John Fortescue (judge)

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John Fortescue
Portrait of Sir John Fortescue by William Faithorne, from Fortescutus Illustratus (1663) by Edward Waterhouse.jpg
A portrait of Fortescue by William Faithorne published in 1663 inscribed "Sr John Fortescu Kt Lord Cheife Justice & Lord Chancellor of England vnder King Henry ye Sixth"
Chief Justice of the King's Bench
In office
25 January 1442 – Easter term 1460
Appointed by Henry VI
Preceded by John Hody
Succeeded by John Markham
Personal details
Born c. 1394
Norries, North Huish, Devon, England
Died 1480 (aged 85–86)
Resting place St. Eadburgha’s Church, Ebrington, Gloucestershire, England
52°3′28.98″N 1°44′0.92″W / 52.0580500°N 1.7335889°W / 52.0580500; -1.7335889
Nationality English
Alma mater Exeter College, Oxford
For other people of the same name, see John Fortescue (disambiguation).
Arms of Fortescue: Azure, a bend engrailed argent plain cottised Or. Motto: "Forte Scutum Salus Ducum" ("A Strong Shield is the Salvation of Leaders")[1]
A drawing of Fortescue in anachronistic 17th-century dress with an oversized Great Seal of England, from the Legal Portrait Collection of Harvard Law School Library

Sir John Fortescue (c. 1394 – c. 1480) was the Chief Justice of the King's Bench of England and the author of De Laudibus Legum Angliæ (Commendation of the Laws of England, first published posthumously around 1543), an influential treatise on English law. In the course of Henry VI's reign, Fortescue was appointed one of the governors of Lincoln's Inn three times. He became one of the King's Serjeants during the Easter term of 1441, and subsequently served as Chief Justice of the King's Bench from 25 January 1442 to Easter term 1460.

During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was deposed in 1461 by Edward of York, who ascended the throne as Edward IV. Henry and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, later fled to Scotland. Fortescue remained loyal to the King, and as a result was attainted of treason. He is believed to have been given the nominal title of Chancellor of England during the King's exile. He accompanied the Queen and her court while they remained on the Continent between 1463 and 1471, and wrote De Laudibus Legum Angliæ for the instruction of young Prince Edward. After the defeat of the House of Lancaster, he submitted to Edward IV who reversed his attainder in October 1471. He died around 1480 and was buried in St. Eadburgha's Church, the parish church of Ebrington, Gloucestershire.

Early life[edit]

Fortescue was born around 1394 at Norries, in the parish of North Huish near South Brent in Devon, England, and educated at Exeter College, Oxford. He was the second son of Sir John Fortescue, who in 1422 was appointed captain of the captured Castle of Meaux, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Paris. His eldest brother was Henry Fortescue, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland. The earliest surviving record of the Fortescue family relates to its 12th-century holding of the manor of Wimpstone, in the parish of Modbury, Devon.[2]

Legal career[edit]

During the reign of Henry VI, Fortescue was three times appointed one of the governors of Lincoln's Inn. During the Easter term of 1441 he was made one of the King's Serjeants, and on 25 January in the following year Chief Justice of the King's Bench, a position he held till Easter term 1460.[3] As a judge Fortescue was recommended for his wisdom, gravity and uprightness, and he is said to have been favoured by the king.

He held his office during the remainder of the reign of Henry VI, to whom he was loyal; as a result, he was attainted of treason in the first parliament of Edward IV. When Henry subsequently fled to Scotland, he is supposed to have appointed Fortescue, who appears to have accompanied him in his flight, Chancellor of England. Fortescue referred to himself in this manner on the title page of De Laudibus Legum Angliæ, but as the King did not possess the Great Seal of England during his exile it has been suggested that the title was "nominal" and "merely illusory".[4]

In 1463 Fortescue accompanied Queen Margaret and her court in their exile on the Continent, and returned with them to England in 1471. During their wanderings abroad he wrote for the instruction of the young Prince Edward his celebrated work De Laudibus Legum Angliæ (Commendation of the Laws of England, first published posthumously around 1543),[5] in which he made the first expression of what would later become known as Blackstone's formulation, stating that "one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned, and suffer capitally". On the defeat of the Lancastrian party he made his submission to Edward IV, who reversed his attainder in October 1471.[6]

Marriage and progeny[edit]

John Fortescue married Isabella Jamys, daughter and heiress of John Jamys,[7] by whom he had the following progeny:[8]

  • Sir Martin Fortescue (died 1472) who married Elizabeth Denzil (or Densil/Densel), the daughter and heiress of Richard Denzil of Filleigh, Weare Giffard and Buckland Filleigh and other manors, all in Devon, in 1454.[9] Filleigh later became the principal seat of the senior line of the Fortescue family, where the Palladian mansion Castle Hill was built c. 1730. Sir Martin Fortescue was the ancestor of the Earls Fortescue.
  • Robert Fortescue, who nmarried Elizabeth Trenchard.
  • Maud Fortescue, who married Robert Corbet.
  • Elizabeth Fortescue, who married Edward Whalesbrough.

