Fortescue, Sir John

(c. 1394–1476)
   A loyal adherent of the house of LANCASTER, Sir John Fortescue was also chief justice of the Court of King’s Bench and the preeminent constitutional and legal theorist of medieval England.
   The second son of a Devonshire gentleman, Fortescue was educated at Oxford and trained in the common law at Lincoln’s Inn. 94 FITZGERALD, THOMAS, EARL OF KILDARE He became serjeant-at-law (i.e., a senior attorney who specialized in pleading cases in common law courts) in 1430, and was appointed chief justice of King’s Bench in 1442. Fortescue fought for HENRY VI at the Battle of TOWTON in March 1461, and afterward fled into SCOTLAND with the Lancastrian royal family. Over the next two years of Scottish exile, Fortescue wrote several treatises defending the Lancastrian title to the throne and refuting the claim of the house of YORK. The best known of these works, De Natura Legis Naturae (On the Nature of Law), dismisses the Yorkist claim because of its descent through the female line. In 1463, Fortescue followed Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU and her son Prince EDWARD OF LANCASTER to FRANCE. At the queen’s court in exile at St. Michel-enBarrois, Fortescue tutored the prince and probably also acted as the Lancastrian chancellor. Exile gave Fortescue time to write his De Laudibus Legum Angliae (In Praise of the Laws of England), which may have been intended, in part, to familiarize the prince with his future kingdom. De Laudibus compares English and French law by way of explaining that England, unlike France, was a mixed monarchy in which the Crown (i.e., the king in PARLIAMENT) governed with the consent of the people.
   In 1470, Fortescue supported the ANGERS AGREEMENT, the alliance that Queen Margaret concluded with Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick. After the Lancastrian restoration, while waiting to return to England, Fortescue drafted a series of proposals to advise Henry VI’s READEPTION government on how to avoid the errors that had caused Henry’s earlier downfall. Fortescue landed in England with Margaret and the prince on 14 April 1471, the day of Warwick’s death at the Battle of BARNET. Captured in May after the Battle of TEWKESBURY, Fortescue acknowledged Lancastrian defeat and submitted to EDWARD IV, who pardoned him and restored his estates on condition that he refute his own earlier arguments in favor of the Lancastrian claim. Achieving this in his Declaration upon Certain Writings Sent Out of Scotland, Fortescue successfully petitioned for reversal of his ATTAINDER. Fortescue’s last work, On the Governance of the Kingdom of England, summarized portions of De Laudibus and was the first work of constitutional theory in English and the first book of English law written specifically for laypersons. Appointed to the COUNCIL in the 1470s, Fortescue served until his death in 1476.
   Further Reading: Fortescue, Sir John, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, edited and translated by S. B. Chrimes (Holmes Beach, FL:William W. Gaunt and Sons, 1986); Fortescue, Sir John, Sir John Fortescue: On the Laws and Governance of England, edited by Shelley Lockwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Gross, Anthony, The Dissolution of the Lancastrian Kingship: Sir John Fortescue and the Crisis of Monarchy in Fifteenth-Century England (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1996).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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