FORTESCUE, John (d.1479), of Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



May 1421
Dec. 1421

Family and Education

2nd s. of Sir John Fortescue2 and yr. bro. of Henry*. m. (1) by 1423, Elizabeth (d. 26 Apr. 1426), da. and coh. of Robert Brytte of Doddiscombsleigh, Devon, s.p. (2) by 1436, Isabel, da. of John James of Norton St. Philip, Som., 1s. d.v.p. 2da. Kntd. by Oct. 1442.

Offices Held

Gov. of L. Inn 1424-6, 1428-30.3

Commr. of inquiry, Devon Feb. 1429, July 1435, July 1439, Aug. 1455, Kent. Feb. 1443, Essex Sept. 1447, London May 1450, Dorset Dec. 1452; oyer and terminer, Som. June 1436, Mar. 1445, Devon Oct. 1439, July 1450, Norwich Feb. 1443, Kent Dec. 1445, Lincs. May 1448, Suff. Sept. 1448, London Mar., July 1450, Apr., Oct. 1451, Feb., Apr. 1455, Surr. Apr. 1450, Oxon. May 1450, Hants, Wilts. May 1451, Wilts. Mar., July 1452, Bristol July 1452, Midlands and south-east England Sept. 1452, Jan. 1453, Cornw. Dec. 1452, July 1455, July 1456, June 1459, Newcastle-upon-Tyne June 1454, Mdx. Nov. 1455, Devon, Som., Dorset Mar. 1456, Kent, Suss. June 1456 Glos., Herefs., Worcs. Mar. 1457, south-east England Sept. 1458, Staffs., Salop, Worcs., Glos., Herefs. Oct. 1459, Wales, the marches and the estates of the Yorkist magnates Mar. 1460, Kent Mar. 1460, Yorks. May 1460, south and west England June 1460; gaol delivery, Ilchester Feb. 1438, May 1440, Nov. 1441, Newgate Nov. 1445, Oct. 1451, Exeter July 1458; to raise royal loans, Bristol Mar. 1442, Som. May 1443; examine vessels for smuggled goods June 1444; hear appeals from the mayor’s ct. London June 1444, July 1455; of sewers, river Thames July 1448, Oct. 1455; to raise a force of archers, Mdx. Dec. 1457.

Controller of the stannaries, Cornw., Devon 5 May 1430-22 July 1432.

J.p. Som. 12 Feb. 1433-60, Bucks. Nov. 1439-Feb. 1444, Cambs. Nov. 1439-c.1442, Hunts. Nov. 1439-46, Suff. Nov. 1439-42, Norf. May 1441-2, Kent Apr. 1442-Nov. 1460, Essex May 1442-60, Suss. Oct. 1442-60, Herts. May 1443-6, Surr. May 1443-Dec. 1460, Beds. Nov. 1443-9, Mdx. Feb. 1445-50.

Justice of assize, eastern circuit Oct. 1439, home counties Jan. 1442, Aug. 1444.

C.j.KB 20 Jan. 1442-Mar. 1461.

Trier of petitions (English) in the Parliaments of 1444, 1447, 1449 (Feb.), 1449 (Nov.), 1450, 1453, 1455.4

‘Chancellor’ for Hen. VI and Margaret of Anjou in exile, c.1461-1471.


Fortescue’s family claims to have sprung from a follower of the Conqueror, but lived in comparative obscurity in south Devon between the 11th and 14th centuries. The judge’s father and namesake, himself a younger son, held lands said to be worth £20 a year in Combe, Efford and elsewhere in the parish of Holbeton, and made a name for himself as a soldier who fought at Agincourt and became captain of Meaux. He served two earls of Devon (Edward and Hugh Courtenay) as steward from about 1413 to 1422, was knighted by the duke of Bedford in about 1426, and died in or before 1435.5The lands acquired by the younger John Fortescue by his first marriage were lost in 1426 when his wife died before attaining her majority and without issue, but his second marriage brought him a permanent interest in holdings in Somerset and Wiltshire, including property at Norton St. Philip (held by grant of the prior and convent of Hinton); and in 1435-6 his elder brother, Henry, settled a portion of the family estates in Devon on him and his heirs (which he decided to pass on to his son, Martin, in 1455). In the 1450s, at the height of his career, Fortescue purchased the manor of ‘Geddinghalle’ in Suffolk, the reversion of the manor of Ebrington, Gloucestershire, and four manors in Hertfordshire; and before the fall of the Lancastrians he also acquired land in Wiltshire at Kingston Deverill, Trowbridge and Chippenham.6

