Outlaws and Highwaymen

Passage from The Governance of England, by Sir John Fortescue
translated by Gillian Spraggs from The Governance of England, by Sir John Fortescue, ed. Charles Plummer (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1885), pp. 141–2

between 1471 and 1476

Original text

It is only lack of heart and cowardice that keep the Frenchmen from rising.

Poverty is not the cause that the common people of France do not rise against their sovereign lord. ... but it is cowardice and lack of heart and courage, which no Frenchman possesses like an Englishman. It has often been seen in England that three or four thieves, on account of poverty, have set upon six or seven honest men and robbed them all. But it has not been seen in France that six or seven thieves have been bold enough to rob three or four honest men. As a result, it is very seldom that Frenchmen are hanged for robbery, for they have no hearts to do so terrible an act. There are, therefore, more men hanged in England in a year for robbery and manslaughter than are hanged in France for such sorts of crime in seven yeres. There is no man hanged in Scotland for robbery in any seven consecutive years. And yet they are often hanged for larceny, and stealing property in the absence of the owner. But their hearts do not serve them to take a man’s property while he is present and means to defend it; which kind of taking is called robbery. But the English man is of another sort of courage. For if he is poor and see another man having riches that may be taken away from him by force, he will not spare to do so, unless that poor man is exceptionally honest.

Sir John Fortescue


The Governance of England is a treatise on the best way to govern the English nation. This passage occurs as part of Fortescue’s attack on the argument that the king’s interests would best be served by impoverishing his subjects. Fortescue maintains that this is false: impoverishing the common people with heavy taxation might work in France, but then, the French are cowards. Englishmen, being a more courageous breed altogether, would rise in rebellion against the king.

Translation, notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 20 September 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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