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John Morton

The English cleric John Morton was born in Dorset c.1420 and died at Knowles, Kent, on September 15, 1500.

Bishop of Ely and then Archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1500) during the reign of Henry VII, Morton was an implacable foe of the preceding Yorkist regime, most notably King Richard III, and a mentor of Sir Thomas More. In 1493 he was appointed Cardinal of St. Anastasia by Pope Alexander VI. He built the "Old Palace" of Hatfield House where Queen Elizabeth I of England spent much of her girlhood.

Morton may be best known for the catch-22 situation known as "Morton's Fork." Appointed Chancellor of England in 1487, Morton said, "If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure."

Was Morton mistaken or dishonest?

Bishop Morton's second claim to fame is that he is thought to be the source of most Tudor propaganda against Richard III, including the story that he murdered the Princes in the Tower, the murders of his brother George, Duke of Clarence, of his wife's first husband, Edward, Prince of Wales, of Henry VI himself, and of William, Lord Hastings; forcing his wife, Anne Neville, to marry him against her will; planning (before his wife died) to marry his niece Elizabeth of York incestuously (and maybe killing his wife so he could); accusing his own mother of adultery (and his late brother the king of illegitimacy); accusing Jane Shore and Elizabeth Woodville of witchcraft in withering his arm; and being himself illegitimate.

Each of these stories first appears in writing either in Sir Thomas More's The History of King Richard III, which was based on Morton's account (although historians are divided on whether More substantially rewrote it or essentially copied Morton's manuscript, with the majority thinking its style came from More) or in the writings of someone else who had heard the story from Morton. Each of those stories is demonstrably untrue. Like most contemporary "historians", Morton was uninterested in facts, historiography being seen as a branch of literature, a precedent set by the Greek and Roman tradition. Morton had been present at some of those events and knew that Richard had not done what Morton claimed, but Morton's purpose in relating these stories was two-fold: to entertain his readers and to vilify the memory of the king who had been overthrown by his own master. (This is an example of the literary art then called "rhetoric," using words to influence public opinion.)

Thomas B. Costain, writing in the middle of the 20th century, considered the story of Lord Hastings' summary execution to be the "smoking gun" that proved Morton deliberately falsified the record to make King Richard out to be a villain. Morton wrote in his History that at the lords' council meeting in the Tower of London on 13 June 1483, Richard suddenly called his men at arms into the room and had them arrest Hastings for treason and take him outside and chop his head off on a log they found handy. The story is not true -- the records show Hastings was arrested then, but he was formally charged with treason, tried for it, convicted and sentenced, and executed on 18 June in the usual way the law prescribed. The reason Costain found Morton's dubious account so damning is that Morton was there, in the council room, when it happened; in fact, Morton was one of several men there who were detained themselves for participating in the conspiracy with Hastings, held in another room for a short time, and then released instead of being charged.

Another John Morton from Chester, Pennsylvania was the delegate who cast the deciding vote in favor of the United States Declaration of Independence. According to legend, he was late to the meeting, and everyone else had already voted. Despite not having attended the meeting, he was allowed his vote; and he cast it for independence.