Although Fortescue had started to build up a practice in the central courts at Westminster and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn before 1420, by the time of his earliest elections to Parliament for Tavistock he can hardly have established much of a reputation as a lawyer. Yet before his fourth Parliament (1425) he had become a governor of the Inn, and his opinion was evidently being treated with respect. In 1424 during a dispute between his younger brother, Richard, and the trustees of the estates of Thomas Stonor* over the manor of Ermington, Stonor wrote to Sir John Fortescue instructing him to insist that Richard sealed the indentures ‘drafted be avyse and asent of yowre son Jon ... for yowre son Jonys honestie hanketh thereon’. Fortescue’s counsel was much in demand, and not only in his native shire. The city of Canterbury, for example, retained his services with a fee of £1 a year and a robe, from 1429 for at least ten years.7 In 1428 he was made a feoffee of the Devonshire estates of Philip Courtenay of Powderham, esquire, and he became closely associated in the affairs of Courtenays father-in-law Sir Walter (now Lord) Hungerford*, who was then treasurer of the Exchequer. Fortescue’s services to Hungerford and his family as a trustee and executor (in which capacities he was engaged for more than 40 years),8 may well have assisted his rise and perhaps helped form his later political sympathies. Hungerford’s influence at the Exchequer may be seen in the concessions made to Fortescue between 1429 and 1432: grants of the custody of part of the Pomeroy estates, of lands in Cornwall, of the manor of Wantage (Berkshire) and of the marriages of two royal wards; and possibly also in his appointment in 1430 as controller of the stannaries in Devon and Cornwall. In 1436 Fortescue was one of those from whom loans were requested by the King’s Council for the army about to be sent to France, and his contribution was as much as £40. Since 1432 he had been retained by the duchy of Lancaster, first as an apprentice and then as a serjeant-at-law, and he became one of the ‘King’s serjeants’ before Easter term 1441.9 Then, without having previously been a puisne judge, he was advanced to chief justice in January 1442 on the premature death of (Sir) John Hody*. The office brought ample rewards: Fortescue’s salary was £120 a year with an allowance of £8 13s.6d. for his robes; from 1443 he enjoyed an annuity of 40 marks and from 1447 another of £40; and during his years as chief justice he received a special allowance of two tuns of wine a year. He also obtained custody of the estates of John Bonville, esquire, of Sir John (now Lord) Tiptoft’s* manor of Farrington Gurney (Somerset), of four Sussex manors, and, during the minority of Henry Holand, duke of Exeter, some of the latter’s properties as well, together with the right of presentation to the church of Lanteglos. His position enabled him to secure full exemption from the workings of the Act of Resumption of 1450, and to benefit from the fresh leases of resumed lands (although the similar Act passed in the Yorkist-controlled Parliament of 1455 was far less lenient to him, as to others).10 But if the rewards were considerable, so too were the burdens. Although prevented on one occasion from attending the assizes at East Grinstead on account of ‘a cyetica that hath letted hym a gret while to ride’, in addition to his ordinary judicial duties Fortescue continued to discharge numerous special commissions in many parts of the country, to act as an arbitrator in several extra-judicial disputes, to serve as a trier of petitions in, all told, seven Parliaments, and to advise the government in its financial troubles. One of his earlier concerns as head of the judiciary was the suppression of riots at Norwich in 1443: on 14 Mar. that year he sent to the Council his recommendations of ‘indifferent persones suche as may be maade justices of the pees and sherriefs’ in Norfolk, and he personally attended its meetings in March, April and May to discuss this and other matters.11 His judgements in the King’s bench in the 1440s and 1450s contributed materially to the growth and definition of the common law of England.

