The “Blessed” Adrian Fortescue, violent thug and sanctuary seeker

Sir Adrian Fortescue was amongst a number of aristocrats in Henry VIII’s reign who took advantage of sanctuary to get out of sticky situations. This is one episode in a lifetime of falling in and out of trouble, balanced several centuries later, perhaps, by a (rather questionable) beatification as a Catholic martyr.

At 17 Fortescue’s father arranged for him to marry Anne Stonor, heiress of the Oxfordshire Stonor family, and he spent time at Henry VII’s court keeping company with princes Arthur and Henry. He was made a knight of the Bath in 1503.

From the time of that knighthood, that is from about age 22, he was regularly appointed as justice of the peace for Oxfordshire. Nonetheless, he was the subject of lawsuits himself, including some debt litigation that ended in his running to sanctuary. According to a Middlesex indictment, in February 1511, when Fortescue was in Westminster Hall attending sessions of King’s Bench and Common Pleas, the undersheriff for Middlesex approached him to put him under arrest in answer to a debt suit.


In answer Fortescue extracted a dragger from his sleeve, menaced the undersheriff, and then “with great power and violence” ran away with the help of other courtiers (Sir Robert Brandon and Sir John Audley) and gentlemen from Oxfordshire (presumably his retainers). This group of armed men conveyed Fortescue out of Westminster Hall and into the sanctuary precinct at Westminster Abbey, steps away.


Several days later he was in the custody of the Lieutenant of the Tower of London for having caused a “great tumult” in Westminster Hall – though there’s no indication in the records of how he came out of the sanctuary, voluntarily or by force. He eventually reached some kind of deal with the king, as he participated in Henry VIII’s French war in 1513. In 1514 Fortescue presented a royal pardon for causing the “tumult,” as part of a resolution of this long and complicated debt case.

Fortescue would spend the rest of his life falling in and out of royal favour, boosted for a while by his kinship with Anne Boleyn and then associated with treason through his son-in-law Silken Thomas Fitzgerald, earl of Kildare, who led an open rebellion in Ireland in mid-1530s.

He recovered from the Kildare fiasco but was tried and executed for treason in July 1539. The details of his treason weren’t specified; though he was promoted as a Catholic martyr (and beatified in 1895), Richard Rex is skeptical about his blessedness in ODNB.

In any case, Fortescue’s early life was anything but saintly. As was common for aristocrats in Henry VIII’s reign, he used violence and intimidation in his conflicts with others and to influence judicial decisions. As other posts indicate, other aristocrats, too, used sanctuary as a tool in these quarrels, often committing much more serious violence than Fortescue seems to have done in this particular episode, but also coming out more securely in royal favour.

TNA, KB 9/456, m 5; KB 27/1013, rex m 10; BL, Lansdowne 639, King’s Council in Star Chamber, fol. 39v, 40r; R. Rex, “Fortescue, Sir Adrian,” ODNB. Top image: Museum of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, source.

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