Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 7. Sir John Fortescue

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 7. Sir John Fortescue

Sir John Fortescur, the intrepid chief justice of Henry VI and the earliest Englishg constitutional lawyer, occupies, in the sphere of political iterature, a position not unlike that of Pecock in religious controversy. But the larger part of his works, which aim at justifying the title of the house of Lancaster, are in Latin. The arguments of the smaller tracts are historical; but his large work, De Natura Legis Naturae, is mainly philosoph cal. In this book the actual claim of Henry VI is made to rest upon the large foundation of that law of nature which resolves the succession to all kingdoms. He discovers three “natural” kinds of governemtn: absolute monarchy (dominium regale), republicanism (domunïum politicum) and constitutional monarchy (dominium polïticum et regale). The right of the Lancastrian House, therfore, is bound up with the English constitution. Even when he reaches the second part of the book and deals with the struggle then being waged, Fortescue keeps to an abstract form of argument. “Justice” is to settle the claim to a kingdom in Assyria preferred by three personages, the brother, daughter and daughter’s son of the deceased monarch. the reader reflects on Edward III, but Fortescue throws over the claim to France and the settlement of Scotland; there is no inheritance through a female, and “Justice” assigns the kingdom to the brother.

Such an attempt to solve the problem of the time by referring it to a general law is something in the manner of Pecock. The consideration of the “natural” forms of government an dthe decision that the constitution of England is a dominium politicum et rage became, with Fortescue, a firm conviction. Though the cause he had at heart, and for which he risked fortune and life and went into exile, was not advanced by his reasoning but hopelessly crushed by the cogent arguments of archery and cannon, he was able to exercise a perhaps unsatisfying activity in the composition of two works which might teach Englishmen better to understand and value that noble constitution to which the Yorkist conqueror certainly paid little enough attention. His book De Laudibus Legum angliae was written 1468–70, and, like its predecessor, was meant for the use of the yound prince Edward, whose education Fortescue seems to have had in charge, and who sustains a part in the dialogue. His travels with the fugitive royal family had shown the observant chief justice something of Scottish, and more of French, modes of government. As he compares the French absolute system with the noble constitution of England, his philosophy becomes practical, and he endeavours to apply theory to the actual conduct of government, giving us by the way pictures of the life and the law courts of England as he had known it.

But Tewkesbury field left the Lancastrians without a cause, and Fortescue could do no more than bow to the inevitable and lay before the new sovereign de facto his last treatise upon his favourite subject. It is in English. The house of York, possibly from lack of learning as well as from a perception of the importance now pertaining to the common people’s opinions, always dealt with politics in the vulgar tongue. The treatise, sometimes entitled Monarchia, and sometimes The Difference between as Absolute and a Limited Monarchy combines a eulogy of the English theoretical system of government with advice for its practical reformation. It was probably finished in 1471 or a little later, though there are reasons for thinking that it was orifinally intended for Henry VI. Fortescue again distinguishes between the two kinds of monarchy, absolute and constitutional, and praises the advantages of the latter. Not that an absolute monarch is necessarily a tyrant: Ahab offered Naboth the full price for the vineyard.

The all important question for a constitutional king is revernue, and with this his subjects are bound to provide him: “As every servant owith to have is sustenance off hym that he serveth so ought the pope to be susteyned by the chirche and the kyng by his reaume.” The expenses of the English king are of three kinds; (1) “kepynge of the see,” provided for specially by the nation in the poundage and tonnage duties, “that the kynge kepe alway some grete and myghty vessels, ffor the brekynge off an armye when any shall be made ayen hym apon the see. Ffor thanne it shall be to late to do make such vessailes”; (2) ordinary royal charges, household, officials, etc.; (3) extraordinary, including ambassadors, rewards and troops on a sudden necessity: there is a no thought of a permanent army. The dangers of royal poverty and overgreat subjects are pointed out, with examples discreetly taken from French and old English history. How shall the revenue be increased? Not by direct taxes on food, as abroad, “his hyghness shall have heroff but as hadd the man that sherid is hogge, much crye and litel woll.” Let the king’s “livelode” come of his lands: as did Joseph in Egypt, on the plan which yet keeps the “Saudan off Babilon” (Cairo) so wealthy. (Is this a reminiscence of Mandeville?) It is a method within the king’s competence, for an English king can never alienate his lands permanently; which, says the philosophic judge, only proves his supreme power: “ffor it is no poiar to mowe alience and put away, but it is poiar to mowe have and kepe to hym self. As it is no poiar to mowe synne and to do ylle or to mowe be seke, wex old or that a man may hurte hym self. Ffor all thes poiars comen of impotencie.”

The danger of impoverished subjects is discussed next. Poor commons are rebellious, as in Bohemia. A poor nation could not afford to train itself in marksmanship as the English all do at their own costs. Why, then, do not the povertystricken French rebel? Simply from “cowardisse and lakke off hartes and corage, wich no Frenchman hath like unto a Englysh man.” The French are too cowardly to rob: “there is no man hanged in Scotland in vij yere to gedur ffor robbery.… But the English man is off another corage,” for he will always dare to take what he needs from one who has it. Fortescue glories in the prowess of our sturdy thieves. An interesting plan for forming the council of salaried experts, to the exclusion of the great nobles, brings the little book to a close, with a prophetical “anteme” of rejoicing, which a grateful people will sing when Edward IV shall on these lines have reformed the government and revenue. A quaint postscript seems to deprecate the possible distaste of king Edward for the parliamentary nature of the rule described.

Fortescue had to make his peace with the new king by retracting his former arguments against the house of York. This he did in the form of a dialogue with a learned man in a Declaration upon “certayn wrytyngs … ayenst the Kinges Title to the Roialme of Englond,” wherein, not without dignity, he admitted fresh evidence from the learned man and declared himself to have been mistaken. This, and a few other and earlier Latin pamphlets, are of purely historical interest. His last work was, probably, the dialogue between Understanding and Faith, a kind of meditation upon the hard fate of the righteous and the duty of resignation.