Stuart Bradley – JOHN MORTON: adversary of Richard III, power behind the Tudors (Amberley 2019)
John Morton served the English crown for a almost forty years during one of the most turbulent periods in English history. He wielded considerable influence at the courts of three kings. First, in the Lancastrian household of Henry VI: as an eminent lawyer, he was one of the draftsmen of the bill of attainder against the Yorkists in 1459, which triggered Richard, duke of York’s claim to the throne. In 1471, after the final defeat of the Lancastrians, Morton entered the service of the Yorkist king Edward IV, by whom he was pardoned. He soon became a valued member of Edward’s inner circle of advisors and was appointed Master of the Rolls in1472. Following the death of Edward IV in 1483, he rebelled against Richard III and became a pivotal player in the subsequent Tudor conquest of England. From 1485 until his death in 1500, Morton served as Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor, and as Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury. At various time during his career, therefore, Morton had been head of the judiciary, head of the church in England and head of the king’s government. For the last fourteen years of his life he was, excepting the king, the most powerful man in England. He was the archetypal Tudor enforcer: a model for the likes of Wolsey, Cromwell, Cranmer and the Cecils. And yet despite his fame, a serious study of Morton’s life has been much neglected. Although historians have explored aspects of his career, Dr Stuart Bradley’s recent book is only the second biography of Morton to be published in the five centuries since his death and the first to be published since Victorian times. It seems strange that such an important historical figure is chiefly remembered — if he is remembered at all — for his association with a shabby piece of Tudor logic known as Morton’s Fork. A reassessment of his whole life is, therefore, well overdue.
A major difficulty facing any biographer of John Morton is that we know so little about the private man. What we know of his character and interests we get only from his public works and from what others tell us about him. We know of his personal interest in religious architecture from the church building works he commissioned or patronized. We know of his preoccupation with civil and canon law, and oratory from his few surviving books, and we can gauge his piety and his spirituality from his will. But we have little from him that provides insight into his political reasoning or actions. Even examples of his signature are rare. His cenotaph at Canterbury Cathedral was broken centuries ago and his bones scattered. All that remains of the earthly John Morton is his skull. We do not even have a painted portrait of him.
It is against that background that Dr Bradley has approached his task. He believes that John Morton was a “…man whose story needs to be told in full and who deserves to be brought from the obscurity where for too long he has remained hidden.” To that end he has published a volume containing 288 pages, of which less than half (125) are devoted to a narrative of Morton’s life. In addition, there are 75 pages of appendices, 44 pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. The narrative comprises a conventional rendering of people, dates and places in more or less chronological order, and is focused mainly on Morton’s contribution to the Tudor state. Consequently, the major part of Morton’s life and particularly his career during the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV, and his controversial rebellion against Richard III receive substantially less consideration. That is a regrettable lacuna in this biography, which is made worse, for me, by the author’s rather glib analysis of Morton’s political motives after 1471.
I mention these things now because they are relevant to a question that has puzzled me from the start: is Dr Bradley’s book aimed at the general reader or the scholar? The book’s subtitle, the presentation of the sleeve and the scarcity of detailed analysis in the narrative suggested to me that it is intended for a general readership; however, the quality and the quantity of the footnotes are more indicative of a book aimed at the specialist scholar. If Dr Bradley was writing for the casual reader, his tendency to quote from medieval manuscripts written in 15th century English or Latin, without a modern English translation, is baffling. It is a problem with the main narrative but more particularly with some footnotes, which are written in Latin. Moreover, some of the footnotes might in my personal opinion have been better incorporated into the main narrative, to aid the reading flow and prevent the crosschecking of footnotes becoming a distracting chore.
It would also have helped, I think, if Dr Bradley had included in his introduction information about the process of writing and publishing this book. There is no indication, for instance, whether other scholars saw the manuscript before publication, or commented on it with advice or correction. Finally on this aspect, the schedule of Morton’s clerical and secular appointments was an invaluable source in helping me to quickly chart Morton’s career and his rewards. Similarly, the schedule overview of Henry VII’s and Morton’s itineraries, though long-winded, provided a visual representation of the author’s assertion that Henry VII relied completely on Morton to protect the crown’s interests during his own absence from London.
Even so, and despite my reservation, it is impossible not to admire the depth of Dr Bradley’s research of original manuscript and calendar sources, and of secondary works. This is nothing if not a thoroughly researched account of Morton’s life, which brings to life his learning and the softer, artistic side of his nature to counter the harshness of his reputation as a wily and inveterate schemer.
