Dictionary of National Biography – Adrian Fortescue

detail from a painting of Blessed Adrian, by Edward Caruna Dingli, Museum of the Order of Saint John, MaltaArticle

Sir Adrian Fortescue (1476?–1539), knight of Saint John, was the second son of Sir John Fortescue of Punsborne, Hertfordshire, and grandson of Sir Richard, younger brother of Sir John, the famous chief justice. His mother was the daughter of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, and was great-aunt to Queen Anne Boleyn. Sir Adrian served in 1513 in the campaign against the French which ended in the battle of the Spurs. He attended on Queen Catherine at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, served in the short and uneventful French war of 1522, and was knighted in February 1528. His connection with Anne Boleyn probably brought him for a time into considerable favour at the court of Henry VIII. His name appears in the list of those who received grants of lands from Wolsey’s possessions after the cardinal’s fall in July 1530. He was present at all the festivities which took place on the king’s second marriage, and received the exceptional honour of being informed by a special messenger of the birth of the Princess Elizabeth.

In 1532, two years before the dissolution of the order, he was admitted as a knight of Saint John, though, as he was a married man, he could only have held the more or less honorary rank of a ‘knight of devotion’. Nor does it appear from his diaries and note-books, published in Lord Clermont’s ‘History,’ that he ever resided in any of the houses, or took any active part in the business of the order. In February 1539 Fortescue was arrested and sent to the Tower. In May of the same year he was included in the act of attainder which condemned the Marchioness of Exeter, the Countess of Salisbury, Cardinal Pole, Sir Thomas Pole, Sir Thomas Dingley, and others. The story of this memorable act of attainder remains to a great extent a mystery. No historian has been able to explain its apparent want of motive, or the hurried manner in which it was pressed through both houses. The clause of the act relating to Fortescue states that he had ‘not onelie most trayterouslie refused his duety of allegiance which he ought to beare unto your highnesse, but also hathe comytted diverse and sundrie detestable and abhomynable treasons, and to put sedition in your realme’. It is difficult to conjecture what were the ‘sundry treasons.’ His crime may have consisted of his near relationship to Queen Anne Boleyn; or he may have been on too intimate terms with the Countess of Salisbury, whose granddaughter his son Sir Anthony married eighteen years later; and his connection with the Poles may have led to his inclusion in an act aimed to a great extent against that family; or his execution may have been due to the marriage of his daughter Frances to the tenth Earl of Kildare, beheaded for high treason in February 1537. This is, however, the less likely to have been the case, since Lady Kildare had returned to her father’s roof before her husband broke into open rebellion.

The exact date of Fortescue’s execution is uncertain. The ‘English Martyrology’ gives it as 8 July 1539; Dodd, Stow, and a manuscript list of persons executed in the reign of Henry VIII, concur in naming 10 July, while the ‘Chronicle of the Grey Friars’ reads: ‘The ninth day of July was be-heddyd at Toure-Hyll Master Foskeu and Master Dyngle, knyghttes.’ His fellow-sufferer was Sir Thomas Dingley, knight of Saint John, who was condemned by the same act of attainder, on the more definite charge of travelling to foreign courts in the interests of the king’s enemies.

Fortescue has long been regarded by the order to which he belonged as a martyr, and according to Mr. Winthrop his death was commemorated on 8 July. The first step towards his canonisation has been recently taken by his inclusion in the list of 261 persons executed during the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and James I, on whom the title of venerable has been bestowed by the pope. He was twice married: first to Anne, daughter of Sir William Stonor, who died in 1518; and secondly to Anne, daughter of Sir William Rede, who survived her husband, and afterwards married Sir Thomas Parry, comptroller of Queen Elizabeth’s household. By his first wife Fortescue had two daughters, Margaret, married to Thomas, first lord Wentworth, and Frances, married to Thomas, tenth earl of Kildare; by his second wife he had three sons, Sir John, chancellor of the exchequer, Thomas, and Sir Anthony, and two daughters, Elizabeth, married to Sir Thomas Bromley, lord chancellor of England, and Mary. There are three known pictures of Fortescue — two in the church of Saint John at Valetta, and a third, which is probably a portrait, in the Collegio di San Paolo at Rabato, Malta. There is an engraving of the last of these in Lord Clermont’s ‘History.’

MLA Citation

  • “Adrian Fortescue”. Dictionary of National Biography. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 August 2018. Web. 27 September 2021. <>