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John Fortescue

Sir John Fortescue (c. 1394 - c. 1476), English lawyer, the second son of Sir John Fortescue, of an ancient Devon family, was born at Norris, near South Brent, in Somerset.

He was educated at Exeter College, Oxford. During the reign of Henry VI he was three times appointed one of the governors of Lincoln's Inn. In 1441 he was made a king's sergeant at law, and in the following year chief justice of the king's bench. 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 into Scotland, he is supposed to have appointed Fortescue, who appears to have accompanied him in his flight, chancellor of England. In 1463 Fortescue accompanied Queen Margaret and her court in their exile on the Continent, and returned with them afterwards to England. During their wanderings abroad the chancellor wrote for the instruction of the young Prince Edward his celebrated work De laudibus legum Angliae. On the defeat of the Lancastrian party he made his submission to Edward IV, from whom he received a general pardon dated Westminster, October 13, 1471. The exact date of his death is not known.

Fortescue's masterly vindication of the laws of England, though received with great favour by experts, did not appear in print until the reign of Henry VIII, when it was published, but without a date. It was subsequently reprinted many times. Another valuable and learned work by Fortescue, written in English, was published in 1714, under the title of The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy. In the Cotton library there is a manuscript of this work, in the title of which it is said to have been addressed to Henry VI; but 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. All of Fortescue's minor writings appear in The Works of Sir John Fortescue, now first Collected and Arranged, published in 1869 for private circulation, by his descendant, Lord Clermont.


Plummer's Introduction to The Governance of England; Life in Lord Clermont's edition; Gairdner's Paston Letters; Foss's Lives of the Judges.

This entry is updated from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.