- This article is about the 15th century English Bishop, for other uses see John Morton (disambiguation).
The English cleric John Morton was born in Dorset c.1420 and died at Knowles, Kent, on September 15, 1500. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford.
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. In 1493 he was appointed Cardinal of St. Anastasia by Pope Alexander VI. He built the "Old Palace" of Hatfield House where Queen Elizabeth I of England spent much of her girlhood.
Morton may be best known for the catch-22 situation known as "Morton's Fork." Appointed Lord Chancellor of England in 1487, Morton said, "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."
Morton and the history of Richard III
Bishop Morton's second claim to fame is that 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 the truth of the matter, but his 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.
Many later historians consider that Morton deliberately falsified the record to depict King Richard as a villain. Morton wrote in his History that at the lords' council meeting in the Tower of London on 13 June 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. Morton was either in the council room when Hastings was arrested or was one of several men there who were detained on suspicion of involvement in a conspiracy with Hastings, held in another room for a short time, and later released without charge. However, it has been claimed by other historians that Hastings, having been arrested as Morton described, was later formally charged with treason, tried for it, convicted and sentenced, and not executed until 18 June, in the usual way the law prescribed.
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