Fortescue Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fortescue Surname Meaning

The Fortescue surname derived from a martial nickname for a doughty, valiant warrior, coming from the Old French fort, meaning “strong” or “brave” and escu, meaning “shield,” from the Latin scutum

The English family named Fortescue is traditionally thought to have been descended from a strong Norman warrior who carried a massively heavy shield in the service of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings.

Fortescue Surname Resources on The Internet

Fortescue Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Devon and Leicestershire)
  • to Ireland, Canada, and America

England.  The Fortescue family was first found in Devon, Radulfus Fortescu being recorded there in the Domesday Book of 1086, before branching out elsewhere in England and then to Ireland and America.

Devon. The earliest surviving record of the Fortescue family relates to its 12th century holding of the manor of Wimpstone in the parish of Modbury. Other historic seats of branches of the Fortescue family have been at Weare Giffard, Buckland Filleigh, and Spriddlestone in the parish of Brixton and Fallapit in the parish of East Allington.

These Fortescues rose to national prominence when Sir John Fortescue became Lord Chief Justice and Chancellor to Henry VI in 1442. He managed to survive Henry VI’s deposal by the Yorkists but did not live to see the victory of the Lancastrians in 1485. His son Martin married the heiress Elizabeth Denzell, thereby bringing the Filleigh estates and Buckland House into their possession. Buckland House remained a family seat until it burned down in 1790.

By the 18th century these Fortescues had become Earls. They built a new home for themselves at Castle Hill in the 1730’s and they have been living there for a subsequent fifteen generations. The last of the line was Lady Margaret Fortescue who was known for her prowess in hunting.

“A tiny birdlike figure who invariably rode side-saddle, she was known as a ‘thruster,’ a member of the field who rides closest to the hounds.”

She inherited the estates in 1958 and held them until her death in 2013.

A history of the family entitled A History of the Family of Fortescue was written by Thomas Fortescue, who became Lord Clarmont, in 1869.

Leicestershire. One line of Fortescues was based at Bosworth Hall in Leicestershire, which had been bought by Lady Grace Fortescue at the time of Henry VIII. She was a Catholic recusant who refused to join the new Church of England faith. The Fortescues at Bosworth Hall have remained Catholic to this day.

Sir Adrian Fortescue, a courtier at the court of Henry VIII, also refused to join and was executed for his beliefs in 1539. He was later beatified as a Roman Catholic martyr. But this mishap apparently did his family little harm. His son Sir John Fortescue rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in the latter part of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Later descendants have included the Rev. Edward Fortescue, a well-known High Church Anglican in Victorian times, and his son Adrian a noted Catholic priest.

Ireland.  Faithful Fortescue from Buckland Filleigh in Devon came to Ireland in the early 1600’s with his uncle Sir Arthur Chichester on the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland. His position gave him access to much land that the Government was handing out.

From this adventurer who died in 1666 came the Fortescue landowners and governors in county Louth during the 18th century. The Fortescue presence at Stephenstown began in 1740 and continued until 1914.

America.  Simon Fortescue was in the early 1620’s the first Fortescue to step ashore in America, but he died at sea on his way back to England. However, he did leave a wife and at least one child on the eastern shore of Virginia. The name there became Foscue. Simon Foscue acquired the family’s first plantation in Northampton county in 1691.  

“Simon Foscue purchased the plantation or “divident of land” called Nevilles Neck with a partner for 32, 400 pounds of tobacco. There is a story that, about 200 years ago, it was lost in a card game played in front of a mirror in which Foscue’s cards were seen.”  

The later Foscue plantation was located outside of New Bern in North Carolina. The antebellum house there, built in 1824 by another Simon Foscue, has been in the family for eight generations.

The Fortescue name did appear in America, although initially it was a fictitious name devised by Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle to cover an illicit affair.

Fortescue Surname Miscellany

The Fortescue Legend.  The Fortescues originally were a Viking family who first plundered and then colonized the French territory near the mouth of the River Seine that is now known as Normandy. During their years in France these people became Christians and adopted French customs.  In 1066 Norman warriors under William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England at the Battle of Hastings.

One of the knights who performed heroics on that day was one Sir Richard Le Fort.  During the battle it is alleged that he held his own shield on front of the duke, ensuring his safety, and disregarded the danger he himself was in.  In recognition of his bravery the duke gave him the title- Fort Escue — which means strong shield.  He then adopted the name Fort Escu (strong shield) and returned to France to found the French Fortescu branch.

His son Adam, who also fought at the Battle of Hastings, settled in South Devon near Modbury.  All English Fortescues are descended from him.

Faithful Fortescue the Adventurer.  Faithful Fortescue, the youngest son of Sir John Fortescue of Buckland-Filleigh in Devon, came to Ireland with his uncle Sir Arthur Chichester on the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.  In 1606 he was constable of Carrickfergus Castle, the chief garrison then for the English in Ulster.  He managed to avail himself of a lot of property that the Government was handing out at that time.

