Sir John Fortescue

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Fortescue, Sir John (c.1394–c.1476). Lawyer. Fortescue studied law at Lincoln's Inn, became lord chief justice in 1442, and received his knighthood. A staunch supporter of the Lancastrian cause, he was at Towton in 1461 and subsequently attainted. In exile in Scotland and Flanders until 1470, he returned and fought on the losing side at Tewkesbury, being captured. He then made his terms with the triumphant Yorkists. His two most important writings were De laudibus legum Angliae, in praise of the laws of England, and On the Governance of the Kingdom of England, probably written after 1470. Fortescue was at pains to distinguish between absolute monarchy (‘dominum regale’ as in France) and limited or constitutional monarchy (‘dominum politicum et regale’ as in England). The essential difference is that in the first state the king makes the law, in the second the king rules his subjects only by laws ‘such as they assent unto’. In his characteristically Lancastrian parliamentary interpretation, Fortescue divided the two types too sharply—the French also had representative institutions. But by doing so he helped to create pride in the liberal character of English government and was much quoted by the opposition to Charles I in the 17th cent. Like Bagehot, Fortescue helped to create the situation he was describing.

J. A. Cannon