Fortescue was naturally consulted by the Lords in Parliament over such important matters as the impeachment of the marquessof Suffolk in 1450, and Speaker Thorpe’s case in 1454; and he was asked by several members of the Upper House to act as a trustee of their estates, or to settle disputes over inheritance. Accordingly, he appeared as an arbitrator in such debates as the disposition of the Fastolf and Berkeley estates, and he served as either a feoffee-to-uses or executor for the Lords Cromwell, Fanhope, Cobham and Bonville, Elizabeth, Lady Ferrers of Chartley, Thomas, earl of Devon, Archbishop Chichele, Cardinal Kemp and even Richard, duke of York.12 Despite this last connexion, Fortescue’s political sympathies lay always with the King. In 1450 he had been an object of popular displeasure, ‘endicted’ by the rebels at Rochester, and abused by Cade for not being an impartial judge. On 2 Jan. 1451 Sir John Fastolf’s servant, John Bocking, wrote ‘The chief yistice hath waited to ben assaulted all this sevenyght nyghtly in hes hous, but nothing come as yett, the more pite’. Fortescue’s brother, Richard, was killed fighting on the King’s side at St. Albans in 1455, and thereafter, as he himself confessed, he was a ‘partial man’. Friar Brackley maintained that the attainder of the Yorkists in the Coventry Parliament ‘was ymagined, contrivid and utterly concludid’ by the ‘most vengeable labour and ... most malicyows conspiracye’ of Fortescue and his friends, who confidently expected that they ‘schuld be made for evir’ if their plans succeeded. After the battle of Northampton in July 1460 the fortunes of Fortescue inevitably followed those those of the house of Lancaster, to which he remained constantly loyal. In October following he was consulted in Parliament as to the legality of the duke of York’s claim to the throne, a question on which he expressed his opinion more fully in The replication made agenste the title and clayme by the Duke of Yorke to the Crownes and Reaumes of England and France, composed shortly afterwards. It was early in February 1461 that, having hastily made provision for his wife, Fortescue joined forces with Queen Margaret, and probably even took part in the second battle of St. Albans. Certainly, he was present at the battle of Towton on 29 Mar. and the skirmishes at Ryton and Brancepeth (Durham) on 26 June; and accordingly he was attainted in Edward IV’s first Parliament six months later. His forfeited estates were for the most part granted to John, Lord Wenlock.13

Fortescue spent the following two years in Scotland, acting as ‘chancellor’ and councillor to Henry VI, and it was probably there that he wrote De Natura Legis Naturae and other tracts on the question of the royal succession. In March (?) 1462 Henry gave him letters of credence to Louis XI of France, his mission being to ask support for the exiled Lancastrians. He crossed from Scotland to Sluys with Queen Margaret in July 1463, and they eventually settled at the castle of Koeur in St. Mighel, where they lived in extreme poverty. Fortescue spared no effort to procure assistance from the kings of France and Portugal in order to bring about Henry VI’s restoration and, calling himself ‘Chancellor of England’, he wrote several memoranda on the subject for Louis XI’s attention. During the years of exile he devoted himself to the education of Edward, prince of Wales, and composed De Laudibus Legurn Anglie and The Governance of England. He was a leading negotiator in the talks conducted at Angers in 1470 between King Louis and the earl of Warwick, thus promoting the momentous alliance between the earl and the queen; and on 14 Apr. 1471, after Henry VI’s readeption, he sailed for England with Queen Margaret and Prince Edward. Proclaimed a traitor by Edward IV a week later, he was captured at Tewkesbury on 4 May. Fortescue’s fidelity to the Lancastrian cause was unshaken so long as Henry VI and his son were alive, but after their deaths he sought a general pardon from Edward IV and even offered him his services as a councillor. Nevertheless, it was not until October 1473, after he had written a Declaracion upon certayn wrytinges, refuting his earlier arguments about the royal succession, that he was permitted to present a petition to Parliament for the reversal of his attainder and the restoration of his estates.14 Fortescue is last recorded in July 1477, when he was party with Bishop Waynflete to a grant of estates in Lincolnshire (which they held as executors of Ralph, Lord Cromwell), to Magdalen college, Oxford. Meanwhile, he had retired to live in Ebrington, where he died shortly before 18 Dec. 1479.15