Death and burial[edit]

The exact date of Fortescue's death is not known, but is believed to have occurred around 1480. He was buried in St. Eadburgha's Church, the parish church of Ebrington, Gloucestershire, which manor he had purchased, and after which his descendants took the name of their title Viscount Ebrington, today used as the courtesy title of the eldest son and heir of Earl Fortescue.[10] A painted stone effigy of John Fortescue, wearing his scarlet robes of office with collar of ermine, exists within the church, against the north wall of the chancel within the communion rails.[11] Above it was erected in 1677 by Col. Robert Fortescue (1617–1677) (eight times his descendant and the second son of Hugh Fortescue (1593–1663) of Filleigh)[12] a mural monument with a biographical inscription in Latin. A smaller tablet is affixed below stating that the monument was repaired in 1765 by Matthew Fortescue, 2nd Baron Fortescue. A brass plate below states: "Restored by the Rt Honble. Hugh, 3rd Earl Fortescue, AD 1861".[13]


To this day the John Fortescue Society is joined by students of law at Exeter College, Oxford.[14]

Published works[edit]

The title page of Fortescue's De Laudibus Legum Angliæ (Commendation of the Laws of England, 2nd edition, 1660)

Fortescue's masterly vindication of the laws of England, received with great favour by experts, did not appear in print until about 1543 in the reign of Henry VIII as Prenobilis militis, cognomento Forescu [sic], qui temporibus Henrici sexti floruit, de politica administratione, et legibus ciuilibus florentissimi regni Anglie, commentarius (Commentary on Political Administration and on the Civil Laws of the Most Flourishing Kingdom of England, of the Very Noble Knight, surnamed Forescu [sic], who Flourished during the Reign of Henry VI).[5] It was subsequently reprinted many times under different titles.

Another work by Fortescue, written in English, was published in 1714 by a descendant, John Fortescue Aland, under the title The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy.[15] In the Cotton library there is a manuscript of this work, and its title indicates that it was addressed to Henry VI. However, many passages show plainly that it was written in favour of Edward IV. A revised edition of this work, with a historical and biographical introduction, was published in 1885 by Charles Plummer under the title The Governance of England.[16]

All of Fortescue's minor writings appear in The Works of Sir John Fortescue, published in 1869 for private circulation by another descendant, Thomas Fortescue, 1st Baron Clermont.[17]

A list of Fortescue's works and selected later editions follows:

The title page of the first English translation of Fortescue's De Laudibus Legum Angliæ, entitled A Learned Commendation of the Politique Lawes of England (1567)


  1. ^ P. W. Montague-Smith, ed. (1968), Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage 1968: With Her Majesty's Royal Warrant Holders: Comprises Information Concerning the Peerage, Privy Councillors, Baronets, Knights, and Companions of Orders, Surrey: Kelly's Directories, p. 461, OCLC 8972816 
  2. ^ Edward Foss (1851), The Judges of England: With Sketches of their Lives, and Miscellaneous Notices Connected with the Courts at Westminster, from the Time of the Conquest 4, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, pp. 308–315 at 308–309, OCLC 23361486 .
  3. ^ Foss, pp. 309–310.
  4. ^ Foss, pp. 310–312.
  5. ^ a b John Fortescue ([1543?]), Prenobilis militis, cognomento Forescu [sic], qui temporibus Henrici sexti floruit, de politica administratione, et legibus ciuilibus florentissimi regni Anglie, commentarius [Commentary on Political Administration and on the Civil Laws of the Most Flourishing Kingdom of England, of the Very Noble Knight, surnamed Forescu [sic], who Flourished during the Reign of Henry VI], London: tipis Edwardi Whitechurche, et veneunt in edibus Henrici Smyth bibliopole [printed by Edward Whitechurche, and are sold in the buildings of Henry Smith the bookseller], OCLC 606486248  Check date values in: |date= (help).
  6. ^ Foss, pp. 313–314.
  7. ^ J[ohn] L[ambrick] Vivian, ed. (1895), The Visitations of the County of Devon: Comprising the Herald's Visitations of 1531, 1564, & 1620, Exeter: For the author, by H. S. Eland, p. 353 (pedigree of Fortescue), OCLC 3674935 .
  8. ^ John FORTESCUE (Sir Chief Justice), Tudor Place, archived from the original on 9 May 2013, retrieved 5 December 2013 .
  9. ^ Marriage settlement dated 10 September 1454.
  10. ^ Anne Mannooch Welch (1901), Sir John Fortescue, Buried at Ebrington Gloucestershire (PDF), Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 24: 193–250, archived from the original on 5 December 2013 .
  11. ^ Foss, p. 314; a photograph can be seen at Painted stone effigy of Lord Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue c1478 on Flickr.
  12. ^ Vivian, p. 355.
  13. ^ For heraldry on this monument, see F. Were (1902), Heraldry (PDF), Transactions of The Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 25: 187–211 at 200, archived from the original on 21 April 2014 .
  14. ^ See, for example, John Fortescue Society Dinner, Exeter College, Oxford, 2013, archived from the original on 18 October 2013 .
  15. ^ John Fortescue (1714), John Fortescue Aland, ed., The Difference between an Absolute and Limited Monarchy: As It More Particularly Regards the English Constitution. Being a Treatise Written by Sir John Fortescue, Kt. Lord Chief Justice, and Lord High Chancellor of England, under King Henry VI. Faithfully Transcribed from the MS. Copy in the Bodleian Library, and Collated with Three Other MSS. Publish'd with Some Remarks by John Fortescue-Aland, of the Inner-Temple, Esq; F.R.S., London: John Fortescue Aland; printed by W. Bowyer in White-Fryars, for E. Parker at the Bible and Crown in Lombard-Street, and T. Ward in the Inner-Temple-Lane, OCLC 642421515 .
  16. ^ John Fortescue (1885), Charles Plummer, ed., The Governance of England, otherwise Called the Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, OCLC 457292673 .
  17. ^ Thomas (Fortescue) Lord Clermont (1869), The Works of Sir John Fortescue, Knight, Chief Justice of England and Lord Chancellor to King Henry the Sixth, London: Printed for private distribution, OCLC 47732533 .


Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Fortescue, John". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir John Hody
Lord Chief Justice
Succeeded by
Sir John Markham