Cardinal John MORTON

Born: ABT 1420, Dorset, England

Died: 15 Sep 1500, Knowles, Kent, England

Bishop of Ely and then Archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1500) during the reign of Henry VII, Morton was an implacable foe of the preceding Yorkist regime, most notably King Richard III, and a mentor of Sir Thomas More.

Belonged to a family which had migrated from Nottinghamshire into Dorset, and was born. either at Bere Regis or Milborne St Andrew. Educated at the neighboring Benedictine abbey of Cerne and at Balliol College, Oxford, he graduated in law, and followed that profession. in the ecclesiastical courts in. London, where he attracted the notice of Archbishop Bourchier.

He received a good deal of ecclesiastical preferment from the Lancastrian party, was present, if he did not fight on the losing side, at the battle of Towton in 1461, and was subsequently attainted by the victorious Yorkists. He lived with the exiled court of Margaret of Anjou at Bar until 1470, and took an active part in the diplomacy which led to the coalition of Warwick and Clarence with the Lancastrians and Louis XI, and indirectly to Edward IV's expulsion from the throne. Morton landed with Warwick at Dartmouth on 13 Sep 1470, but the battle of Tewkesbury finally shattered the Lancastrian hopes, and Morton made his peace with Edward IV, probably through the mediation of Archbishop Bourchier.

In Mar 1473 Morton was made Master of the Rolls, and Edward found employment for his diplomatic talents; he was sent on a mission to Hungary in 1474, and was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Pecquigny in 1475. In 1479, after receiving a number of minor ecclesiastical promotions, he was elected Bishop of Ely. He was one of the executors of Edward IV's will in 1483, and the story of the future Richard III, while preparing Mortons arrest, joking with him about the strawberries the Bishop grew in. his garden at Holborn is well known and apparently authentic. Oxford University in vain petitioned for Mortons release, and after some weeks in the Tower he was entrusted to the Duke of Buckingham's charge at Brecknock. Here Morton encouraged Buckinghams designs against Richard, and put him into communication with the queen dowager, Elizabeth Woodville, and with Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. He escaped from Brecknock Castle to Flanders, avoided Buckinghams fate, and devoted his energies during the next two years to creating a party in England and abroad in the interests of the Earl of Richmond.

When Richmond secured the crown as Henry VII, Morton became his principal adviser. He succeeded Bourchier as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and Alcock as Lord Chancellor in 1487; and he was responsible for much of the diplomatic, if not also of the financial, work of the reign, though the ingenious method of extortion popularly known as Mortons fork seems really to have been the invention of Richard Fox, who succeeded to a large part of Mortons influence. Morton no doubt impressed Lancastrian traditions upon Henry VII, but he cannot be credited with any great originality as a statesman, and Henrys policy was as much Yorkist as Lancastrian. The fact that parliament continued to meet fairly often so long as Morton lived, and was only summoned once by Henry VII after the Archbishops death, may have some significance; but more probably it was simply due to the circumstance that Mortons death synchronized with Henry's achievement of a security in which he thought he could almost dispense with parliamentary support and supplies. As an ecclesiastic Morton followed orthodox Lancastrian lines: in 1489 he obtained a papal bull enabling him to visit and reform the monasteries, and he proceeded with some vigour against the abuses in the abbey of St Albans. In 1493 he was created a Cardinal of St. Anastasia by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1495 was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford. He encouraged learning to the extent of admitting Sir Thomas More into his household, and writing a Latin history of Richard III, which More translated into English. He constructed Mortons Dyke across the fens from Wisbech to Peterborough, repaired the episcopal palace at Hatfield and the school of canon law and St Marys Church at Oxford. He died at Knole on 12 Oct 5500, and was buried in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

He is thought to be the source of most Tudor propaganda against Richard III, including the story that he murdered the Princes in the Tower, the murders of his brother George, Duke of Clarence, of his wife's first husband, Edward, Prince of Wales, of Henry VI himself, and of William, Lord Hastings; forcing his wife, Anne Neville, to marry him against her will; planning (before his wife died) to marry his niece Elizabeth of York incestuously (and maybe killing his wife so he could); accusing his own mother of adultery (and his late brother the King of illegitimacy); accusing Jane Shore and Elizabeth Woodville of witchcraft in withering his arm; and being himself illegitimate.

Each of these stories first appears in writing either in Sir Thomas More's 'The History of King Richard III', which was based on Morton's account (although historians are divided on whether More substantially rewrote it or essentially copied Morton's manuscript, with the majority thinking its style came from More) or in the writings of someone else who had heard the story from Morton. Each of those stories is demonstrably untrue. Like most contemporary "historians", Morton was uninterested in facts, historiography being seen as a branch of literature, a precedent set by the Greek and Roman tradition. Morton had been present at some of those events and knew that Richard had not done what Morton claimed, but Morton's purpose in relating these stories was two-fold: to entertain his readers and to vilify the memory of the King who had been overthrown by his own master. (This is an example of the literary art then called "rhetoric", using words to influence public opinion).

Thomas B. Costain, writing in the middle of the 20th century, considered the story of Lord Hastings' summary execution to be the "smoking gun" that proved Morton deliberately falsified the record to make King Richard out to be a villain. Morton wrote in his History that at the lords' council meeting in the Tower of London on 13 Jun 1483, Richard suddenly called his men at arms into the room and had them arrest Hastings for treason and take him outside and chop his head off on a log they found handy. The story is not true; the records show Hastings was arrested then, but he was formally charged with treason, tried for it, convicted and sentenced, and executed on 18 Jun in the usual way the law prescribed. The reason Costain found Morton's dubious account so damning is that Morton was there, in the council room, when it happened; in fact, Morton was one of several men there who were detained themselves for participating in the conspiracy with Hastings, held in another room for a short time, and then released instead of being charged.

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