The Destabilizing Effect of "Overmighty Subjects"

as seen in

John Fortescue (c. 1394 - c. 1476), The Governance of England

edited by Charles Plummer (1885)

Internet editing copyright (c) 2009 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Original text by John Fortescue and editing by Charles Plummer have entered the public domain.
first posted 2009/0224
last updated 2009/0226

Source: (from Google Books -- digitized library books)

The Governance of England: Otherwise Called the Difference Between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy
By John Fortescue, Charles Plummer
Edition: 4
Published by Clarendon Press, 1885
Original from Harvard University (library)
Digitized Aug 17, 2005
387 pages

written 1471-1476

The Governance of England:


The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy



A Revised Text




Charles Plummer, M.A.

Fellow and Chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford




[All rights reserved]

Some notes on the 1470s text below, by HSC

Unlike Chaucerian English, it is not a foreign language (though possibly it has been cleaned up by Charles Plummer). Mostly it can be sounded out.

Spelling had not yet been standardized. In the following extract, some words appear multiple times with different spellings.

"I" and "y" are used interchangeably.

"U" and "v" are used interchangeably.

"J" had not yet emerged as a consonant distinct from "i."

"Ff" normally is doubled. This is still true in modern Welsh, where single "f" is pronounced like English "v."

In the text reproduced by Mr. Plummer, the Y-shaped rune "thorn" sometimes appears for "th," according to no obvious pattern. In this Internet text, it has been replaced by "th."

I append selected notes (mostly Mr. Plummer's) to the end of the extract.

[P. 127]



But sithyn the said extraordinarie charges bith so uncertayne that thai be not estymable, hit is not
possible to putt in certayne, what lyvelod will yerely suffice to beyre hem. Wherfore we nede in this case to vse coniecture and ymaginacion, as to thynk that ther is no lordis livelod in Englond sufficient to beyre the kynges extraordinare charges. Then nedith it that the kynges livelod, aboff such reuenues as shalbe asseigned for his ordinare charges, be gretter than the livelod off the grettest lorde in Englande. And perauenture, when livelod sufficient ffor the kynges ordinarie charges is lemitted and asseigned therto, hit shall apere, that diuerse lordis off Englande haue also moch livelode off thair owne, as than shall remayne in the kynges handes ffor his extraordinarie charges; wich were inconvenient, and wold be to the kynge right dredefull. For than such a lord mey dispende more than the kynge, consideringe that he is charged with no such charges extraordinarie or ordinarie as is the kyng, except an houshold, wich is but litle in comparison off the kynges house. Wherfore yff it be thus, it shalbe necessarie, that ther be purveyid ffor the kyng moch gretter livelod than he hath yet. For manis corage is so noble, that naturally he aspirith to high thinges, and to be exaltid, and therfore enforsith hym selff to be alway gretter and gretter. Ffor wych the philosopher saith, omnia amamus sed principari maius. Wherof it hath comyn that oftyn tymes, when a subget hath hade also gret livelod as his prince, he hath anon aspired to the estate of his prince, wich by such a man may sone be gote. Ffor the remanante off the subgettes off such a prince, seyng that yff so myghty a subget myght opteyne the estate off thair prince, thai shulde than be vnder a prince double so myghty as was thair old prince; -- wich encrease any subget
desirith, ffor his owne discharge off that he beyrith to the sustenance off his prince; -- and therfore wolbe right gladde to help such a subgett in his rebillion. And also such an enterprise is the more ffeseable, when such a rebell hath more riches than his souerayne lorde. Ffor the peple will go with hym that best mey susteyne and rewarde ham. This maner off doynge hath be so ofte practised nerehande in auery reaume, that thair cronicles be full off it. In the reaume off Ffraunce was neuer chaunge off thair kynge, sithyn it was ffirst inabyted by Ffrench men, but by the rebillion off such myghty subgettes; as Hyldericus kyng off Ffraunce, dissended off Clodone, wich was ffirst Cristen kyng off Ffraunce, was putt doune by Pepyne son to Carolus Marcellus, wich was the most myghty subget that into that tyme was euer sene in the reaume off Ffraunce. And aftirwarde Charles, discended off Carolus Magnus, sonne to the said Pepyne by ix. or by x. generacions, was put ffrom the kyngdome of Ffraunce by Hugh Capite, sonne to Hugo Magnus, Erle of Paris, wich tho was the myghtieste subgett off Ffraunce, and therfore create and callid Dux Ffranciae. And in owre dayis we haue sene a subgett off the French kynges in such myght, that he hath gyven bataill to the same kyng, and putt hym to flight, and aftirwad be segett hym beyng in Paris is grettest cete, and soo keppid thair, vnto the tyme his said kyng hade made such ende with hym, his adherentes, and fauctours, as he desired. We haue also sene late in owre reaume, somme off the kynges subgettes gyf hym bataill, by occasion that their livelod and offices were the grettest off the lande, and ellis thai wolde not haue done soo.

The Erlis of Lecestir and Glocestre, wich were the
grettest lordes off Englond, rose ayenest their kynge Herre the iijde, and toke hym and his sonne prisoners in the ffelde. Wich maner off demeynynge the kyng off Scottis that last dyed dredyng to be practysed in his lande, putt owt off the same lande the Erle Douglas whos livelod and myght was nere hande equivalent to his owne, moved therto be no other cause, saue only drede off his rebillion. The cronycles off euery reaume, and in especiall off Spayne and Denmarke, bith full off such ensamples; and so bith also the bokis off kynges in holy scripture; wherfor it nedith not to write mor herein. And also it mey not be eschewid, but that the grete lordis off the lande by reason off nev dissentes ffallyng unto ham, by reason also off mariages, purchasses, and other titles, shall often tymes growe to be gretter than thai be now, and perauentur somme off hem to be off livelod and poiar like a kyng; wich shalbe right god ffor the lande while thai aspire to non hygher estate. Ffor such was the Duke of Lancastre, that warred the kynge off Spayne, on off the myghtiest kynges off Cristendome, in his owne reaume. But this is writun only to the entent that it be well understande, how necessarie it is that the kynge haue grete possescions, and peculier livelod ffor his owne suirte; namely, whan any of his lordis shull happen to be so excessyuely grete, as ther mought therby groue perell to his estate, For certanly ther mey no grettir perell growe to a prince, than to haue a subgett equepolent to hym selff.


sithyn -- since
bith -- present plural of "to be": "are"
lyvelod/livelod -- (not given by Plummer; perhaps cognate to "livelihood")
hem -- them
ham -- them
reaume -- realm (cf. French "royaume")
fauctours -- favorers, supporters (Latin "fautor")
ellis -- else, otherwise
poiar -- power.
suirte -- security (cf. French "surete")


Hyldericus -- Childeric
Clodone/Clodoneus -- Clovis
Herre the iijde -- Harry the 3rd (Henry III)


He shewith ... --
A subgett of the Ffrench kynges--
The Erlis of Lecestir and Glocestre--
The kyng off Scottis that last dyed --
Nev dissentes... mariages, purchasses ...--

I (HSC) should also give credit to
Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses, Ballantine Books, New York, 1995; paper, 462 pp.; pp. 9, 10.
which alerted me to John Fortescue's connection with the term "overmighty subject."

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