Archbishop John Morton

John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, supporter of King Henry VI, eventual ambassador for Edward IV, ardent foe of King Richard III, and crucial ally of King Henry VII, passed away on 15 September 1500.

John Morton at Canterbury

Although Bishop Morton was a devout Lancastrian, when all hope was gone – after the deaths of both Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales and Henry VI – he bowed to the inevitable and became a loyal and valued servant to King Edward VI:

He received a royal pardon in July 1471, and became a Master of Chancery that Michaelmas, and Master of the Rolls in the following March. Further church appointments followed, as archdeacon of Winchester and Dean of the Court of Arches in 1474, canon of Wells from 1475 to 1478, archdeacon of Berkshire in 1476 and archdeacon of Norfolkin 1477. He was appointed Master of the Rolls from 1472 to 1479. In February 1477, he was sent … as ambassador to the French court. After serving a short spell in 1478 as Archdeacon of Leicester he was appointed Bishop of Ely by King Edward on 8 August 1478 and he was consecrated on 31 January 1479.

One of the reasons Morton made peace with the fact Edward IV was the king is because he  1) would have assumed the Lancastrian defeat was God’s will and 2) no one else was a reasonable candidate. Even if Henry Tudor had not been a child at the time, he was so distantly related to the throne that no one really considered his a viable contender for the crown. Henry’s shaky claim to be king is why King Edward was content to leave the boy under benign house-arrest in Brittaney for years. Henry just wasn’t that much of a threat. Morton would not have really considered leaving England to join Henry Tudor in exile, the way he had for Edward of Westminster.


When Edward IV died on 9 April 1483, Bishop Morton was one of the executors of the late king’s will. He was also prepared to serve the new boy-king, Edward V of England, as ably as he had served the 12 year old’s father. He, along with die-hard Yorkists like William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings, became both uneasy and suspicious when Richard of Gloucester kept delaying Edward V’s coronation. Morton was, like Hastings, implacably against Richard becoming king in Edward V’s place and was one of the many high-ranking men to thwart Richard’s plan to execute the king’s uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and Richard Grey.

Morton’s unease soon became bone-deep hatred for Richard. On  13 June 1483 during a council meeting at the Tower of London: Richard, aided by the Duke of Buckingham, accused Hastings during a council meeting  of conspiring against his life with the King Edward V’s maternal relatives, the Woodvilles, via Hastings’s mistress Jane Shore.

This was complete hogwash, since Hastings distrusted the Woodvilles and was the one who had sent for Richard to come in haste from York to prevent the Woodville’s from taking control of the new king’s regency. Richard and Buckingham had Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain and one of the most powerful Yorkist adherents, dragged out into the courtyard of the Tower and executed without trial. Apparently Hastings didn’t even  get the dignity of a scaffold, but was beheaded over a handy log.

Bishop Morton was spared a beheading,  but he was thrown into the Tower and accused of plotting against Richard. (Although there is no evidence Morton wanted to plot against Richard before his arrest, Morton certainly went to it after.) Oxford University petitioned for the bishop’s release, but Richard refused. The bishop was only in the Tower for a few weeks before he was sent be imprisoned at Brecknock Castle under the care of Richard’s dearest ally, Buckingham. 

As Bishop of Ely and one of the foremost men in the realm, Morton had some ability to communicate even while a prisoner. Morton immediately began conspiring with Reginald Bray, dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort  to free the Princes in the Tower and to stage and insurrection against Richard III in order to put Edward V back on his rightful throne. However, sometime in September of 1483 the plans changed. Buckingham had turned against Richard and joined Morton’s cabal. Moreover, the goal of the rebellion became to overthrow Richard III in favor of Henry Tudor.

Frankly, I think Buckingham turned against Richard because he found out the Princes in the Tower were murdered. Only the conviction that none of Edward IV’s male heirs left alive would have spurred Morton and the others to look to Henry Tudor as a rival king. 

Morton ‘escaped’ from Brecknock Castle and after the weather scuppered Buckingham’s Rebellion in October 1483, the bishop sailed to Flanders, where he was out of Richard III’s reach. Morton then spent the next two years acting as the go-between for fellow anti-Ricardian sympathizers and trying to convince other members of the British nobility to support Henry Tudor’s attempt to grab the throne.

After the successful Tudor invasion put a crown on Henry VII, Morton retuned to court. He became one of the new king’s most trusted advisors. Under Henry VII, Morton became Archbishop of Canterbury on 6 October 1486, and was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1487. Morton was also tasked with repairing the crown’s finances. Edward IV had been dashing, but really bad at money, and the government was in debt up to it’s eyeballs. Henry VII, a much more able administrator, was determined to refill the royal treasury and trusted Morton to help him.

Morton came through for the king. He is the one reported to have devised as crude test, known as ‘Morton’s Fork‘, to insure that everyone had to pay their taxes: “If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure.” Annoying as the fork was, it worked. Morton’s tax policy, which was carried out by Henry’s ministers Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, repaired the kingdom’s coffers.

Empson Henry VII Dudley

In exchange for all the hard work the men did trying to retrench a nearly-bankrupt nation, the populace disliked Henry VII, and hated Morton, Dudley, and Empson with a fiery passion. In a move designed to make Henry VIII popular, Cardinal Wolsey advised that Dudley and Empson be executed by the new monarch to please the people. The 17 year old king was happy to go along with the suggestion, and — having very little of his father’s fiscal prudence and too much of his grandfather’s extravagant tastes – bankrupted the country again during his reign.

Morton, however, had passed away almost a decade before Henry VIII came to the throne and escaped Dudley and Empson’s fate. Of course, he had become a Cardinal in 1493  and in 1495 was elected Chancellor of Oxford University in 1495, so he may have been too powerful to kill even if he had been alive at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign.

Cardinal Morton, a venerated and elderly man who had helped ensure a Tudor monarchy, died peaceably at Knole House, Kent. As directed by his last wishes, he was buried before the altar of Our Lady Undercroft, in Canterbury Cathedral. Although his body is buried in the central chapel of the cathedral’s crypt, Morton’s cenotaph (a memorial tomb) stands in the south-east part of the crypt. It was badly damaged by Puritan zealots in the 17th century, but can still be seen at the cathedral today. Careful inspection will reveal carvings of angels, St Christopher, cardinal’s caps, and beer  barrels (called tuns) with MOR inscribed on top of them. This is a pun on his name, Mor/tun = Morton.

Morton effigy Canterbury Morton tomb Canterbury

Morton’s most famous protégé was Sir Thomas More, who served as a page in Morton’s establishment. It is believed that More wrote the History of King Richard III  based on Morton’s first-hand accounts of what happened after the death of Edward IV.  Ricardians, of course, think that the whole book is a rank stew of lies concocted by Morton and refined by More.

I think Hastings and Rivers and Grey and Buckingham would agree with Cardinal Morton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *