A priest who was also a lawyer scarcely sounds like a man of action. He was small too, and though John Lambert must often have passed him hurrying along Cheapside during the 1450s, on his way to his legal practice at the Court of Arches, Mr Lambert cannot have wasted a second glance on so insignificant a figure. Yet the little doctor was to prove one of the most formidable politicians to emerge throughout the entire Wars of the Roses.
If small in stature, nonetheless John Morton clearly impressed those who met him. He did so by sheer force of personality, though his ‘countenance inspired respect rather than fear’, says Sir Thomas More, who knew him well during his old age. Yet occasionally he could be alarming, and Francis Bacon (in his life of Henry VII) alleges that Morton was ‘in his nature harsh and haughty’. However, More explains (in Utopia) that the doctor often adopted a caustic manner when talking to strangers, in order to see how they would react, but that normally he was ‘lacking in no wise to win favour’.
A West Countryman, he had been born about 1420 in Dorset, either at Bere Regis or at Milburne St Andrew where his father was the squire. The Mortons came from a well-established family of minor gentry which had originated in Nottinghamshire. His uncle, who lived at Cerne Abbas, served as MP for Shaftesbury.1 John was educated by the black monks of the Benedictine abbey at Cerne, beneath the great pagan god carved on the hill that overlooked them. Although the manor house of the Mortons at Milburne St Andrew has disappeared, John Morton would recognize the church of his childhood. There is much too that he would recognize were he to revisit the beautiful village of Cerne Abbas, such as the parish church, which was built during his lifetime, or the monks’ gatehouse and guesthouse – not to mention the old giant on the hill. He went up to Oxford in 1446, to Balliol, eventually obtaining a doctorate in both civil and canon law. He then became a fellow of Peckwater Inn (now part of Christchurch, commemorated by Peckwater Quad), for which he was obliged to take holy orders.
Legal degrees have been described as the golden road to a mitre in fifteenth-century England, and diocesan administration as the sure way to preferment. After he was qualified, Dr Morton moved down to London to practise in the Court of Arches. Since this was in Cheapside, it really is quite likely that sometimes he passed John Lambert in the street. The Court sat in the crypt of the church of St Mary-le-Bow, hence its name. Under the direct jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, it dealt mainly with errant clergymen, matrimonial troubles and disputed wills. A modern church stands on the site, since the medieval church perished during the Great Fire of London while Christopher Wren’s successor was destroyed by the Blitz. (The City’s curfew had been rung from the old church’s tower, which is why it was said that a true Cockney must be born within the sound of Bow Bells.) However, the crypt where Morton practised, with its nave and two aisles, has been beautifully restored in recent years.
In February 1455 a new Archbishop of Canterbury was enthroned, Thomas Bourchier, who became Lord Chancellor of England in the following month. This shrewd, legally minded prelate at once recognized the little lawyer’s calibre. Recommended by Bourchier, within a very short time he was recruited by the royal council and on 26 September 1457 ‘John Morton, clerk, doctor of the laws’, was appointed chancellor of the household of the infant Prince of Wales. Soon he became one of Queen Margaret’s most trusted advisers, and in consequence had to spend a good deal of time at Kenilworth Castle where the court was frequently in residence. Even so, he continued with his practice at the Court of Arches. Substantial preferment was beginning to come his way. Already principal of Peckwater Inn, subdean of Lincoln Cathedral and parson of Bloxworth in Dorset, he received the rich archdeaconry of Norwich; while drawing the income from these posts, it is unlikely that he ever visited any of them – save possibly Peckwater Inn for old times’ sake.
Queen Margaret was badly in need of good advice. Enemies were circulating all sorts of unpleasant rumours about her, which the chronicles preserve; not only was she plundering the realm but the Prince of Wales was a bastard; some claimed that his true father had been either the Duke of Somerset or the Earl of Wiltshire. There were stories too that she was secretly building up a private army of her own in Cheshire, to make her son king in place of his supposed parent, and that she had invited the French to sack Sandwich and was planning to hand over northern England to the Scots in return for armed assistance against the Duke of York.
Yet, whatever gossip might claim, most peers and gentry were loyal to Henry VI. Apart from Salisbury and Warwick, only one or two lesser magnates supported York. Emboldened by this knowledge, the Queen refused to contemplate any solution that might have satisfied the Duke and his friends. She meant to destroy them and they knew it. Nor did they underestimate her – ‘a great and strong laboured woman, for she spareth no pain’ is how a contemporary described her to Sir John Fastolf.
Margaret of Anjou, Shakespeare’s ‘proud insulting queen’, was among the most formidable tragic heroines of English history.
Her tears will pierce into a marble heart;
The tiger will be mild, whiles she doth mourn
Clearly, she was influenced by her background. Her father, ‘King Réné’, of Anjou, was a Valois prince, a great grandson of John II of France who had been taken prisoner at Poitiers. Inheriting huge tracts of French territory which included all Provence, he had also been bequeathed the kingdom of Naples, together with shadowy claims to the thrones of Hungary, Majorca and Jerusalem. Although a mirror of chivalry and a lavish patron of the arts, his real fame lay in being one of the most spectacular royal losers in fifteenth-century Europe – outside England. He had had a good chance of becoming not only King of Naples but Duke of Lorraine too, and he had lost both. It would be very surprising if King Réné’s failures had not been noticed by his daughter.2
Queen Margaret had come to England in 1445 when she was fifteen, to find herself detested as a Frenchwoman and blamed for the English reverses in France. She was also identified with her husband’s greedy hangers-on. The birth of a son transformed her into a fiercely determined politician, leader of the court party and then of the Lancastrians; England must not be lost in the way in which her father had lost his inheritance. For seventeen years she would fight to save the throne for her son, Edward of Lancaster. The only convincing contemporary likeness of her is the profile on a medal by Pietro de Milano. It shows a handsome, slightly full French face with a sensual mouth.
