FORTESCUE, John I (1533-1607), of Holborn, London; Welford, Berks. and Salden, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. 1533, 1st s. of Sir Adrian Fortescue (exec. 1539) of Shirburn and Stonor Place, Oxon. by his 2nd w. Anne, da. of Sir William Reade of Boarstall, Bucks.; bro. of Thomas I. m. (1) c.1556, Cecily (d.1570), da. of Sir Edmund Ashfield of Ewelme, Oxon., 4s. inc. Francis, Thomas II and William 2da.; (2) Alice, da. of Christopher Smythe of Annables, Herts., 1da. suc. fa. 1539; rest. in blood 1551. Kntd. September 1592.3

Offices Held

Member of Princess Elizabeth’s household c.1555; keeper of the great wardrobe from 1559; ranger of Wychwood forest and keeper of Cornbury park, Oxon. 1560; steward of Charlbury, Oxon. 1567; j.p.q. Bucks. from 1569; steward, Buckingham by 1584; commr. array Beds. and Bucks. 1586; chancellor of the Exchequer and under-treasurer 1589-1603; PC from 10 Feb. 1589; keeper of Hatfield House 1593; custos rot. Bucks. c.1594-1600, Mdx. by 1594; ld. lt. Mdx. by 1596; recorder, Cambridge Jan. 1601; high steward, Wallingford June 1601; chancellor, duchy of Lancaster 24 Sept.-3 Oct. 1601, 4 Nov. 1601-d.4


Fortescue’s mother married Sir Thomas Parry, Princess Elizabeth’s cofferer, and about 1555 Fortescue himself entered her service. When she succeeded to the throne Parry became comptroller of her household, and within a few months Fortescue was appointed keeper of the wardrobe, a post which he held until his death 48 years later. Fortescue’s fortune was now made. In the summer of 1559 he was granted the manor of Salden in Buckinghamshire by his stepfather and made it his chief residence. In that county he bought the manor of Drayton Parslow, and was given the manor of Tickford by his relative, the Earl of Essex. In Oxfordshire he received several grants from the Queen and leased the manor of Swyncombe. In 1599 he bought the town of Burford and the manor of Spelsbury, Oxfordshire, for £2,500, and is said to have spent £33,000 in building a house at Salden. He bought another at Hendon and in 1598 was considering the purchase of a house in Chelsea from Sir Robert Cecil.5

Sir Thomas Parry had property in Berkshire, in the neighbourhood of Wallingford, and sat for that borough in Parliament. Fortescue, who probably lived on Parry’s estates before moving to Salden, was returned for Wallingford in 1559 and 1572. His lands in Buckinghamshire and his position at court brought him the stewardship of Buckingham by 1584, and return for the town in 1586. In the next three Parliaments nothing less than the senior seat for his county was commensurate with his dignity. For the Parliament of 1601 he was chosen knight by Middlesex, where his duties at court forced him to reside and where he was lord lieutenant. He may by that time have been experiencing some hostility in Buckinghamshire—though his son, Frances Fortescue, sat for the county in 1601—for he was defeated at the election of the Buckinghamshire knights in 1604, the freeholders demanding (Sir) Francis Goodwin, and he had once more to turn to Middlesex for a seat, entering at a by-election in 1606.

He enjoyed a good deal of parliamentary patronage and several of his family and connexions sat in Parliament with him. In 1586 he may have had a hand in the election of his kinsman Francis Stonor for Woodstock, being steward of much royal property in the neighbourhood. His influence became predominant at Wallingford well before he was made high steward in 1601: he presumably nominated his brother Thomas Fortescue for the borough in 1593, 1597 and 1601. His eldest surviving son followed him as a Member for Buckingham in 1589, 1593 and 1597. At Chipping Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, he also had influence: sons of his sat for the borough in 1593 and 1597, and in 1601 he wrote to the corporation to nominate Edward Lenton of Notley Abbey, though evidently without success.6

As chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster when the writs for the elections of 1601 were sent out, he may have nominated several of the Members for duchy boroughs: Thomas Knyvet II, Member for Thetford, was his half-sister’s son; John Pulteney, for Wigan, was soon to be his son-in-law; and Edward Anderson, for Liverpool, was his second wife’s nephew. His sister married Lord Chancellor Thomas Bromley, adding to the Fortescue circle her son Sir Henry Bromley, Sir Henry’s cousin Edward Bromley, and brother-in-law Oliver Cromwell. Fortescue’s second wife’s sisters married Chief Justice Anderson and George Rotheram, knight for Bedfordshire in five Parliaments. The number of Fortescue’s relatives in the Commons towards the end of the reign is rounded off by his cousin Dudley Fortescue and his half-brother Thomas Parry, knight for Berkshire in 1586 and later ambassador to France.

