandfather,  who gave no less than 10 marks (£6 13s.4d.) to the parishioners to have the bells rung. Their good mood offered an opportunity for the twenty-two-year-old Guy Puke who had committed, by his own testimony, an outrageous transgression against Philip's grandfather Sir Philip Courtenay, to solicit forgiveness on his knees. Sir Philip was particularly receptive. The supplication was successful and was sealed with a deed that presumably released all actions. Robert Spurway was probably in church for the baptism of his namesake, perhaps a nephew to whom he stood godfather. He was able to reconcile Sir Philip Courtenay with William Jow esquire, one of young Philip's godfathers, this accord also being sealed with a deed. Surviving releases seldom state what lies behind the formal record.  It was to catch Sir Philip that John Schoolmaster had left his bride of a few hours. Sir Philip also cut a deal with John Bridgeham, who came to Ashton specially and dined with him. On leaving, Bridgeham fell off his horse in the fog and injured himself severely, which still caused the sexagenarian occasional pain twenty years later. Sir John moreover bought on approval a splendid palfrey from John Russell for 10 marks: its almost immediate injury in the great close called Leypark caused the purchaser to call off the deal and to return the horse to Russell, although he paid two marks in part recompense for its depreciation in value. Sir Philip Courtenay, the grandfather, thus conducted at least five pieces of business, sealed three deeds, and conducted business at dinner even on this most joyful family celebrations. It was to meet him that Schoolmaster and Peryn had left their wedding banquet. They were not the less distressed by Christine's death.

The anonymous parson who conducted the baptism called on all those present to remember the date. He himself wrote a record in the church bible, which of course no longer survives, but which all twelve witnesses remembered observing. What he wrote was read by Thomas Potell, who deputised for the absent parish clerk. Another Robert Spurwey, born that day to William and Clarice Spurway, was baptised following Philip's christening. Taking the lead from the parson, whom he saw write the date of Philip's baptism in the bible, the father William Spurway noted Robert's date of birth in his own primer – which we also lack. Apart from the parish mass and seven canonical hours, therefore, the church of St John the Baptist at  Ashton witnessed a marriage, two baptisms, most probably a funeral mass and a service for the dead. A busy and emotional Friday.