Post-classical history


Margaret had had a very high opinion of John Morton. In a letter to her son, written just before Morton’s death, she refers to ‘the cardinal which, as I understand, is your faithful true and loving servant’.8 During his twilight years he was heaped with honours. In 1493, at King Henry’s request, Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) created him cardinal priest of St Anastasia. In 1495 the University of Oxford insisted on making him its chancellor, despite the weary old man’s warning that he would never have enough time to perform the duties.

Henry VII found the Cardinal’s advice indispensable, and until his death he was present at almost every meeting of the council of which records survive. As Thomas More comments, Morton was someone who ‘had gotten by great experience (the very mother and mistress of wisdom), a deep insight in politic, worldly drifts’. More also tells us that while ‘the king put much trust in his counsel, the weal public also in a manner leaned unto him’. Undoubtedly, the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury commanded enormous authority. His speeches as Lord Chancellor at the opening of each parliament have been compared to a present-day monarch’s speech from the throne – they were an accurate statement of the government’s intentions.

Unfairly, he has been accused of inventing the approach to taxation known as ‘Morton’s Fork’, which was used in 1491 when King Henry was extorting benevolences to raise money for an expedition to France. People who had paid already were told that they were obviously rich and could pay much more; those who pleaded poverty were told they were hiding their wealth. But the Cardinal was not responsible for raising taxes. The ‘fork’ has been attributed to Bishop Fox, who was keeper of the Privy Seal, but it really dates from Edward IV’s reign.

Thomas More entered Cardinal Morton’s household as a boy, becoming a page in order to further his education, and struck up a firm friendship with the old man. Morton took a great liking to him, fascinated by his intelligence. ‘This child here, waiting at the table, whomsoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man,’ he would often tell his guests. ‘He was of a mean stature, and though stricken in age, yet bare he his body upright’ is how More remembered the Cardinal during the 1490s. ‘In his face did shine such an amiable reverence, as was pleasant to behold, gentle in communication, yet earnest and sage.’

He had the misfortune of living too long. His nephew Robert, Bishop of Worcester, died in 1497, prematurely ending a promising career. The Cardinal’s successor as Master of the Rolls and his fellow pilgrim to Rome, Robert had clearly been close to him. There is no evidence of any affectionate relationship with his other nephew and heir, Thomas Morton of Cirencester, though at least Thomas was a man of some standing as High Sheriff for Gloucestershire and an MP.

His passion for building never left him. As Archbishop of Canterbury his principal country palace was Knole in Kent, but the late Cardinal Bourchier had completed it and there was nothing he could add. His final architectural triumph was in London. ‘Morton’s Tower’, built in his customary red brick and begun in about 1490, is the majestic gatehouse that still guards the entrance to Lambeth Palace. He used the rooms over it as his personal apartments.

Like Lady Margaret he patronized printers, a superb Missale being printed for him in 1500 by Richard Pynson.

‘Thus, living many days in as much honour as one man might well wish, ended them so godly that his death, with God’s mercy, well changed his life’ is More’s valediction. The Cardinal died of the quartan ague – probably during one of the paroxysms that accompany that type of fever – on 15 September 1500. He was eighty, a remarkable age for his time. His clergy buried him in the tomb that he had prepared for himself in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Over the years it split open and gradually his bones were stolen, the antiquarian Ralph Sheldon obtaining the skull, which was all that was left of them by 1670.9 (It is now at Stoneyhurst, the Jesuit college in Lancashire.)

Unlike Cardinal Wolsey, Cardinal Morton has never caught the imagination of historians. There is no definitive study of him. This may be due to the lack of a gifted contemporary biographer such as Wolsey had, yet Morton is no less important as a statesman, while his career was even more dramatic. As a human being he was far more likeable, with none of Wolsey’s puffed-up arrogance – we have Thomas More’s testimony.


‘Morton’s Tower’ at Lambeth, which he began to build about 1490 when he had become Archbishop of Canterbury.

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