Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fortescue, John (1531?-1607)

FORTESCUE, Sir JOHN (1531?–1607), chancellor of the exchequer, was the eldest of the three sons of Sir Adrian [q. v.], by his second wife, Anne, daughter of Sir W. Rede. He was eight years old at the date of his father's execution, and was brought up under his mother's care. He is said by Lodge (Peerage of Ireland, 1789, iii. 346) to have been educated at Oxford, and afterwards entered at one of the inns of court, but there is no further evidence of his having been at either. In 1551 an act of parliament was passed for his ‘restitution in blood’ (Statutes at Large, v. p. xiv), which removed the effect of his father's attainder and gave him possession of his property at Shirburn in Oxfordshire. On the accession of Mary, his mother, who had married Sir Thomas Parry, comptroller of the royal household, was taken into the queen's service, and received various grants of lands in Gloucestershire, which were, after her death, inherited by her eldest son. About the same time Fortescue was appointed to superintend the studies of Queen Elizabeth (Camden, Annales, 1625, ii. 27), while his youngest brother, Anthony, received the appointment of comptroller of the household of Cardinal Pole, whose niece, Katherine Pole, he had recently married. Fortescue owed his place no doubt in part to the reputation which he enjoyed throughout his life as a Greek and Latin scholar, but perhaps still more to the fact that he was second cousin once removed to Elizabeth, through the marriage of his grandfather, Sir John Fortescue of Punsborne, to Alice, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn and great-aunt of Anne Boleyn. The same marriage brought Fortescue into kinship one degree more distant with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, who in his letters invariably addresses him as his ‘loving cosen.’ In one of these letters (Add. MSS. Brit. Mus. 4119), undated, but no doubt written in 1596, the Earl of Essex asks Fortescue's interest on behalf of the appointment of Francis Bacon to the mastership of the rolls.

On the accession of Queen Elizabeth, Fortescue was appointed keeper of the great wardrobe (Patent Rolls, 1 Eliz. pt. vii. m. 10). The great or standing wardrobe was situated in Blackfriars, near Carter Lane. It contained, in addition to a collection of armour and royal costumes, a large number of state documents and papers, as well as a house in which Fortescue, when in London, resided during the whole reign of Elizabeth (Stow, Survey, vol. i. bk. iii. p. 224). Here, in addition to his ordinary guests, he had, like other statesmen of the period, to act on occasion as host or gaoler to state prisoners, a duty which he seems to have found peculiarly burdensome, as he complains several times in his letters to Burghley of the unfitness of his house for such a purpose. Fortescue entered parliament for the first time in 1572, when he was returned for the borough of Wallingford. He sat in every subsequent parliament during the reign of Elizabeth as member first for the borough and afterwards for the county of Buckingham, until the parliament of 1601, when he was returned for Middlesex (Return of Members of Parliament, pt. i.) His name hardly occurs as a speaker in D'Ewes's ‘Journal’ until 1589, after which date he seems to have spoken frequently in the House of Commons, chiefly, however, in his capacity of chancellor of the exchequer, in proposing subsidies, suggesting means of taxation, or expressing the wishes or commands of the queen. In the midst of graver matters he appears once as an advocate of parliamentary propriety, when, on 27 Oct. 1597, three days after the meeting of parliament, he ‘moved and admonished that hereafter no member of the house should come into the house with their spurs on, for offending of others’ (D'Ewes, Journal, ed. 1693, p. 550). On the death of Sir Walter Mildmay in 1589, Fortescue succeeded him in the office of chancellor of the exchequer and under-treasurer, and was sworn a member of the privy council (Camden, Annales, ii. 27). The office of chancellor of the exchequer was an exceedingly lucrative one. A curious account of his sources of official income exists in a paper drawn up after his death, endorsed ‘Sir John Fortescue's meanes of gaine, by Sir Richard Thekstin, told me, 26 Nov. 1608’ (Add. MS. Brit. Mus. 12497, f. 143). It appears from this paper that Fortescue received from the queen a number of grants of land in several counties, leases in reversion of great value, and sinecure places, and from Burghley ‘many advantageous imployments in the custom-house,’ and other means of enriching himself. After a few years of office he grew to be a remarkably wealthy man, bought large estates in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, maintained a retinue of sixty or seventy servants, and lived in much state. He built on his estate of Salden a house of great size and beauty at an expense of some 33,000l., equal to not less than 120,000l. at the present day. He also bought or hired the manorhouse of Hendon, where he principally resided during the sitting of parliament, and he possessed a house in Westminster in addition to his official residence in Blackfriars. In November 1601 he was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, so that he held during the remainder of the queen's lifetime three offices of importance at the same time. He also served upon a number of commissions, notably upon all those which concerned jesuits or seminary priests, and sat as a member of the Star-chamber, and as an ecclesiastical commissioner (Rymer, vol. vii.). After the death of Elizabeth, Osborne (Works, ed. 1701, p. 379) relates that Fortescue, with Lord Cobham, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other members of the privy council, made some efforts to impose conditions upon James VI, apparently with a view to prevent his appointing an unlimited number of Scotchmen to office in England. The story is to a certain extent confirmed by Bishop Goodman, who says: ‘I have heard it by credible persons that Sir John Fortescue did then very moderately and mildly ask whether any conditions should be proposed to the king’ (Court of King James, 1839, p. 14). According to Osborne, Lord Cobham and the others were ‘all frowned upon after by the king,’ but in Fortescue's case no very serious results followed. He was, it is true, deprived of the most important of his offices, the chancellorship of the exchequer, which was bestowed upon Sir George Home, created Earl of Dunbar; but he received on 20 May 1603 a new patent for life of the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, and was continued in his office of master of the great wardrobe by patent of 24 May 1603 (Rymer, vol. vii. pt. ii. p. 65; Napier, Swyncombe, p. 401). In the same year he twice entertained King James; in May at Hendon, and in June, with Queen Anne and Prince Henry, at Salden (Nichols, Progresses of James I, i. 165; Napier, p. 402).

