John Morton, Bishop of Ely

Probably born prior to 1430, Morton had used his intellect and “silver tongue” to pursue money & power. By 1479 he was finally elevated to  Ely and Edward IV made him Master of Rolls. In 1483, despite Richard making him part of the Lord Protector’s council, he conspired with other former councillors of Edward IV to get rid of the Protector from the North. At the time there were four main centres of power, each competing for control of the new King and hence the country. There was Richard, as the Lord Protector, with his friends and Northerners; the old nobility;  the Woodville clan and the former councillors of Edward IV. Richard, by his actions at Stoney Stratford made a temporary union with the old nobility, an action which precipitated the strange link between Edward IV’s councillors and the Woodvilles. The “strange link” produced a conspiracy was quickly discovered and its leader (Hastings) executed, the other conspirators were imprisoned.

After a stay in the tower, Morton was entrusted to Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who secured him in his castle in Brecon. It is possible that Buckingham requested this arrangement from Richard. It is certain that once they were both at Brecon, Morton and Buckingham discussed matters. It is very probable that Morton strongly influenced Buckingham. It was through Morton that Buckingham contacted Margaret Beaufort and hence her son, Henry Tudor. This association lead to the failed rebellion in October of 1483. Before the end, Morton abandoned Buckingham and fled to join Henry Tudor in France. In the attainders that followed the rebellion, Morton was stripped of everything but his life and title. For a man who craved money and power, this must have been devastating. His lot was now tied to Tudor’s and he became one of Henry’s closest councillors.

Morton returned to England in late 1485, following the Battle of Bosworth. In 1486, Henry VII rewarded his friend by helping him become Archbishop of Canterbury. In March 1487 he was made Chancellor of England, and in 1493 Henry helped him become a Cardinal. He died in 1500, but his story and legacy do not die with him.

In 1490, Morton took into his household, twelve-year-old Thomas More. More stayed in his household until he went to Oxford at fourteen. During those two years More acted and improvised in morality plays and listened to Morton’s stories of life at court. Years later, among More’s papers were found two copies of an unfinished history of Richard. Both were relatively crude in style compared to More’s published works. Both broke off abruptly during a recorded conversation between Morton and Buckingham at Brecon. The “more complete” version of the manuscript is in Latin, while the other is in English, and it is this Latin version, that some historians have credited to Morton himself. This unfinished history became the foundation for the subsequent Tudor history of Richard, and was certainly known to the author of Shakespeare’s Richard III. This in turn gives Morton the credit for initiating Richard’s 500 years of bad press.

In a lighter vein, Morton was buried in a shallow temporary grave before an altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Over his body was placed a marble slab with a brass plaque. It was intended that his body would be moved to a more showy and significant tomb in the middle of the nave, but this never happened. During the English Civil War, the brass plaque was removed to make weapons and the marble cracked. A hole opened and the grave was looted of items including bones, perhaps by devout souvenir seekers. Finally the skull and a few remaining items were removed for safe-keeping by a nephew of the then Archbishop. The nephew kept the skull in a box as a curiosity. It is unknown what happened to it but it appears that it may have passed to Stonyhurst College where it is now collecting dust in a box in a cupboard in Lancashire. In light of what happened to Richard’s body this may be seen as a form of justice.

P. Egelstaff

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