The Blessed Adrian Fortescue

Martyr of the Order of Malta

Memorial: 8 July

Adrian Fortescue was born around 1480, the son of Sir John Fortescue of Punsborne, Hertfordshire (England). He was made a Knight of the Bath in 1503 and was high in the favour of King Henry VIII, taking part in the Wars of England against France in 1513 and 1523. His personal piety is attested by his Book of Hours which survives with devotional maxims in his own hand. As a cousin of Anne Boleyn, he was present when she was crowned as Queen in 1533. Sir Adrian was twice married and had seven children. He became a confrater of the Dominicans of Oxford in 1533. In 1539 he was attainted of High Treason without trial, by an Act of Parliament which condemned fifty persons opposed to Henry VIII's ecclesiastical policies. Adrian Fortescue was beheaded on Tower Hill, London on Wednesday 9 July 1539, together with the Venerable Sir Thomas Dingley, a Knight of the Order. The Order of St. John of Jerusalem has considered Sir Adrian as a martyr and has promoted devotion to him at least since the early seventeenth century as a member of the Order. Leo XIII declared him Blessed on 13 May 1895. His Book of Hours was recently presented to the Grand Priory of England by his descendants.


O God, since all things are within your power, grant through the prayers of blessed Adrian, your martyr, that we who keep his feast today may become stronger in the love of your name and hold to your holy Church even at the cost of our lives. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(From: The Missal with readings of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes, & of Malta, London 1997)

We must now leap over several centuries and come close to our so-called "civilized" times. Of course eve shall find in them fewer striking wonders and more bibliographical details, but the essential thing is to be able still to admire in them the same authentic virtues.

In that dazzling Renaissance which followed the gentle light of the Middle Ages, in the midst of that intellectual and artistic exuberance, in the bosom of the opulent and luxurious courts of the kings of Europe, stand out holy and noble figures who preserve in the world the Christian affirmation of their lives. And so it was that the entourage of the complex and terrible Henry III of England was honoured by the presence of the Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a Knight of Honour and Devotion of the Priory at Clerkenwell.

Born probably in 1476, he w as a descendant of Richard the Strong, shield bearer of William the Conqueror, who gave to his family his surname - le Fort-Escu: "the Strong Shield" - and his devise: "Forte scutum salus ducum". Our holy man's ancestors were both soldiers and jurists. They participated in all the great struggles of the crusades, in the battles of Agincourt and Bosworth Field. His father, who had followed Richmond to Paris and had landed and fought with him, became the king's major-domo when Henry VII succeeded to the throne. The father of our Knight had married Alice Boleyn, whose niece Anne, was to become the second wife of Henry VIII.

When Henry VIII, then still Prince of Wales, was made a Knight in 1503, a few young gentlemen shared that honour with him; Adrian Fortescue was one of them. But he had never desired worldly distinctions. He therefore spent most of his time in the country, busy with his lands and with county affairs. Yet he always answered the call of the Prince. Adrian Fortescue followed Henry VIII to Calais, in June 1513, in the enterprise against Louis XII of France concerning the region of Milan. He was present at the meeting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in l520; he was charged with guarding Queen Catherine of Aragon. In 1522, he fought under the Earl of Surrey in Picardy. In 1523, he took part in the capture of Bray and of Montdidier, under the command of the Duke of Suffolk. These activities had not kept him from marrying Anne Stener (1499) and from becoming a widower (1518). It does seem that he had finished his military career when, though no longer young, he married Anne Rede (1530). At that time he was in high favour with the court. His first cousin, Anne Boleyn, lady-in-waiting of the Queen's, had been noticed by the King, who repudiated his wife and "married" his favourite in spite of the opposition of Clement VII, a former Knight of Rhodes: this pope had refused to annul the union of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. That same year Sir Adrian received a messenger from the Tower of London bearing him the news of the joyful birth of his cousin Elizabeth, the future queen of England and daughter of Anne Boleyn. Any ambition seemed permissible for him. It was then that, faithful to the decisions of Rome, he proved his faith in a striking fashion by entering the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem which opposed the religious errors of the king of England, That was in 1532.

Adrian Fortescue thus drew the lightning. All the property that the Order had in England had just been seized. Without considering the military services rendered by the pacification and policing of the Mediterranean Sea, Henry VlII destroyed as much as he could of a maritime power which dared to condemn his fancies. As a consequence, the members of the Order were not welcome at court. Although he had no office, Adrian was asked to take the Oath of Succession. Had this demand been dictated by some attitude of the Knight's who may have approved of John Fisher and Thomas Moore, who had been imprisoned for having refused to take that oath? Whatever may be the case, Sir Adrian was taken to Woodstock where he was questioned. Then he was removed by boat as far as Southwark here he was lodged in the prison of Marshalsea.