The election for Buckinghamshire in January 1604 gave rise to a serious constitutional struggle between the crown and the House of Commons. Fortescue was defeated in his candidature by Sir Francis Goodwin. When the writs were returned, the court of chancery at once declared that the election was void, on the ground that a judgment of outlawry had been passed against Goodwin, and on a second election Fortescue was returned, and took his seat in the parliament which met 19 March 1604. The question of this election was raised immediately after the meeting of the House of Commons, and after hearing Sir F. Goodwin the house decided in his favour. The lords then demanded a conference with the commons on the subject, declaring that they did so by the king's orders. The commons thereupon sent a deputation to wait upon the king, who asserted the right of the court of chancery to decide upon disputed returns; the commons, on the other hand, maintained their exclusive right to judge of the election of their own members, and after several interviews with the king, and a conference with the judges, James suggested a compromise, which was accepted by the House of Commons, that both Goodwin and Fortescue should be set aside and a new writ issued (Commons' Journal, i. 149-69). In February of the next year, 1605-6, Fortescue was returned for the county of Middlesex, for which he sat for the brief remainder of his life. He died in his seventy-fifth year, on 23 Dec. 1607, and was buried in Mursley Church, Oxfordshire.

Few men have more narrowly missed such fame as history can bestow than Fortescue. He held a considerable place in the government during one of the most eventful periods of English history. Although the greater part of his correspondence, preserved in the Record Office and at Hatfield, deals with official matters, there are a sufficient number of private letters to show that he counted among his friends such men as Burghley, Francis and Anthony Bacon, Raleigh and Essex, and that his assistance and good offices with the queen were constantly asked by persons of note and importance in the state. That he enjoyed in a high degree the confidence of Elizabeth is clearly evident from these letters, which serve to confirm the words which Lloyd attributes to her: 'Two men, Queen Elizabeth would say, outdid her expectation, Fortescue for integrity, and Walsingham for subtlety and officious services' (State Worthies, ed. 1670, p. 556). He had a considerable reputation for scholarship; Camden calls him ' an excellent man and a good Grecian' (Annales, ii. 27); while Lloyd speaks of him as 'a great master of Greek and Latin.' Among his friends was Sir Thomas Bodley, to whose newly founded library at Oxford he presented a number of books and several manuscripts.

Fortescue was twice married: first, to Cecily, daughter of Sir Edmund Ashfield; and secondly, to Alice, daughter of Christopher Smyth. By his first wife he had two sons, Sir Francis, K.B., and Sir William, and one daughter. The eldest son of Sir Francis was created a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1636. The direct male line of the house ceased with the death of Sir John, the third baronet, in 1717. The only portrait of Fortescue known to exist was, after long search, discovered by the late Lord Clermont. A copy of this picture was presented by him to the Bodleian Library, and two engravings of it are given in his family history.

[Lord Clermont's Hist. of the Family of Fortescue; Napier's Hist. Notices of the parishes of Swyncombe and Ewelme.]

G. K. F.