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. All as John Fortescue ‘junior’. The most complete biographies of Fortescue are in De Laudibus Legum Anglie ed. Chrimes; The Governance of England ed. Plummer; T. Fortescue, Ld. Clermont, Sir John Fortescue, and in DNB (vii. 482-5).
  • 2. According to the generally accepted pedigrees, Clarissa, to whom the father was married by 1408 (Cornw. Feet of Fines (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. 1950), 884; Reg. Stafford ed. Hingeston-Randolph, 275) was prob. the MP’s stepmother.
  • 3. LI Black Bk. 1-4, 6, 8, 15.
  • 4. RP, v. 66, 129, 141, 171, 210, 227, 278.
  • 5. CCR, 1422-9, p. 10; 1436-41, p. 418; CPR, 1422-9, p. 108; C219/11/1. It was probably the father who served as escheator of Devon in 1416-17 and as a j.p. from 1418 to 1422.
  • 6. CFR, xv. 43, 111, 321; C139/43/6; CPR, 1441-6, p. 170; CP25(1)46/86/187, 90/276; C140/41/39; CCR, 1447-54, pp. 368-9; 1454-61, pp. 107, 172; VCH Herts. ii. 255-6; iii. 102, 105, 422; C145/323/1.
  • 7. CFR, xv. 80, 154, 191; Stonor Letters (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, xxix), 36-39; Canterbury Cathedral RO, Canterbury city accts. FA1, f. 198.
  • 8. CPR, 1422-9, p. 526; 1436-41, pp. 152, 300; 1461-7, pp. 363-6; CFR, xviii. 143; Huntington Lib. San Marino, Hastings mss, HAD183/2981, 209/3465; Tropenell Cart. ed. Davies, ii. 133, 268.
  • 9. CFR, xv. 266; xvi. 9, 45, 84; PPC, iv. 328; Somerville, Duchy, i. 203, 451, 453.
  • 10. CPR, 1441-6, pp. 37, 38, 194, 454; 1446-52, pp. 26, 75, 498; CFR, xvii. 242, 263, 292; xviii. 86, 88; xix. 157, 180; RP, v. 199, 317.
  • 11. PPC, v. 243, 247, 256, 266, 268, 269; Paston Letters ed. Gairdner, i. 50.
  • 12. RP, v. 176, 239; CAD, i. A637; CPR, 1441-6, pp. 137, 267; 1446-54, pp. 218, 279, 301, 314; 1452-61, pp. 200, 214-15, 232, 341; CCR, 1441-7, p. 60; 1454-61, pp. 79, 197-8, 228-9, 357-8.
  • 13. Pol. Poems and Songs ed. Wright, ii. p. lvii; Paston Letters, i. 185, no. 364; RP, v. 376, 477; CCR, 1476-85, no. 685; CPR, 1461-7, pp. 183, 212, 440; 1467-77, p. 99.
  • 14. Clermont, i. 23-25, 34; Bull. IHR, xxxii. 174, 178; CPR, 1467-77, p. 296; RP, vi. 69.
  • 15. CPR, 1477-85, p. 48; HMC Hastings, i. 87; CFR, xxi. 515. His son, Martin, had pre-deceased him, in November 1471 (C140/41/39).