Yet Fortescue’s career, both in Parliament and outside, was unimpressive. His committee record before his appointment to the Privy Council is as follows: recoveries (19 May 1572), Peter Wentworth (8 Feb. 1576), letters patent (25 Feb.), Oxford and Cambridge colleges (2 Mar.), collateral warranties (7 Mar.), petition to the Queen to marry and Lord Stourton’s bill (12 Mar.), the Queen’s safety (25 Jan. 1581), seditious practices (1 Feb.), slanderous libel (3 Feb.), game (18 Feb.), leases of Oxford diocese (13, 15 Mar.), Mary Queen of Scots (4 Nov. 1586), learned ministry (8 Mar. 1587), the subsidy (18 Mar.).7 Considering his background and opportunities this is comparatively small beer. Similarly, in the 30 years after his appointment to the wardrobe the only incident involving him directly which attracts attention is his dispute with his Buckinghamshire neighbour, Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton. As keeper of Whaddon chase, Grey claimed the right of entry into Salden to protect the Queen’s deer. When Fortescue took the dispute to the Privy Council, Grey ambushed him at Temple Bar, beating him from his horse. The Queen took Fortescue’s part: Grey was put in the Fleet and remained out of favour for several years. Perhaps the key to Fortescue’s generally cautious attitude to public affairs—and to Grey’s hostility—lies in his Catholic connexions. Grey’s daughter, incidentally, married the puritan, Francis Goodwin, who defeated Fortescue at the famous 1604 Buckinghamshire election and may have been his rival for influence in Chipping Wycombe too. One of the Ashfields, who had been on Fortescue’s side in the original dispute with Grey, was confined in the Tower in July 1599 for acting as intermediary in negotiations between the Pope and the King of Scots.8

Thus it was discretion, seniority and the Queen’s loyalty to old friends that brought Fortescue to the centre of affairs after his appointment to the Privy Council. Despite his new status his activity in the 1589 Parliament was slight. He reported a committee concerning purveyors (4 Mar.), and was in charge of the committee concerning the lands and leases of the diocese of Oxford (13, 15 Mar.). In the debate on pluralities (20 Mar.) he pleaded for a reasonable and historical approach to the problem, maintaining that holding benefices in plurality by royal licence sometimes served a useful purpose and that the abuses of the system had been much reduced. On the last day of the Parliament (29 Mar.) he reported the decision of a conference to ask the Queen to declare war on Spain. As a Privy Councillor he may also have attended committees concerned with the subsidy (11 Feb.), Dover harbour (5 Mar.), forestallers (5 Mar.), captains and soldiers (19 Mar.) and tillage (25 Mar.). As chancellor of the Exchequer it was his business to argue the need for a subsidy in the Parliament of 1593, but he spoke third on the motion (26 Feb.) rather than first as his predecessor, Sir Walter Mildmay, had done in previous Parliaments. He contrasted the necessary strengthening of the navy with the Queen’s personal frugality, and held out as bait the possibility that Elizabeth would shortly ‘free her subjects from that trouble which hath means of purveyors’. He reported the subsidy committee (28 Feb.), and was one of a Commons delegation to the Lords refusing their offer of a joint conference on the subsidy (3 Mar.). On 10 Mar. he reported a further committee on the subsidy, and on 13 Mar. he introduced a preamble to the subsidy bill which was criticized for its excessive servility: the Commons were described as prostrating themselves, their lives and lands at her Majesty’s feet. His committee activity in 1593 concerned cloth (14 Mar.), a private bill (16 Mar.), spinners and weavers (26 Mar.), and he was put in charge of the committee concerning letters patent (7 Apr.) which he reported on 9 Apr. As Privy Councillor he may have attended the committees on privileges and returns (26 Feb.), recusancy (28 Feb.), a legal bill (9 Mar.), poor relief (12 Mar.), continuation of statutes (12 Mar.), soldiers and mariners (2 Apr.) and new building in London and Westminster (6 Apr.).9

