Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fortescue, William

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FORTESCUE, WILLIAM (1687–1749), master of the rolls and friend of Pope and Gay, the only son of Henry Fortescue of Buckland Filleigh in Devonshire (1659–1691), who married Agnes, daughter of Nicholas Dennis of Barnstaple, was born at Buckland, and was baptised there on 26 June 1687. His mother, after his father's death, married Dr. Gilbert Budgell, who, by his first wife, was father of the ill-fated Eustace Budgell [q. v.], and by this connection Fortescue became acquainted with a third well-known man of letters. He did not proceed to the university, but dwelt as a country squire on the estate which he had inherited when but four years old. His fortune was enhanced by his marriage at East Allington, Devonshire, on 7 July 1709, to his distant kinswoman, Mary, eldest daughter and coheiress of Edward Fortescue of Crust and Fallapit. Much to his grief she died at the age of twenty-one on 1 Aug. 1710, and was buried at East Allington on 4 Aug., leaving him with an only child, Mary, who was born at Buckland Filleigh on 16 July in that year. Fortescue thereupon determined upon adopting a more active life, and chose the law as his profession. His name was entered at the Middle Temple in September 1710, but he removed to the Inner Temple in November 1714, and was called by it in July 1715. Gay had ‘contracted an intimate friendship’ with him when they were schoolboys together at Barnstaple grammar school, which lasted during their lives, and the two families were nearly related by marriage. It was no doubt through Gay's agency that Fortescue was admitted soon after his settlement in London to the acquaintance of Pope. When Sir Robert Walpole was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in 1715 he selected Fortescue as his private secretary. Horace Walpole, in his ‘Letters’ (Cunningham's ed. i. 246), mentions his presence at ‘a family dinner’ at the official residence of the master of the rolls many years later, and explains the term by a note that Fortescue was ‘a relation of Margaret Lady Walpole.’ The connection was remote, and, as Lady Walpole was not married until 1724, the choice of the private secretary must have been due to other causes, and may be assigned to his influence in the west of England, where pocket boroughs abounded. At the general election in 1727 he was returned for the borough of Newport in the Isle of Wight, a constituency which he continued to represent until 1736, and rendered, unlike most of Pope's friends, a warm support to the ministry of Walpole. At the bar Fortescue's progress was steady, as befitted a sound, but not a brilliant lawyer. In 1730 he was appointed king's counsel and attorney-general to the Prince of Wales; on 9 Feb. 1736 he was raised to the judicial bench as a baron of the exchequer, and on 7 July 1738 he was transferred to the court of common pleas. His final advancement was to the mastership of the rolls (5 Nov. 1741), when he was called to the privy council (19 Nov.), and he sat in that court until his death. He died on Saturday morning, 16 Dec. 1749, about one o'clock, and was buried in the Rolls Chapel, ‘on one side of and close to the communion-table on the north side,’ on 26 Dec., in a grave ‘sufficient only to hold his coffin, a very wide one,’ and on the adjoining wall is an inscription to his memory. His sister, Grace Fortescue, ‘an exceeding good woman,’ died in 1743, and the master of the rolls was ‘very much afflicted at her loss.’ His only daughter married about 1733 John Spooner of Beachworth, and died on 24 July 1752, having had issue one daughter, Mary, who died an infant.

Jervas wrote of Fortescue as ‘ridens Fortescuvius,’ and a letter from him to Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk, in the ‘Suffolk Letters,’ i. 202–4, bears witness to his position among her friends. Gay, in the second book of the ‘Trivia,’ appeals to him as ‘sincere, experienced friend,’ with whom he desires to stray ‘the long Strand together,’ for ‘with thee conversing I forget the way.’ It is, however, as a friend of Pope that Fortescue lives in memory. He was consulted by the poet on all pecuniary matters, and on all the business in which Martha Blount [q. v.] was concerned, and, as Pope acknowledges, ‘without a fee.’ The first of Pope's satires (‘The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated’) is addressed to Fortescue; it was originally published in 1733 in folio, under the title of ‘Dialogue between Alexander Pope of Twickenham in com. Midd. on the one part, and the learned counsel on the other.’ He was the legal adviser of the Scriblerus Club, and when Pope joined with Swift in publishing three volumes of ‘Miscellanies’ (1727), which contained the humorous report of ‘Stradling versus Stiles,’ on the question whether ‘Sir John Swale of Swale Hall in Swaledale, fast by the river Swale, knight,’ in bequeathing all his black and white horses, when he possessed six black, six white, and six pied, meant to include the pied horses in the bequest, the legal terms were supplied by Fortescue. The letters which Pope addressed to him were originally published as regards one part in Polwhele's ‘Devonshire,’ i. 320–5, and as regards the other part in Rebecca Warner's ‘Collection of Original Letters’ (1817). Both sets were afterwards incorporated in Roscoe's edition of Pope, ix. 359, &c., and in Elwin and Courthope's edition (Letters, iv.), ix. 96–146. They are the simple and unaffected effusions of the poet's friendship. In most editions of Pope's works appears a letter purporting to be sent by Gay to Fortescue (9 Aug. 1718) on the death of the two lovers by lightning at Stanton Harcourt, but it was in reality written to Miss Blount by Pope. Through the latter's advice the woods at Buckland were much improved by their owner. A letter from Fortescue to Lord Macclesfield belonged to Lord Ashburnham (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. pt. iii. 12). His portrait was painted by Hudson, and engraved by Faber in 1741.

[Lord Clermont's Fortescue Family, pedigree at p. 148 and pp. 152–67; Gent. Mag. 1749, p. 572; Roscoe's Pope, vi. 95, vii. 215–21; Foss's Judges; Gay's Chair, 1820, p. 16; Edinb. Rev. 1877, cxlv. 317–19; Johnson's Poets (Cunningham), iii. 51; Nichols's Illust. of Lit. iv. 394; Carruthers's Pope, 1858, ii. 339–41; Worthy's Devon Parishes, i. 252–3; J. Chaloner Smith's Portraits, i. 351.]

W. P. C.