The King gave the castle of Stener, a part of the inheritance of Lady Anne Stener, to her brother, Sir Walter Stener. Sir Adrian's imprisonment grew long. No doubt Thomas Cromwell wished to take time to strengthen his power; he was keeping in check a possible leader of the opposition and of the resistance. We have seen these tactics used in more modern times. Then, for no apparent reason, our Knight was released.

The execution of the martyrs of the English Reformation began on May 4, 1535. Carthusians and priests poured out their blood. And the blood-letting continued. Sir Adrian, however, was still free.

In the following year, three events concern Sir Adrian closely: on January 7, his good lady, the repudiated queen, Catherine of Aragon, died; on May 19, his cousin, Queen Anne, was decapitated for adultery and treason; and on the same day, the King married his new flame, Jane Seymour. Yet, all these events changed nothing in the life of our Knight, who awaited his fate.

Finally, on February 14, 1539, he was again arrested and locked up in the Tower of London. There his fate was clear. On the 18th, an inventory was drawn up of all his real and personal possessions, in London and in the country, and they were declared seized by the Crown.

There was no trial, or at least no traces of it are to be found. To condemn with certainty those whom he wanted to eliminate, Cromwell had revived the Bill of Attainder of 1459 and applied it to the Catholics, "enemies of the throne"; their property was confiscated to "pay for the insult". On the same day and under the accusation of having incited the people against the King, we find with our holy man the Countess of Salisbury, first cousin of the mother of  Henry VIII and mother of Reginald Cardinal Pole, the Marchioness of Exeter, Sir Thomas Dingly, a Knight of Malta, and 12 other persons, priests and laymen.

And on July 8 (or 9, or 10), 1539, Sir Adrian Fortescue and Sir Thomas Dingly were beheaded, by special favour, for having preferred "to obey God". The place of their burial is not known.

The Order of Saint John had been completely wiped out in England. But a century later, a collateral member of the family of the Martyr, Sir Nicholas Fortescue, entered the Order to make the Langue of England live again. In his postulation he mentions his relative "who is counted", said he, "among the saints who are revered in the oratory of the great church of Saint John". The portrait of the Blessed Adrian Fortescue is in the church of the English College of Saint Paul, at Rabat, Malta, and in the church of the English College of Saint George, in Madrid, where he is shown with a halo.

The title of Blessed has been given to him since before 1621. It was confirmed by a decree of Leo XIII, on May 13, 1895. His feast is celebrated on July 9.

Sir Adrian's Book of Hours, on the flyleaf of which he had written pious maxims, has been preserved as a relic. It may be venerated at Bosworth Hall, Husband's Bosworth, Leicestershire, in the chapel of the Fortescue-Turvilles, his relatives.

The case of conscience that the Blessed Adrian Fortescue had to solve may still be posed, under modernized forms. The example of the martyr is therefore extremely useful to meditate on, if we wish to remain, under all circumstances worthy of our vocations as Knights of Christ, faithful witnesses of truth, whatever may be the cost and even unto death if need be. Unable to accept compromise with error, still less to draw any advantage from it, we shall always be able to defend the rights of God, to avoid scandalizing the weak, to carry along the undecided, and cause the judases and traitors to blush. Thus the saints continue to live in those who make a reality here below of their virtues and sacrifices.

And we shall say nothing of all those Knights who, in the course of the ages, have given their blood and have suffered torture at the hands of the Mohammedans, like the Knight of Téméricourt, rather than deny their faith. They are legion. God knows them; we shall follow in their footsteps.

(From: Ducaud-Bourget, Msgr. François: The Spiritual Heritage of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Vatican 1958)

Recommended literature: Elvins, Mark: Bl. Adrian Fortescue. Englishman, Knight of Malta, Martyr. London 1993 (ISBN 0 85183 875 8)

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Blessed Gérard Sovereign Military Order of Malta Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard

Blessed Adrian, painting by Mattia Preti at St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta

Blessed Adrian, detail of the icon "Our Lady of Phileremos" at the Malteser Commandery, Ehreshoven, Germany

Blessed Adrian: oil on canvas at the Collegio, Rabat, Malta (left)
from Prokopowski (right)

left: Blessed Adrian Fortescue, by Edward Caruna Dingli, Oil on canvas, 88 x 60 cm, Collection: Museum of the Order of St John
middle and right: copies