Saint of the week

Blessed Adrian Fortescue, 9th July

Blessed Adrian Fortescue was a Catholic knight and cousin of Ann Boleyn who served in the household of King Henry VIII. He was beheaded for high treason, without standing trial, around 9 July 1539 because of his religious faith. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.

Blessed Adrian was Dominican tertiary and a Knight of St John of Jerusalem. He was a direct descendant of Richard le Fort, the Norman nobleman said to have saved the life of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by sheltering him with his “strong shield”. This act led to the creation of the name “Fort-Escu” and it gave the family the motto “Forte scutum salus ducum” meaning “a strong shield the safety of leaders”.

The martyr was born in 1476, second son of Sir John Fortescue, who had fought alongside the future King Henry VII – the father of Henry VIII – at the Battle of Bosworth Field of 1485, and of Alice Boleyn, a sister of Sir William Boleyn, the grandfather of the future Queen Elizabeth I.

Blessed Adrian was created a Knight of the Bath in 1503 and he participated in English military expeditions in France in 1513 and 1523. As a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber, he waited on Henry VIII during a banquet at Greenwich Palace in 1517 which was attended by the French Queen, the Imperial ambassador and others, and three years later he was chosen by Henry to personally accompany Queen Catherine to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in Calais, France.

Blessed Adrian fathered two daughters with his first wife, Ann, the daughter of Sir William Stonor. She died in 1518 and was buried with her ancestors, the Earls of Salisbury, in Bisham Abbey, Berkshire. Some 20 years later, Blessed Adrian was compelled to bury her again when he transferred her remains near to their family home in Henley, Oxfordshire, after the King had dissolved the monastery in 1538.

In the meantime, Blessed Adrian married for a second time, on this occasion to Ann, daughter of Sir William Rede, and they became parents to three sons and two daughters.

Blessed Adrian joined the Knights of St John in 1532, the year in which St Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor of England. He was first arrested in connection with his religious convictions in August 1534 and was held in the Marshalsea Prison in London until the following spring when he was released at about the same time Henry started executing the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation in England, including St Thomas More, St John Fisher and the Carthusian priors.

Blessed AdrianHe was arrested again on 14 February 1539 and sent to the Tower of London. His execution was this time inevitable because later that year, Parliament, under the menacing influence of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, passed a law authorising the arrest and execution of groups of people for high treason by attainder, a device which denied those accused a right to a trial or a defence of any kind.

Blessed Adrian was attainted with along with other prominent Catholics including Blessed Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, in an Act passed in June of that year. Without naming any specific offence, it declared to the Monarch that Sir Adrian Fortescue had “not only most traitorously refused his duty of allegiance, which he ought to bear to your Highness, but also hath committed divers and sundry detestable and abominable treasons, and put sedition in your realm”.

On either July 8, 9 or 10 (there are discrepancies among the records) Blessed Adrian, then aged 62, was beheaded on Tower Hill, London, along with Sir Thomas Dingley, a fellow Knight of St John who was also named in the Act of Attainder, while two of their servants suffered the agonising and horrifying deaths of being hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason at the Tyburn gallows on the western edge of the city.

Following the restoration of the Catholic faith under Queen Mary I, Lady Fortescue, the martyr’s widow, was held in very high favour by the royal household. According to the Lives of the English Martyrs Declared Blessed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and 1895, edited by Dom Bede Camm, she attended the Queen as she went into state on 30 September 1553 from the Tower to her palace at Westminster and is the first named of 10 ladies “who rode in crimson velvet, their horses trapped the same”. Blessed Adrian’s daughter, Margaret, Lady Wentworth, was also granted a place in the same procession.

Five years into her reign, Queen Mary gave a succession of manor houses in Gloucestershire to “Ann Fortescue, wide of Sir Adrian Fortescue”, and the family continued in the service of the royal household even after the accession of Elizabeth I.

The Knights of St John have always held Blessed Adrian to be a martyr, and a cult in honour to him has existed within the order since his death. There are three pictures of him in Malta depicting him as a a martyr for the faith. Two of them can be seen in the Church of St John in Valetta, in which he stands among the Beati holding the emblem of martyrdom, the palm.