Everyone knows the lines in Shakespeare’s Richard III:
My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there . . .
However, few appreciate just how imposing was the Bishop’s palace there, with courts and gardens that covered many acres, or the sheer pride and pomp of a late medieval prelate.
John Morton was consecrated as Bishop of Ely by Cardinal Bourchier at Lambeth in January 1479, having been appointed to the see the previous August – nominally by Pope Sixtus IV but in reality by King Edward. Already the worthy doctor had been magnificently rewarded during a spectacular career as a pluralist. Between 1474 and 1478 he had held no less than seven archdeaconries simultaneously: Chester, Winchester, Chichester, Huntingdon, Berkshire, Norfolk and Leicester. It is unlikely that he ever visited any of them, merely drawing their substantial revenues.
Most fifteenth-century bishops were great royal servants rather than spiritual fathers. As a ‘bureaucrat bishop’, Dr Morton toiled away at the business of state, attending long meetings of the King’s council almost every day. He simply did not have the time to leave London and visit his diocese other than on rare occasions, his duties there being performed by various clerical officials. Sometimes he was away from England on embassies abroad. He can have had very little knowledge of what was required from his parish clergy, let alone the incentive to supervise and help them.
The embassies were demanding enough in themselves, especially the negotiations with Louis XI of France and his ministers. Obviously Dr Morton had demonstrated to Edward’s complete satisfaction his gifts as a diplomat at both Picquigny and the meetings that prepared the way for it. In 1477 we find him, accompanied by Sir John Donne, at Louis’ court during the crisis that resulted from the death of the Duke of Burgundy, where they stressed King Edward’s heartfelt desire to remain at peace with France and to adhere to the treaties signed at Picquigny. They also discussed such problems as ensuring free passage through France to Italian merchants who were travelling to England.
At the end of 1478 John Morton played a leading part in the negotiations in London with an envoy of Louis, the Bishop of Elne. The Bishop’s opinion of Englishmen, ‘cheats and liars’, was to some extent justified on this occasion. The doctor, together with William Dudley, dragged him out of his lodgings and took him before a notary where they bullied him into signing a bond – which committed the French King and his successors to continue paying Edward 50,000 crowns a year for as long as the truce between the two countries should last. On returning to France, the unfortunate Bishop had to stand trial for negligence; before he left, King Edward joked to him unfeelingly that he might be going to lose his head when he got home.1
Dr Morton visited King Louis once again during the last months of 1481, apparently to reassure him about Edward’s dealings with Archduke Maximilian, who now ruled in the Low Countries and in what was left of Burgundy.
Although a bachelor by necessity, it soon became evident that Bishop Morton was a man of strong family feeling. By the fifteenth century nepotism meant the advancement of all one’s kindred and not just one’s nephews, and was an accepted feature of life among the higher clergy. John had been the eldest of five brothers. The next eldest, Thomas, had also gone into the Church, and in 1479 John secured his appointment as Archdeacon of Ely. If Thomas does not appear to have been particularly effective, their nephew Robert (son of the fourth brother, William) was clearly a man of considerable ability, and the Bishop very soon obtained for him the archdeaconries of Winchester and Gloucester, together with a canonry at St George’s, Windsor. Robert succeeded his uncle as Master of the Rolls.2 The third brother, Richard Morton, who stayed a layman and became squire of Milburne St Andrew, rose modestly in the world, serving as sheriff for Dorset and Somerset.
The Bishop’s London residence was the great palace at what is still called Ely Place in Holborn, a vast, rambling complex which was demolished in the 1770s. Morton’s private chapel survives as the church of St Etheldreda. A tall, delicate building from the fourteenth century, it is one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in London, with a noble crypt and cloister.
Despite having little time to spare, the new Bishop took a keen interest in his diocese of Ely, though his activities do not seem to have had very much to do with the welfare of souls. No doubt he relished the independence resulting from its waterlogged landscape. Draining the fens did not start properly until well into the seventeenth century, and in Morton’s day the Isle of Ely, an area forming about two-thirds of modern Cambridgeshire, was largely cut off from the outside world by marshes; these often made access difficult, especially when flooded during winter. Because of its isolation the Isle was a ‘liberty’. In practice this meant that (like the Bishop of Durham) its bishop possessed powers of jurisdiction that elsewhere normally belonged to the King alone. Staffed by Benedictine monks instead of canons, Ely Cathedral was – and remains – one of the most glorious cathedrals in Europe, a magnificent setting for a bishop’s throne.
However, although Ely possessed a fine palace, Bishop Morton preferred another town in the Isle, still more isolated but larger and more prosperous. Wisbech was nearer the sea, a port with easy access to the Low Countries. The Bishop used Wisbech Castle – pulled down during the seventeenth century – as a diocesan palace. He also refurbished the church, where his arms may still be seen on the tower.
In 1480 John Morton reached the advanced old age of sixty, but nonetheless retained all his customary vigour of mind and body. In August that year, supported by the Bishop of Lincoln and other prelates who owned land in the region, by the Abbots of Ramsey, Bury St Edmunds, Thorney, Peterburgh and Crowland, by Sir Thomas Gray, Sir John Cheyne and a number of East Anglian squires, he hopefully initiated an ambitious programme to drain the marshes along the coast.3 Not very much seems to have come of this scheme. He was more successful in making access to Wisbech easier – though some blamed him for interfering with the course of the River Nene – by having a dyke constructed, forty feet across and twelve miles long, which took the river straight to Wisbech and served as a canal. Even today the town benefits from ‘Morton’s Leam’.
The western range of Hatfield Old Palace, built by Dr Morton when Bishop of Ely.
However, Bishop Morton’s favourite residence lay outside the Isle of Ely, much nearer the capital. The Bishops of Ely had owned a house at Hatfield in Hertfordshire since the early Middle Ages, and in about 1480 Dr Morton began to erect a new palace there, all in red brick. It was square in design, four wings around a courtyard, with an elegant castellated gatehouse. Three of the wings were demolished and rebuilt by the Earl of Salisbury in 1607, but fortunately one wing, the hall range, has survived together with the gate. (It was used as stables until the present century, when it was magnificently restored.) Some 230 feet long, the hall range contains a banqueting hall with a carved timber roof and a solar, together with a fine room below the hall – one feels very near its creator here. Late medieval English prelates were compulsive builders, but none of them can have built a more delightful bishop’s palace than John Morton. With justice, Hatfield is often described as the finest example of medieval brickwork in England.
If Bishop Morton did not care to live in the episcopal palace at Ely, there could be no greater witness to his achievement in becoming such a pillar of the Yorkist realm than Ely Cathedral, whose wonderful octagon lantern can be seen from so many miles away. Twelve of the forty richest bishops in fifteenth-century Christendom lived in England, and clearly ‘My lord of Ely’ was among them. The hunted fugitive from Towton and Tewkesbury, the sodden refugee landing from the packed ballinger that had taken him across the North Sea, and the shabby, half-starved exile of Koeurla-Petite had come a very long way indeed. However, there was no reason for him to suppose that he might one day lose his prosperity and eminence, or that he might aspire to even greater heights. No doubt he saw Hatfield Palace as a home for his ripe old age.