Sir John Fortescue


Sir John W Fortescue

  LL.D. (Edinburgh), D.Litt. (Oxford), 
Hon. Fellow Trinity College (Cambridge),
K.C.V.O. (1926), C.V.O. (1917), M.V.O. (1907),
 Editor of the Correspondence of King George III.

FORTESCUE, SIR JOHN WILLIAM (1859-1933), military historian, was born in Madeira 28th December 1859, the fifth son of Hugh Fortescue, third Earl Fortescue, by his wife, Georgiana Augusta Charlotte Caroline, eldest daughter of Colonel George Lionel Dawson-Damer, third son of John Dawson-Damer, first Earl of Portarlington. He was descended from Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue [q.v.] Brought up in country surroundings at Castle Hill, near Barnstaple, he developed a great love of country life and pursuits with a countryman's eye for ground, which stood him in good stead in explaining the battlefields which he described. He was educated at Harrow under H. M. Butler [q.v.], to whose love of English literature he owed much. Short sight curtailed his athletic activities, besides debarring him from a military career; he therefore entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1878, intending to read for the bar, but, finding the law uncongenial, in 1880 he became private secretary to Sir William Robinson, governor of the Windward Islands; two years in the West Indies aroused his interest in their history and connection with the army.

After completing his degree at Cambridge Fortescue spent four years in New Zealand (1886-1890) as private secretary to the governor, Sir Williaim Jervois [q.v.], during which he began writing and had several articles accepted by Macmillan's Magazine. This led to his contributing a volume on Dundonald to Macmillan's 'English Men of Action' series (1896), which was preceded in 1895 by a history of his elder brother Lionel's regiment, the 17th Lancers. Messrs. Macmillan then commissioned him to write a popular one volume history of the British army. Finding it impossible to do justice to his subject in so brief a compass he obtained the publishers' assent to a more ambitious venture in four volumes. The first two (1899), which reached 1713 and 1763, were at once recognized as a really authori­tative contribution to the subject, but when a third (1903) and a fourth (1906) only reached 1792 and 1802 it became evident that the work must extend far beyond the limits contemplated. Finally thirteen volumes appeared, the last (continuing to 1870) in 1930. Few historians have ventured on so large a project, still less accomplished it single handed. 

Nornan Gate, Windsor Castle

Norman Gate, Windsor Castle

Norman Gate, Windsor Castle

Click on the pictures to visit the Windsor Castle Page 

A work on such a scale, copiously provided with elaborate maps, could not be remunerative and Fortescue would not have been able to complete it had not King Edward VII in 1905 appointed him librarian at Windsor Castle. This post, which he held until 1926, although it involved the rearrangement and care not only of the books but of the pictures and other collections, enabled him to carry on his history, which owed much to the encouragement of the King and his successor. As King's librarian he accompanied the King and Queen to India in 1911 for the coronation durbar, of which he wrote the official account (1912). 


The Hon. Sir John W Fortescue c1930

(With thanks to Margaret Smith)

The date of this photograph is not certain but is possibly the early 1930's. It was used in the front of his last book 'The Last Post'. Winifred managed to get this published in 1934 with the help of Philip Guedalla*, following Sir John's death in 1933

(*See 'The Last Post ' Page)


Sir John's Brook Street Apartment, London

John's London apartment at 59a Brook St, London,
directly opposite Claridges Hotel


Castle Hill, Devon

Castle Hill, Devon

Sir John's Family Home - Castle Hill, Devon
(With thanks to Kathy Routledge)

To learn more about life at Castle Hill use the link below to visit the web site.

Click here to visit Castle Hill


Castle Hill, Devon

Castle Hill
South Molton, Devonshire
This charming chromolithograph was published in the UK in about 1876


Original signature, 1919 September 25, Yours faithfully, J W Fortescue - (Webmaster's Collection)

Fortescue Signature
Original signature '1919 September 25, Yours faithfully, J W Fortescue'

Sir John W Fortescue - date unknown

Sir John Fortescue
Date unknown - probably from a book front plate

Sir John Fortescue Cairn

Cairn above Simonsbath, Exmoor National Park

Cairn above Simonsbath, Exmoor National Park 

Contractors commissioned by the Exmoor National Park Authority have been repairing the cairn above Simonsbath for the last few weeks, (2001), in an effort to stop it collapsing. The core of the cairn had been washed out over the years and the stones were starting to become unstable and were being prised away by plant life. Once the contractors had stabilized the stones inside the cairn, the outside was re-pointed.

