MORTON, JOHN (1420?–1500), archbishop of Canterbury and cardinal, was born in Dorset, at either Bere Regis or Milborne St. Andrew, about 1420. He was the eldest son of Richard Morton, who belonged to a Nottinghamshire family which had migrated to Dorset (Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 594). His family has been traced back to Edward III’s time. He was educated at Cerne Abbey, a house of Benedictines near his home, and, going to Oxford, joined Balliol College, and proceeded D.C.L. He had chosen the profession of law, which necessarily made him take orders, and he appears as commissary for the university in 1446 (Munimenta Academica, Rolls Ser., ii. 552). He removed to London, but kept up his connection with the university (ib. p. 584), practising chiefly as an ecclesiastical lawyer in the court of arches. Here he came under the notice of Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury, who became his patron. Morton was at once admitted to the privy council, and was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Cornwall and a master in chancery. From this time he had much preferment, and was a great pluralist. In 1450 he became subdean of Lincoln, in 1453 he held the principalship of Peckwater Inn at Oxford and the living of Bloxworth in Dorset. In 1458 he became prebendary of Salisbury and Lincoln, resigning his subdeanery at Lincoln.
In the struggle between Lancaster and York, Morton followed the Lancastrian party, though for a short time accepting the inevitable ascendency of the Yorkists. He was probably with the Lancastrians on their march from the north early in 1461, and after the second battle of St. Albans, being chancellor to the young Prince Edward, he took part in the ceremony of making him a knight. After the accession of Edward IV he was at Towton in March 1461, and must have been in actual risk of his life. He was reported to be captured (Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner, ii. 7), but followed Margaret and Prince Edward for some time in their subsequent wanderings. He was naturally attainted, and lost all (Ramsayy, Lancaster and York, ii. 283). When Margaret and De Breze made their descent on England in the autumn of 1462, Morton met them, and he sailed with them from Bamborough to Sluys, when Margaret went to throw herself upon the Duke of Burgundy’s mercy in July or August 1463 (ib. p. 296 ; William Wyrcester in Wars of the English in France, Rolls Ser., ii. ii. 781). He seems to have had no share in the outbreaks which resulted in the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham. He lived, like Sir John Fortescue and other Lancastrians (cf. Arch. Journal, vii. 171), with Margaret at St. Mihiel in Bar. But when Warwick and Clarence decided to join the Lancastrians, Morton bore a large part in the reconciliation, and must have been well known to Louis XI. He left Angers on 4 Aug. 1470, and landed at Dartmouth with Warwick on 13 Sept. He was at once sent in advance, with Sir John Fortescue, to London, to prepare for Warwick’s march thither, and this seems to confirm Campbell’s statement that he was popular at this period, though he certainly was not so later. After the battle of Barnet (April 1471) he went to Weymouth, to meet the queen and Prince Edward, and with them passed to his old school at Cerne, and thence to Beaulieu. When the battle of Tewkesbury seemed to have ended the wars of the Roses, Morton submitted. He petitioned (Hot. Parl. vi. 26), and his attainder was reversed. Bourchier was still his friend, and collated him in 1472 to the rectory of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East. In the same year he received the prebend of Isledon in St. Paul’s Cathedral, which he resigned on receiving that of Chiswick in the following year. On 16 March 1472-3 he became master of the rolls, his patent being renewed in 1475. Edward, who was always wisely forgetful of the past history of his opponents, thoroughly trusted him, and sent him in 1474 on an embassy to the emperor and the king of Hungary, to secure their adhesion to the league which England had made with Burgundy against Louis XI of France. He seems to have returned very quickly (Paston Letters, iii. 123), and was made archdeacon of Winchester and Chester the same year. In 1475 he was one of the counsellors who arranged the treaty of Pecquigny, and was bribed like the rest (Gairdner, Richard III, p. 33). He performed a doubtful service to the Lancastrian cause at the same time by arranging for Queen Margaret’s ransom. Morton continued to accumulate preferments, and on 31 Jan. 1478-9 became bishop of Ely, in succession to William Gray. He comforted Edward when dying