Dr Bradley makes a good case for Morton’s value and effectiveness as a royal servant. The longevity of his service, the speed with which he became one of Edward IV’s intimates, the trust placed in him by Henry VII and the rich rewards he received for his services are testament to his efficiency and capacity for hard work in a royal cause. His political acumen and his networking skills were particularly important to Henry VII in establishing his reign against the Yorkist remnants after Bosworth. Morton had learned the lessons of the past. He understood the damage done to the authority of the crown by ‘over-mighty subjects’ during the Wars of the Roses. Throughout the closing decades of the fifteenth century, therefore, he worked tirelessly to enforce law and order, and the primacy of royal authority. It was principally with his advice that Henry established his authority, rebuilt royal finances and founded the Tudor dynasty. Morton was also a restraining influence on Henry; a feature that is more obvious after Morton’s death, when Henry’s avaricious nature becomes more pronounced.
The claim that Perkin Warbeck was the youngest son of Edward IV had, if true, obvious, serious consequences for Henry and for Morton. When asked by the Milanese Ambassador if Warbeck was really one of the Princes in the Tower, as claimed by the King of Scots and the Duchess of Burgundy, Morton replied: ‘indeed he is nor reputed the son of King Edward in this kingdom.’ It is a curiously oblique answer and certainly not a plain denial of Warbeck’s claim. “Was this duplicity?’ asks Dr Bradley “Was Morton so implicated in the Tudor regime that recognizing the true claimant was impossible and that by standing with Henry he was seeking to save his own skin? “ Those are good questions and they are important ones. The fate of Edward IV’s sons is the defining mystery of the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, and it is immensely disappointing that having asked these questions, Dr Bradley dismisses the various possibilities out of hand (“It seems highly unlikely”), on the basis that Morton believed the two Princes were already dead and that Warbeck was obviously an imposter – a ‘mawmet‘.
Dr Bradley’s treatment of Morton’s life and service during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III is perhaps one of the least satisfactory aspects of this book. Central to his vindication of Morton’s behaviour is the notion that he was a honourable man whose loyalty to the crown was both absolute and principled. For example, he justifies Morton’s ten year rebellion against Edward IV after Towton thus: “This behaviour pre-figures his actions between 1483 and 1485 when he actively worked against Richard III during his second period in exile. When reviewing Morton’s career it seems he held firmly to principles of hereditary and legal legitimacy, and while Henry may [sic] have been defeated comprehensively in the field he was still the anointed king to whom Morton had sworn allegiance.” To be frank, this statement smacks of special pleading since it ignores the facts. Richard Duke of York claimed the throne in 1460 by right of inheritance; subsequently, the combined lords in parliament confirmed the superiority of his hereditary title over that of the Lancastrian incumbent. As York’s heir, Edward IV confirmed the lords’ judgement in trial by combat at Towton. The corollary of Yorkist legitimacy is, of course, Lancastrian illegitimacy. It was the central tenet of York’s claim that Henry VI, his father and his grandfather were — and always had been — usurpers. In that context, Morton’s adherence to the claim of a usurping Lancastrian and his efforts to gain the support of a foreign power against the legitimate Yorkist king of England can be seen for what they were: treason. To suggest that he remained loyal to Henry from his belief in ‘principles of heredity legitimacy’ is implausible. As an attainted traitor, he had no choice but to flee the realm and join Henry’s retinue if he was to avoid the consequences of his actions. The death of Henry’s heir in battle at Tewkesbury, followed soon afterwards by the death of Henry himself, marked the end of the Lancastrian cause but not the end of Morton’s political career. He accepted an offer to serve at the court of Edward IV.