Sir John William Fortescue was born in 1859, the son of the third Earl Fortescue. His family owned the area around Simonsbath for much of the 20th century and he often stayed at Simonsbath Lodge (now Simonsbath House Hotel). He was librarian at Windsor Castle 1905-26 and was best known for his 16 volume 'History of the British Army'. He was a keen walker and naturalist and also wrote local books, including 'The Story of a Red Deer'. He died in 1933 and his ashes were scattered at Five Barrows - the cairn was built by his family at the suggestion of his widow.

National Park Authority historic buildings officer said: "There was local feeling that this well known landmark should not be lost and we were pleased to be able to help."

Information supplied by Exmoor National Park in 2001

He was appointed C.V.0. in 1917 and K.C.V.0. in 1926. He was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1920, received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and was awarded the Chesney gold medal of the Royal United Service Institution. He delivered the Ford lectures (1911), published the same year as British Statesmen of the Great War, 1793-1814, and the Romanes lecture (1929) at Oxford, and the Lees-Knowles lectures at Cambridge (1914).

Fortescue published many works besides the History of the British Army. He edited six volumes of the Correspondence of King George the Third (1927-1928) and seven volumes (the first with W. N. Sainsbury, q.v.) of the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, covering the years 1677 to 1698 (1896-1905). His County Lieutenancies and the Army, 1803-1814 (1909), a short life of Wellington (1925), perhaps the least unsatisfactory of the biographies of the Duke, and many other volumes were offshoots of his main work. The Story of a Red Deer (1897), written for a nephew of   9 years old, shows him in a very different light and is probably his most widely read work.

In 1916 Fortescue undertook a history of the war which was then in progress; based on official sources, it was to be of an interim character, mainly for the general public. He entered upon the work reluctantly, finding it hard to switch from the Peninsula period to the very different conditions, ideas, and methods of 1914, with which he was less familiar, and he was not sorry to be relieved of the task.

Fortescue was an excellent lecturer with a good presence and delivery. He was among the few Ford lecturers at Oxford to attract and retain a large undergraduate audience. He wrote vigorously, lucidly, and graphically. He visited every battlefield which he could reach, and could grasp and explain their important features. He was indefatigable in research and no future writer on British military history will be able to neglect 'Fortescue'. He provided a basis on which others have built and illuminated many obscure corners. He held very definite views and never hesitated to express them, sometimes rather more forcibly than the evidence warranted. He had his share of foibles and preferences and it is easy to find fault with details, but his work remains one of solid and permanent value, one of the really big achievements of his generation.

Fortescue married in 1914 Winifred, elder surviving daughter of Howard Beech, Rector of Barlavington, Sussex. Herself something of a writer, her Perfume from Provence (1935) contains some very attractive sketches of Provencal life, written with real insight and humour. 

He died without issue at Sunny Bank Anglo/American Hospital, Cannes, 22nd October 1933.

(The Times, 23rd October 1933; Sir John Fortescue, Author and Curator, 1933; personal knowledge.) 
C. T. Atkinson

28th December 1859, Madeira. 

Harrow & Trinity College Cambridge,
LL.D. (Edinburgh), D.Litt. (Oxford), Hon. Fellow Trinity College (Cambridge).

30th April 1914 in Holy Trinity, Sloane St, Kensington. Winifred Beech, daughter of Howard Beech, Rector of Barlavington, Sussex.

22nd October 1933, Sunny Bank Hospital, Cannes, France. Click here to see death certificate.

Main Publications
1895    History of the 17th Lancers
1896    Dundonald
1897    The Story of a Red Deer
1899    The Drummers Coat
1899    History of the British Army (Commenced writing)
1909    The County Lieutenancies and the Army
1916    The Three Pearls
1924    My Native Devon
1925    Wellington
1928    Six British Soldiers
1928    The Empire and the Army
1928    Historical and Military  Essays
1928    A Short Account of Canteens in the British Army
1930    The Royal Army Service Corps
1931    Following the Drum
1932    Marlborough
1933    Author and Curator
1934    The Last Post
           Editor of the Correspondence of King George III

The House of Fortescue is said to date from the Battle of Hastings (1066), 
where Richard le Fort saved the life of William the Conqueror by the shelter of his shield, thereafter to be known as Fort-Escu ("strong shield"). His descendants have taken for their motto, Forte scutem salus ducum - "A strong shield is the safety of leaders."

Links to more pages, pictures & documents

[Author & Curator]
[Story of a Red Deer]
[The Last Post]
[John's Marriage Certificate]
[John's Death Certificate]

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Photographs - Blackwoods - P. Riley - Margaret Smith - Kathy Routledge - Exmoor National Park