in 1483, was an executor to his will, and assisted at his funeral (Letters, f&c., Richard III and Henry VII, ed. Gairdner, Rolls Ser., i. 4). He was, of course, present at the meeting of the council on 13 June 1483, when Richard’s plans were fully put into action. Richard came late, and joked with Morton about the strawberries he was growing in the gardens at Ely Place, Holborn (cf. Shakespeare, Richard III, act iii. sc. 4) ; but, as a powerful adherent of the young prince, he was one of those who were arrested when the meeting broke up (Gairdner, Richard III, pp. 81 et seq.) The university of Oxford petitioned for his release, calling him her dearest son (Wood, Athenæ, ed. Bliss). He was at first confined in the Tower, and then, at Buckingham’s request, removed to his custody at Brecknock Castle [see Stafford, Henry, 1454?-1483]. Here in 1483 Buckingham had a conversation with his prisoner which showed his own schemes against Richard to have been already formed, and at the same time suggested to Morton a way of using him against the king and in favour of the young Earl of Richmond (cf. Gairdner, Henry VII, p. 10, and Richard III, pp. 138, 149). Morton skilfully encouraged the duke in his opposition to Richard III, and brought him, through Reginald Bray, into close communication with the Countess cf Richmond, and with Elizabeth, the queen-dowager. It has been said that this plot was due to the fact that Buckingham knew of the murder of the young princes, but it is more probable that that had not yet taken place, and that Buckingham chose to join the party of Richmond, as safer than following Richard’s example. Morton, having directed the plot, urged that he ought to be in Ely to raise the men of his bishopric. Buckingham hesitated to allow him to have Brecknock Castle, and Morton fled by night to Ely, and thence to Flanders (Gairdner, Richard III, pp. 138 et seq., Henry VII, pp. 11 et seq. ; Polydore Vergil, English Hist. ed. Ellis, Camden Soc.,p. 198). He continued in constant correspondence with Lancastrians in England. When Richard in 1484 was plotting the capture of Henry of Richmond in Brittany, Morton heard of the scheme in time to send Christopher Urswick to warn Henry to escape into France, and thus saved Henry’s life (ib. p. 206).
Morton remained in Flanders till after the settlement of the kingdom upon Henry VII in the parliament of November 1485, when Henry summoned him home. To his counsels the final victory of the Lancastrians was in a large degree attributed ; and he doubtless was the great advocate for Henry’s marriage with Elizabeth of York. His attainder was reversed, he was made a privy councillor, and for the rest of his life, as More makes Hythloday say in the ‘Utopia,’ ‘The king depended much on his counsels, and the government seemed to be chiefly supported by him.’ On 6 Oct. 1486 he succeeded Bourchier as archbishop of Canterbury, and on 6 March following he succeeded John Alcock, the founder of Jesus College, Cambridge, as lord chancellor. The chancellorship in his hands was the most important office in the government (cf. Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors, i. 417), and probably he was much more concerned with secular than with spiritual affairs. Practically nothing was done in convocation while he was archbishop, which may be regarded as the result of his master’s policy, but he tried to reform both the regular and secular clergy, obtaining a bull in 1489, in contravention of the statutes of prsemunire, enabling him to visit the monasteries in his province, and proceeding vigorously against St. Albans. As chancellor he opened parliament with speeches which, according to Campbell, more closely resemble the modern sovereign’s speech than had been usual in similar compositions before his time (cf. Cunningham, Hist. of Brit. Industry and Commerce, i. 430). His duties included the delivery of the official answers to the foreign ambassadors (Bernard Andrea, Hist, of Henry VII in Memor. of Henry VII, Rolls Ser., p. 55). But it is difficult to detect in his actions anything beyond a very literal and faithful fulfilment of the policy devised by Henry VII. There was no originality in his political conduct, and Mr. Gairdner has suggested that he was at heart an ecclesiastic. He recommended to Henry, it is said, the plan of obtaining a bull against his enemies, and he obtained another which restrained the rights of sanctuary. His character suffered by his devotion to Henry (cf. Cal. State Papers, Venetian, 1202-1509, p. 743). He assisted in collecting the benevolences in 1491 for the French war (Will. Wyec. p. 793), and has been traditionally known as the author of ‘Morton’s Fork’ or ‘Morton’s Crutch,’ but the truth seems rather to be that he and Richard Foxe [q. v.] did their best at the council to restrain Henry’s avarice. In 1493 he had a dispute with the Bishop of London as to their respective rights over wills of personalty, in which he came out victor. In the same year Pope Alexander VI, at Henry’s request, made him a cardinal, with the title of St. Anastasia (cf. Cal. State Papers, Venetian, 1202-1509, p. 537). At the magnificent ceremony by which Prince Henry was knighted and created Duke of York, on 1 Nov. 1494, Morton said mass at the feast, and afterwards he sat alone with the king at the high table. The university of Oxford early in 1495 made him its chancellor, in succession to Bishop Russell, though he gave fair warning that he could not attend to the duties. He also refused to take the customary oath, alleging that his graduation oath was sufficient. He must have been very old, but his strength was maintained, and he opened the parliament of 1496 with a long speech. He cannot have been sent in 1499 as ambassador to Maximilian, though a suggestion to that effect is found in the ‘Venetian Calendar’ (1202–1509, 796, 799). He died of a quartan ague on 12 Oct. 1500 at Knowle in Kent. He was buried in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. According to Wood (Annals, i. 642) the tomb became cracked, and the bones disappeared slowly till only the skull was left, and that Ralph Sheldon begged of his brother the archbishop in 1670.