In 1595 Fortescue was the sole overseer of the will of Sir Thomas Heneage, who was said to have died owing £20,000 to the Queen. At about the same time, attempts seem to have been made to bring him into the immediate following of the 2nd Earl of Essex, to whom he was related through the Boleyns, Careys and Knollyses. Early in 1596 he received a suggestion from Anthony Bacon that he should send Essex reports of state affairs while the Earl was absent on the Cadiz expedition; and the Earl himself wrote to his ‘honourable cousin’, asking assistance in obtaining the mastership of the rolls for Francis Bacon. Fortescue agreed to send Essex intelligence, but was as careful as ever to avoid committing himself to adventurous courses. He advised Anthony Bacon to be cautious in his dealings with the Scots. Remembering perhaps the conversations which had been entrusted to him by the Queen with the wily Scottish emissary, Archibald Douglas, he remarked significantly about James:

The dealing with that prince standing to her Majesty in so dainty terms, and the suspicious conceit her Highness hath of his titulary hopes, maketh, yes rather, forbiddeth and forewarneth, me to have no commerce where my loyalty may receive blemish.10

At the opening of the 1597-8 Parliament Fortescue proposed Christopher Yelverton as Speaker (24 Oct.). On the first full day of business (27 Oct.), he ‘moved and admonished that none of this House should after this present day enter into the same House with their spurs on ...’. He reported several messages from the Queen, the first concerning abuses in marriage licences on 14 Nov. On 7 Feb. 1598

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the House and then presently told Mr. Speaker and the residue of the House that ... her Majesty’s express pleasure was, that the said two bills concerning the draining of marsh and fenny grounds should not be any more read in this House.

Fortescue was a member of two committees concerning monopolies (appointed 9 Nov. 1597) and clerical subsidies (appointed 12 Nov.), and was due to attend committees on these subjects during the afternoon of 16 Nov. However, that morning he informed the House that as ‘himself and Mr. Secretary Cecil are specially commanded to wait upon her Highness this afternoon’, they would be unable to attend. He proposed that the committees should be postponed ‘... which ... was well-liked of and yielded unto by some; yet it was over-ruled by number of voices, that as concerning the said monopolies and patents of privilege, the said commitments should be continued to be held in the afternoon of this present day in this House’. He made the opening speech on the subsidy on 15 Nov., and on 19 Nov. he reported the decisions of the subsidy committee to the House. Fortescue seconded Francis Bacon’s proposal for a committee concerning enclosures on 5 Nov., and was put in charge of bills concerning engrossers (7 Nov.), and the provision of a preacher in the Tower (12 Dec.). His other committee activity concerned private bills (24 Nov., 12 Dec., 16 Jan. 1598), Aylesbury (20 Dec.), double payments on shop books (14 Jan.), the poor law (15 Jan..), the better measuring of seven miles from Great Yarmouth (23 Jan.) and tellers and receivers (23 Jan.). Committees to which he was automatically appointed as a Privy Councillor include poor relief (5 Nov.), privileges and returns (5 Nov.), penal laws (8 Nov.), monopolies (10 Nov.), tellers and receivers (5 Dec.), defence (8 Dec., 12 Jan. 1598), explanation of statutes (14 Jan.), excess of apparel (19 Jan.), and husbandry and tillage (20 Jan.).

Fortescue’s activity in the 1601 Parliament was minimal. On 7 Nov. 1601 Cecil made the major government speech on the subsidy, ‘Mr. Comptroller, Sir John Fortescue and Secretary Herbert spake all to the like effect ...’ However, D’Ewes did note an extract from Fortescue’s speech as of particular interest:

And I beseech you remember that the Great Turk when he conquered Constantinople found therein three hundred millions of gold; if they, quoth he, had bestowed three millions in defence of their city, he could never have gotten it. From this blindness I pray God defend us, that we may not be backward to give four subsidies to her Majesty, for want whereof in time we may happen to lose that which will not be recovered or defended with a hundred.

Fortescue spoke at the subsidy committee the same day. The only other references to him by name during this Parliament record his intervention in the debate on Dover harbour (10 Dec.) and his membership of the committee concerning Kentish Town highroad (2 Dec.). As Privy Councillor he was eligible to attend the main business committees, including the following: privileges and returns (31 Oct.), penal laws (2 Nov.), order of business (3 Nov.), Exchequer reform (9, 21 Nov.), monopolies (12, 20, 23 Nov.), church attendance (2 Dec.), defence(3, 14 Dec.), and iron ordnance (10 Dec.).11

On Burghley’s death, Fortescue was suggested for lord treasurer, possibly because he was midway between the factions of Essex and Cecil. It was more than ever a time for caution. In August 1599 he was incensed by a suggestion that he had encouraged a rumour of the Queen’s death and had called his retainers to London as a precautionary measure. He tried to avoid breaking with Essex, at whose first trial he was one of the judges who gave their ‘censures’ so softly as to be inaudible, and he told Cecil in August 1600 that he was

glad of the addition to my Lord of Essex’s liberty, whereby I perceive her Majesty’s care of her poor servants, and that we shall not be given over for our fidelities.