Dr Bradley’s reason for this volte-face is simply that, “Henry [VI] was now dead and the dispensation of God had to be accepted. It was not what Morton had foreseen, or even wanted, but this was how events had transpired and now he must accept divine justice and accept the new status quo…He was there to serve and serve he did. The principles of hereditary and legal legitimacy came to the fore again.” It is, I have to say an unconvincing explanation, which ignores the possibility that Morton was motivated by political expediency and personal ambition to accept service with Edward IV, a motivation that might better fit what we know of his character. Mancini, writing about the events of the summer 1483 described Morton as being ‘trained in party intrigues under Henry VI’. Francis Bacon, Henry VII’s seventeenth century biographer wrote rather more on Morton’s character. “He was”, we are told “a wise man, and an eloquent, but in his nature harsh and haughty; much accepted by the king, but envied by the nobility and hated by the people.” He won the king by his ‘diligence and secrecy’, and his ‘subterfuge’. By contrast, Thomas More who knew him personally, thought Morton was be a great man and an exemplar of ethical and moral behaviour; I am, nonetheless, mindful of professor Sylvester’s sardonic caveat to More’s opinion: “A less shrewd man than More might well have seen a good deal of political conniving in Morton’s career”
Similarly, Dr Bradley justifies Morton’s implacable disloyalty to Richard III on the rather limited ground of his unswerving loyalty to Edward V, who was the legitimate king (“Morton was clearly not swayed by the tales of bastardy…”). He is depicted as a leading member of the ‘resistance’, and his behaviour is rationalised only “…in terms of what he [Morton] regarded as Richard’s unacceptability as king…..He had no obligation of loyalty to the usurper; indeed, Richard’s actions gave him a moral responsibility to act against him, and the events of 1483 to 1485 show him doing just that.” A few weeks after being arrested and imprisoned by Richard, Morton transferred his allegiance to Henry Tudor. “The single logical explanation for this” suggests Dr Bradley ” is that he along with others …was convinced of the death of the two princes by this time.” It is a view that runs contrary to the opinion of Francis Bacon, who wrote that Morton won Henry Tudor’s favour because he had’…an inveterate malice against the House of York, under whom he had been in trouble.”
I am not going to enter the heated debate between Richard’s critics and his apologists, concerning the events of 1483. However, Dr Bradley’s analysis into Morton’s involvement in those events is, in my personal opinion, so punctuated with misconceptions and anomalies that it is positively misleading. No review could be complete if I didn’t at least mention some of these matters. For example, he dismisses without reason the possibility that Edward IV’s progeny were illegitimate. The Lords petition to Richard asking him to assume the throne and the parliamentary confirmation of his title in Titulus Regius are not even mentioned. Not only that, but Dr Bradley ignores the complex political dynamics of 1483. Edward IV’s legacy to his heirs was a kingdom divided. The force of his personality and his political acumen had held things together for many years. However, following his sudden and unexpected death, the fear of Woodville power resurfaced among the old nobility. William Lord Hastings and the other Yorkist lords were desperate for the duke of Gloucester to come south as Lord Protector to counter Woodville aspirations. The Chronicles and some private correspondence confirm that initially at least Richard was seen as a force for good, since the fear of another civil war was very real. Of course, support for Richard ebbed away once a rumour was spread that the ‘sons of Edward IV had been done away with’. Dr Bradley does not analyse or discuss these issues or the fact that the accusation of regicide against Richard III is based entirely on that rumour, which in all likelihood was started deliberately (possibly by Morton) to subvert a plot to seize custody of Edward V, into a rebellion aimed at putting a Lancastrian pretender on the throne.
But most problematic of all is the absence of any critical analysis of Morton’s motive for transferring his allegiance from Edward IV’s sons to Henry Tudor and also of what he knew about the fate of the two princes. Dr Bradley recognizes the significance of these issues but does not address their complexities. He is satisfied simply to argue that Morton thought the boys were dead. In accepting this explanation so readily, he seems to have overlooked Vergil’s account of a conspiracy that took place during August 1483 between Morton, Henry Stafford the ambitious duke of Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort the equally ambitious mother of Henry Tudor. If it is true, the implication of Vergil’s account is that by early August at the latest Morton had decided to support a Tudor invasion to depose Richard III. Did he know then that the boys were dead? If so, when, why and how did he know? What role did the Tudor conspirators play in the fate of the princes? Furthermore, the rumour of the boys’ death began only after Buckingham had joined the conspiracy. So, when Buckingham wrote to Henry Tudor on the 24 September, inviting him in effect to claim the English throne, he must have known the boys were dead, or he was keeping a guilty secret. It is disappointing that Dr Bradley chose not to explore these questions or to deal with the inferences arising therefrom.
Dr Bradley’s stated aim was to tell John Morton’s story in full. And, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the value of this contribution to that story. This is a reasonable, modern reassessment of John Morton’s life and career, which raises Morton’s historical profile beyond mere responsibility for Morton’s Fork.It demonstrates that despite his softer side, he was in fact the archetypal early Tudor enforcer: a model for the likes of Wolsey, Cromwell and Cranmer. Though by no means a panegyrical work, this biography lacks, in my opinion, a balanced critical analysis of the contentious aspects Morton’s actions and his behaviour prior to 1485: particularly his political motivation. I think, therefore, that the full story of Morton’s life and career is still not written.