His restless nature did not restrict him to Ireland.  He served against Spain and Austria in the Low Countries in 1629 before returning to become governor of Drogheda.

At the outbreak of the Civil War he crossed the Irish Channel to fight on the side of the King.  At Edgehill he found himself fighting on the side of Parliamentarians.  When he realized his mistake he showed great courage and bravery by turning his troops and charging across the field to fight for his King. Sir Faithful also fought at the Battle of Worcester and afterwards fled to the Continent where he remained a close friend of the King until his Restoration in 1660.

All his lands had been seized during the inter-regnum. In 1660, as an eighty year old man, he had little to return to.  Charles II, however, had great regard for him and reinstated him with all his former wealth, position and lands.  Fleeing from the London plague in 1665, Sir Faithful died on the Isle of Wight in 1666 and was buried there.

The Fortescues of Stephenstown.  The Fortescue presence in Stephenstown in county Louth began in 1740 when Mathew Fortescue leased land there and his son built the family home there.  They were to remain as the local country gentry until 1914 when the last Mathew of the family died.

It was said that the Fortescues were generally recognized as “good landlords” by their tenants, workers and neighbors.  Their kindness during the famine years lingered on in the folk memory as this area escaped the worst ravages of the time.

However, not all went well, particularly after Colonel Fortescue after he married and came to live in Stephenstown in 1858.  At first, he was welcomed by the tenants.  But it was not long before he created umbrage when he refused to give a site for the new church and school-house that had been requested by Father Kearney, the parish priest at Knockbridge.

He wrote:

“Dear Sir,  After a careful consideration of your request for ground on which to build a chapel and school, I have come to the consideration that I cannot conscientiously grant it, for though I do not wish to meddle or interfere with the religious creeds of others, yet I do not feel that I ought to promote the interests of a religion which I believe in error; and this, I conceive I should be doing in making a gift of land for the of a chapel on my property.

I am sorry to refuse you, and also sorry not to be able to oblige my tenants; is a matter of principle; and feeling as I do, I cannot act otherwise.  I have the honor to be, your obedient servant, Charles W. Fortescue.”

His refusal sparked the wrath of the local newspaper, the Dundalk Democrat, which thundered:  “Mr. Fortescue has betrayed the people and clergy.  He despises the priests, the people and the bailiffs who elected him.”  However, the relations did improve in subsequent years.

The Fictitious Captain Fortescue.  Robert B. Roosevelt, a US Congressman, was uncle to Teddy Roosevelt, the future President.  He maintained two households in Manhattan, both on Twentieth Street, one with his wife Elizabeth and three children and the other along the street with his mistress Minnie O’Shea, an Irish maid. By her he also fathered three children. For this family, he listed himself in the New York City directory as a lawyer under the fictitious name of Robert E. Fortescue.

The 1880 US Federal Census, when they had moved to a more discreet location in Queens, perpetuated this Fortescue illusion.  The inhabitants were described as follows:

  • Marion T. Fortescue (this was Minnie), aged 29, female, keeping house
  • Kenyon Fortescue, son aged 9, at school
  • Maude Fortescue, daughter aged 8, at school
  • Roland (Rolly) Fortescue, son aged 4.
  • plus two servants.

His wife Elizabeth died in 1888 and he did marry his mistress Minnie.  Her story was duly embellished for the public.   She was the daughter of Thomas O’Shea, the editor of The Dublin Freeman’s Journal, and had been employed to edit The Citizen in New York.  She had been married to a Captain Fortescue.  Roosevelt always referred to his children by her as his step-children.

The Fortescue children did well, none more so than Rolly. He was a Rough Rider with his cousin Teddy in Cuba, a presidential aide in Teddy’s first administration, and later a war correspondent.  He was for a short time upstaged by his wife Grace.  In 1932 she took the law into her own hands and killed a defendant charged with the rape of her daughter, an act which, thanks to her lawyer Clarence Darrow, earned her an extraordinary lenient one-hour sentence for manslaughter.

Fortescue in Australia.  Fortescue is a name in Australia, but not of a family.  It is the name of a small mining company that was created by its Chairman Andrew Forrest in 2003.

Since that modest beginning the Fortescue Metals Group has expanded at an extraordinarily rapid pace to become the world’s fourth largest producer of iron ore.  The company has holdings of more than 87,000 square kilometers in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, making it the largest tenement holder in the state – larger than both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.  But the company’s rise has been a bumpy ride for investors, with the company stock price soaring and crashing again and again.

Fortescue Names

  • Sir John Fortescue became Lord Chief Justice and Chancellor to Henry VI in 1442. 
  • Sir Adrian Fortescue was a Catholic martyr who was executed for his beliefs in 1539.

Fortescue Numbers Today

  • 500 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 200 elsewhere (most numerous in America)





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Written by Colin Shelley

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