Archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1500)
Lord Chancellor (1487-1500)
Born c.1420 Died 1500
John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, cardinal and statesman, 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 neighbouring 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 is said (Dict. Nat. Biog.) to have been "at once admitted to the privy council"; but probably this is a mistake for the ordinary council, of which Morton might well have been made a member when he was appointed master in chancery and Chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall.
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 the 13th of September 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 March 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 Morton's 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 Morton's release, and after some weeks in the Tower he was entrusted to the Duke of Buckingham's charge at Brecknock. Here Morton encouraged Buckingham's 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 Buckingham's 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 Morton's fork seems really to have been the invention of Richard Fox (qv.), who succeeded to a large part of Morton's influence.
Morton no doubt impressed Lancastrian traditions upon Henry VII, but he cannot be credited with any great originality as a statesman, and Henry's 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 archbishop's death, may have some significance; but more probably it was simply due to the circumstance that Morton's death synchronised 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, 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 Morton's Dyke across the fens from Wisbech to Peterborough, repaired the episcopal palace at Hatfield and the school of canon law and St Mary's Church at Oxford. He died at Knole on the 12th of October 1500, and was buried in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Besides the authorities cited in the Dict. Nat. Biogr, see the recently published calendar of Patent Rolls, 1461-1485, passim; W. Busch, England under the Tudors (1892); S. Gairdner, Henry VII. (1889) and Lollardy and the Reformation (1908), and Political History of England, vols. iv. and v. (Longmans). (A.F.P.)
Being the entry for MORTON, JOHN in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.