Title Background

Sir Adrian Fortescue and his Copy of <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Sir Adrian Fortescue and his Copy of Piers Plowman

Sir Adrian Fortescue, Catholic martyr, was “a courtier all his life; knighted in 1503 . . . .; appointed Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber; with his archers accompanying the King to Calais in 1513; attending on Queen Catherine at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520; fighting in Picardy in 1522 and 1533.” Interestingly enough, he was also the scribe of Bodleian MS Digby 145 (paper), one of the last scribal copies of PPl to be made before Crowley’s printed edition. Fortescue copied PPl from two MSS, an A and C manuscript, often adding lines from C to A material so as to fashion an open moral point, and then returning to C exclusively once A ends in passus 11 (fol. 56v). He does, however, omit some of the more expansive additions in C, skipping over for instance the “two major extensions to the clauses of Truth’s pardon (viz. Langland’s defence of the deserving poor and lunatics and the duty of the rich to support them, and Langland’s attack on false hermits and on bishops for not controlling them; C.9.66-161 and 177-279).” Often Fortescue glosses murky ME terms, though generally he shows himself to be a good reader of ME (and of PPl). Fortescue was so intrigued with L’s passages on marriage (A.10.91-138) as to add some lines of his own at C.7.300-2. It can be assumed that Fortescue copied the poem himself, rather than hiring a scribe, because “it might have seemed to him unwise to make public such an interest in Piers Plowman.” His annotations, side-notes, and alterations to PPl disclose his interests, particularly his complicated, if not contradictory, loyalty to the crown. The years during which he made his copy, 1531-32, saw momentous events in the history of the Reformation-Henry’s moves to “crush the bishops” and “attack the jurisdiction of the Church.” Fortescue responds, revising material in C.Prol.141-44, so that Kind Wit and Knighthood “arrange for provisions for the King,” bypassing reference to the “communes,” so as to eliminate the suggestion (already qualified by L in his own revisions from B to C) of a “monarchy indebted to the support of the people.” Also, in the Belling of the Cat fable, Fortescue “glosses the cat as ‘#e gt ministrour,’ probably in memory of Wolsey,” whose lands were confiscated and handed over to Fortescue himself. Whereas Fortescue supplies an unclear response to C.17.220-32 (on disendowment) by writing simply, “nota bene,” he revises C.14.115 (on confession) to read, “contricion with [not ‘withoute,’] confession confortith the soule,” and adds more lines affirming “the need for confession in its three stages.” Fortescue was arrested in February, 1539, and executed in July, for reasons still largely unknown.


YLS 14 (2000): 29-48.


Turville-Petre, Thorlac