William Fortescue (judge)

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Sir William Fortescue

Master of the Rolls
In office
5 November 1741 – 15 December 1749
Preceded bySir John Verney
Succeeded bySir John Strange
Attorney General for the Duchy of Cornwall
In office
Preceded byWilliam Lee
Succeeded byRobert Pauncefort
Personal details
DiedDecember 15, 1749(1749-12-15) (aged 61–62)
Alma materTrinity College, Oxford
ProfessionBarrister, judge, politician

Sir William Fortescue PC KC (1687 – 15 December 1749) of Buckland Filleigh,[1] Devon, was a British judge and Master of the Rolls 1741–1749.


Fortescue was the only son and heir of Henry Fortescue (1659–1691) of Buckland Filleigh by his wife Agnes Dennis, daughter of Edward Dennis of Barnstaple, North Devon.[2] The manor of Buckland Filleigh had been acquired by his 6-times great-grandfather William Fortescue (d.1548),[3] the 2nd son of Martin Fortescue (d.1472), who had married the heiress of Filleigh (later the seat of his descendant Earl Fortescue) and Weare Giffard. Martin was the son and heir of Sir John Fortescue (c. 1394 – c. 1480) of Ebrington in Gloucestershire, Chief Justice of the King's Bench of England and the author of De Laudibus Legum Angliæ[4] and was the nephew of the latter's elder brother Sir Henry Fortescue (fl. 1426), Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland.[5]


Fortescue was educated at Barnstaple Grammar School in North Devon, where he met the poet John Gay (1685–1732), who become a lifelong friend. He matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford in 1705.

Judicial career[edit]

The early death of Fortescue's wife prompted him to become a barrister,[6] and he was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1714, and transferred to the Inner Temple later in the same year before his call to the Bar in July 1715.[4]

Fortescue was a "sound and businesslike" barrister,[6] and a "good lawyer",[4] and built up a strong practice. He first became involved in politics in 1724 when Robert Walpole, Chancellor of the Exchequer, employed him as his secretary. In 1727 he was returned as a Member of Parliament for Newport, on the Isle of Wight, and despite his duties in Parliament and as secretary to Walpole he continued his practice as a barrister.[6] In 1730 he became a King's Counsel, and in the same year was made Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall. On 9 February 1736 he was appointed a Baron of the Exchequer, having resigned as an MP and as Attorney General.[6] He was transferred to the Court of Common Pleas on 7 July 1738, replacing John Comyns,[7] and on 5 November 1741 he succeeded Sir John Verney as Master of the Rolls and became a Privy Councillor on 19 November.[6] He remained Master of the Rolls until his death on 15 December 1749.

Literary career[edit]

As well as his work as a barrister and judge, Fortescue was also involved in the London literary scene, having been introduced by his school friend John Gay to Alexander Pope, and he became a founding member of the Scriblerus Club.[4] He was a co-author with Pope of "Stradling versus Stiles", and Pope dedicated his Imitation of the First Satire of Horace to him.[8]

Marriage & progeny[edit]

On 7 July 1709 he married his cousin, Mary Fortescue (d.1710), daughter of Edmund Fortescue (1660–1734) of East Allington, from a junior branch of the Fortescues of Fallapit in the parish of East Allington,[9] Devon, descended from Sir Henry Fortescue (fl. 1426), Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland, who had married the heiress of Fallapit.[5] Mary died an early death on 1 August 1710 and her monument exists in St Andrew's Church, East Allington.[10] She bore him a daughter and sole heiress:[6]

  • Mary Fortescue (1710–1752), who inherited the estate of Fallapit from her mother.[10] She married John Spooner and produced an only daughter Mary Fortescue (d.1747) who died an infant.[10]


Fortescue died on 16 December 1749 aged 63 and was buried in the Rolls Chapel in London, where exists his monument.[10]



  1. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus & Cherry, Bridget, The Buildings of England: Devon, London, 2004, p.230
  2. ^ Vivian, Lt.Col. J.L., (Ed.) The Visitations of the County of Devon: Comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564 & 1620, Exeter, 1895, p.360
  3. ^ Vivian, pp.353–360, pedigree of Fortescue of Buckland Filleigh
  4. ^ a b c d Foss (1870) p.278
  5. ^ a b Vivian, p.353
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Oxford DNB article: Fortescue, William". Oxford University Press. 2004. Retrieved 7 June 2009.
  7. ^ Foss (1865) p.77
  8. ^ "Fleet Street: Northern tributaries – Shoe Lane and Bell Yard". British History Online. Retrieved 8 June 2009.
  9. ^ Vivian, p.360; p.366, Fortescue of Fallapit
  10. ^ a b c d Vivian, p.360
  11. ^ P. W. Montague-Smith, ed. (1968), Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage 1968: With Her Majesty's Royal Warrant Holders: Comprises Information Concerning the Peerage, Privy Councillors, Baronets, Knights, and Companions of Orders, Surrey: Kelly's Directories, p. 461, OCLC 8972816.


  • Foss, Edward (1865). Tabulae Curiales: Tables of the Superior Courts of Westminster Hall.
  • Foss, Edward (1870). A Biographical Dictionary of the Justices of England (1066–1870). Spottiswoode and Company.
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Sir William Willys
George Huxley
Member of Parliament for Newport (Isle of Wight)
With: George Huxley
Succeeded by
Viscount Boyle
George Huxley
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Comyns
Baron of the Exchequer
9 February 1736 – 7 July 1738
Succeeded by
Thomas Parker
Preceded by
John Comyns
Justice of the Common Pleas
7 July 1738 – 5 November 1741
Succeeded by
Thomas Burnet
Preceded by
Sir John Verney
Master of the Rolls
5 November 1741 – 15 December 1749
Succeeded by
Sir John Strange