Bacon says of Morton that ‘he was a wise man and an eloquent, but in his nature harsh and haughty, much accepted by the king, but envied by the nobility, and hated of the people.’ This unfavourable view of his character is not so trustworthy as the opinion of More, who knew him intimately, and gave a very sympathetic description of him in his ‘Utopia’ (ed. Arber, p. 36). According to More, ‘his conversation was easy, but serious and grave. He spoke both gracefully and weightily. He was eminently skilled in the law, had a vast understanding and a prodigious memory; and those excellent talents with which nature had furnished him were improved by study and experience.’
Morton was a great builder. He received a patent on 26 July 1493 empowering him to impress workmen to repair the houses of his province in Kent, Surrey, and Sussex (Letters, &c., ii. 374; Chronicles of the White Rose, p. 198). At Ely his memory is preserved by Morton’s Dyke, a great drainage trench which he cut through the fens from Peterborough to Wisbech. He repaired the episcopal palace at Hatfield and the castle at Wisbech; his arms are on the church tower of Wisbech. At Oxford he repaired the school of Canon Law and helped to rebuild St. Mary’s Church. To literature he extended some patronage. Thomas More he took into his household, and foretold a great career for him.
The ‘History of Richard III,’ usually ascribed to Sir Thomas More [q. v.], and printed in the collected editions of More’s English and Latin works, was probably originally written in Latin by Morton (cf. Walpole, Historic Doubts in Works, ii. iii; Bridgett, Sir Thomas More, p. 79). It is clearly the work of a Lancastrian and a contemporary of Edward IV, which More was not, and it is assigned to Morton by Sir John Harington and by Sir George Buc. More’s connection with the work seems to have been confined to translating it into English and to amplifying it in the English version (cf. Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. i. 105). The ‘Chronicle’ of Hall probably owed something to Morton’s suggestions.[Authorities quoted; Chronicles of Hall and Fabyan; Hook’s Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, v. 387 et seq.; Continuator of Croyland in ‘Rerum Anglic. Script.’ (Fell and Fulman), p. 566; Hutchins’s Dorset, i. 104, 154, 158, ii. 594; Basin’s Hist. des regnes de Charles VII et Louis XI, ed. Quicherat (Soc. de l’Hist. de France), iii. 137; Mémoires de Ph. de Commynes, ed. Dupont (Soc. de l’Hist. de France), i. 352, ii. 166; Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner; Clermont’s Life of Fortescue; Bates’s Border Strongholds of Northumberland, i. 254 et seq.; Campbell’s Materials for the Hist. of Henry VII; Bentham’s Ely, p. 179 et seq.; Hasted’s Kent, ii. 19, 95, 99, 694; Baker’s Chron. pp. 228–37; Newcome’s St. Albans, p. 403; T. Mozley’s Henry VII, Prince Arthur, and Cardinal Morton; arts. Edward, Prince of Wales, 1453–1471, and Margaret of Anjou.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
Morton, John (1420?-1500) by William Arthur Jobson Archbold