By early 1459 she was preparing for armed confrontation. In May the royal council started to stockpile weaponry at the Tower of London, ordering bows and sheaves of arrows by the thousand. Magnates loyal to King Henry told their ‘well-wishers’ to join them at midsummer.
A magnate recruited his well-wishers from the neighbouring gentry. They signed indentures binding them to ride at his side when summoned, usually to local assemblies or to Parliament, receiving wages and protection in return. Although these ‘affinities’ of well-wishers were not private armies, if necessary they were ready to fight for their magnates.3
Having convinced Henry VI that the Duke of York was plotting to replace him on the throne, the Queen hoped to provoke York and the Nevills into disobeying her husband. They were therefore summoned to a Great Council which would meet at Coventry towards the end of June. She knew very well that they would not dare walk into the lioness’s den and, by staying away, would give her the pretext she was seeking to destroy them.
Someone with a knowledge of the law had explained to her that she might crush the Yorkists once and for all by legal means – by attainting them. She decided that a bill of this sort should be introduced against York and his adherents in a parliament at Coventry in the autumn of 1459.
Such a bill needed the most careful drafting, while further legislation would be needed when it was passed. Morton joined a group entrusted with the task of drawing up the bill and planning tactics. The group included Sir John Fortescue (Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and the greatest English lawyer of the fifteenth century), Dr Aleyn, John Heydon and Thomas Thorpe – the latter a former speaker of the House of Commons.
Obviously Morton and his friends were nervous about the scheme. Later in the year Aleyn was reported as saying that if King Henry retained power, they ‘should be made for ever; and if it turned to contrary wise, it should grow to their final confusion and utter destruction’. (In 1461 Thorpe would be lynched by a Yorkist mob in London, beheaded in Haringay Park.)
York and the Nevills had to reach Henry if the process were to be stopped, but he was inaccessible at Kenilworth Castle – ‘The Queen’s Bower’, as some called it sardonically – where he was firmly under his wife’s control. The only way to reach him was to fight their way into his presence.
The Earl of Salisbury marched down from Yorkshire while his son Warwick sailed over from Calais, both intending to join the Duke of York at his stronghold in Ludlow in Shropshire. A small royal army intercepted Salisbury at Blore Heath in September. However, despite a fierce little battle with heavy casualties on both sides, they failed to stop him.
In October the Duke and the two earls occupied Worcester, where they publicly swore an oath in the cathedral to respect the King’s authority. They retreated at the approach of Henry’s main army, continuing to retreat until they were back at Ludlow. Here, however, they decided to make a stand. At Ludford Bridge nearby, they ‘fortified their chosen ground, their carts with guns set before their battles [divisions] . . .’ But the reinforcements they were expecting failed to arrive. Then Andrew Trollope (who commanded their vanguard and knew all their plans) went over to Henry, taking the men from the Calais garrison with him. During the night, deserting their troops, York and the Nevills fled; the Duke to Dublin and the two earls to Calais – the latter accompanied by the Earl of March, York’s eldest son. Next day their army surrendered and the King’s troops marched into Ludlow.
Alarming reports reached London of disgraceful behaviour by Henry’s triumphant followers. Gregory writes in his chronicle of ‘the misrule of the king’s gallants at Ludlow’ – how drunken royal troops, ‘wetshod in wine’, had looted the town and ‘defouled many women’. Another chronicler says that Ludlow was ‘robbed to the bare walls’. Such reports would do Henry’s cause irreparable harm.
Attended by half the English peerage, what would come to be called the ‘Parliament of Devils’ met at Coventry in November 1459. The name befits its savage legislation. Those present took a special oath of allegiance to the King and his son, swearing in addition to protect the Queen. York and over twenty of his supporters were accused of treason and attainted as planned.
The Act itself is, to say the least, a colourful and even an impassioned document.4 Those who drafted it were clearly inspired by the same fury as the Queen. It insists that the Duke of York had secretly been in league with ‘Jack Cade, your great Traitor’, in 1450. The Duke had come ‘out of Ireland with great bobance and inordinate people to your palace of Westminster into your presence, with great multitude of people harnessed and arrayed in manner of war’, it reminds King Henry. The Act deplores ‘the execrable and most detestable deed . . . done at St Albans’, complaining of ‘the most diabolic unkindness and wretched envy’ displayed by the Duke and the earls. It describes their recent flight from Ludford Bridge with a gloating gusto that verges on exultation.
Almighty God that seeth the hearts of peoples, to whom nothing is hid, smote the hearts of the said duke of York and earls suddenly from that most presumptuous pride to the most shameful fall of cowardice that could be thought, so that about midnight then next [en]suing they stole away out of the Field, under colour they would have refreshed them awhile in the town of Ludlow, leaving their standards and banners . . .
According to Friar Brackley, a grey friar of Norwich and an enthusiastic Yorkist – his patron the duke of Norfolk being one of the very few peers who then favoured York – Dr Morton and his friends were responsible for a malicious conspiracy against innocent lords, knights, gentles and commons: ‘the perilous writing and mischievous indicting was imagined, contrived and utterly concluded by their most vengeable labour.’