At the time of the Earl’s revolt, when, as he said, he would and ought to be most ready to serve, he was suffering from an opportune lameness, but he took into custody his own relative Edward Bromley. In 1603 Essex’s uncle Sir George Devereux said that he had received ‘more benevolent favour’ from Fortescue than from all his other ‘friends and kindred’.12

Elizabeth’s death must have provided Fortescue with some bad moments, as he was one of those who had suggested the imposing of conditions upon James before allowing him the succession, but he soon made a humble submission, telling the King that he had served Elizabeth ‘my late mistress and dear sovereign 48 years, near about her person, with fidelity and sincerity of heart and mind’. James dismissed him as chancellor of the Exchequer, continued him as keeper of the wardrobe and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and visited him at his house at Langley in Wychwood. Still, James was lukewarm: during Fortescue’s dispute with Francis Goodwin over the Buckinghamshire election of 1604, the King is reported to have said that he was indifferent to the result, as Fortescue ‘was a councillor not brought in by himself’. He died 23 Dec. 1607, as it seemed ere he was aware, wrote John Chamberlain,

for he left no will, which is thought strange for a man of his years and state: so that his wife carries away all the goods and her daughter ... the house, land and furniture here at Hendon in Middlesex.

His heir was Sir Francis Fortescue, husband of Grace, daughter of John Manners of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire. His half-brother Thomas Parry succeeded him as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. He had already donated books to the Bodleian library.13

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Authors: Alan Harding / M.A.P.


This biography is based upon T. Fortescue, Lord Clermont, Fortescue Fam.

  • 1. Folger V. b. 298.
  • 2. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 3. DNB; Vis. Bucks. (Harl. Soc. lviii), 58.
  • 4. CPR , 1558-60, pp. 90, 426-7; Loseley mss 1331, f. 60; APC, xiv. 80; xvii. 76; xviii. 435; xxvi. 470; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 483; Berks. RO, Wallingford minute bk. f. 88; Buckingham corp. bk. 1574-1835, f. 1; Somerville, Duchy, i. 396-7; C66/1421.
  • 5. DNB; CPR, 1557-8, p. 197; 1558-60, p. 127; 1560-3, p. 312; CSP Dom. 1595-7, pp. 4, 566; 1598-1601, p. 294; R. H. Gretton, Burford Recs. 52; HMC Hatfield, vii. 387.
  • 6. HMC Hatfield, xi. 400; G. Lipscomb, Bucks. i. 233.
  • 7. CJ, i. 95, 104, 108, 110, 111, 114, 119, 121, 128; D’Ewes, 207, 241, 252, 253, 260, 288, 394, 413, 416, 431, 442, 445, 446.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 467-8, 470; 1598-1601, p. 252; HMC Hatfield, xi. 548; xv. 217; PCC 51 Wood.
  • 9. Neale, Parlts. ii. 226, 275, 298, 312; APC, xviii. 62; Strype, Whitgift, ii. 71; D’Ewes, 431, 442, 443, 445, 446, 448, 449, 453, 454, 471, 473, 476, 477, 486, 496, 497, 499, 501, 502, 510, 513, 519, 520.
  • 10. HMC Ancaster, 329-30; Birch, Mems. i. 464-5; HMC Hatfield, iv. 334, 381, 406.
  • 11. Neale, ii. 354, 356, 358-9, 363; D’Ewes, 549, 550, 552, 553, 554, 555, 556, 557, 558, 559, 560, 561, 562, 565, 568, 570, 571, 572, 576, 577, 578, 580, 581, 583, 584, 586, 590, 591, 594, 622, 624, 631, 634, 635, 636, 641, 647, 649, 658, 664, 665, 666, 668, 678, 685; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 59, 60, 70, 73, 78, 101, 102, 103, 104, 107, 114, 115, 119, 226, 308; HMC Hatfield, xi. 484-5.
  • 12. Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 48; HMC Hatfield, ix. 314; x. 294; xi. 37; xv. 85; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 252; APC, xxxi. 243.
  • 13. C142/305/135; Chamberlain Letters, i. 248.