John Morton came from a middling gentry family of the South West, in Somerset and Dorset. He was probably born somewhere around 1420, educated in Cerne Abbey Dorset and probably Balliol College, Oxford. The first official sighting of him is when he became a notary in 1447. His early career was very much centred in Oxford, where he seems to have been very successful as a proctor of the Chancellor's office, and principal of civil law. From 1453, his career began to take off as he entered royal service - Chancellor for Edward the Prince of Wales from 1456 for example. He was also accumulating benefices and wealth, as an eminent lawyer in government service would expect.
He'd by then established a reputation as an effective administrator, and impressive lawyer. Over the next decade, he was a firm adherent of the Lancastrian cause. When the Lancastrian cause crashed and burned at Towton in 1461, he fled for Scotland but was captured and imprisoned in the Tower. This was not a man to be negotiated with at this time, and he was part of the bill of attainder.
Morton was determined to see Henry and Margaret back on the throne. He escaped from the Tower and made his way to the court in exile; he was indispensable to Queen Margaret, accompanying her on her return to Northumberland to fight for the crown in 1462 and 1463. But as the Lancastrian star then waned, he was not a man to sit around, and started to study theology at the university of Louvain - though still a part of the court in exile.
He was there again with Margaret at Cerne Abbey in 1470, but when the readeption failed and Edward was killed at Tewkesbury, he finally bowed to the inevitable and became reconciled to Edward. Here was a man too talented, energetic and ambitious to be held down; and Edward was clever enough to recognise that.
Servant of Edward IV
Morton's rise under Edward was fast and impressive, and reflected his central value in Edward's administration; in 1472, he became Master of the Rolls, during which time the chancery court changed, expanded and grew. Envoy to France and part of the treaty of Picquigny - with that mark of distinction, thought worthy of a stipend from King Louis in 1475. He acquired a string of archdeaconries and prebends, until in 1478 he was made Bishop of Ely.
Moton had been a committed and active Lancastrian; now he was a committed and loyal Edwardian; and observers noted how much Edward relied on his council. Together with Hastings and Rotherham, Morton was at the very heart of Edward's government.
He was therefore a powerful enemy when Richard III removed him during the events of 13th June. He was given to Buckingham to guard in his castle at Brecknock, and maybe that was one of Richard's more critical mistakes; certainly Buckingham, rebelled almost immediately, and it's not hard to visualise the iron-willed Morton working on the volatile and ambitious Buckingham, and turning his thoughts to rebellion.
But the rebellion failed; and once again Morton became part of a court in exile, that of Henry Tudor, not finally become a viable candidate through Richard's efforts and those of the French. He was a key conspirator from the moment Richard of Gloucester removed him on June 13th. And quite possibly he was a key conspirator before then. Mancini noted that Morton, Hastings and Rotherham had 'foregathered', and in this lies some support for Gloucester's claim of a conspiracy to remove him. It seems at least likely that these 3 men had the influence and connections within Edward IV's administration, and history of service to lead any resistance to a threat the position of his son, Edward V.
Servant of Henry VII and Morton's Fork
Morton played a critical part in Henry VII's tyranny; he was a member of the king's council and made Chancellor from 1487, constantly present and employed by the king to drive through a rationalisation of the law that resulted in the infamous Star Chamber. He was part of the harsh personal taxation of the nobility; the relentless, bullying method became known as Morton's Fork - by which those who entertained king or chancellor lavishly were told that they could obviously afford to contribute handsomely, while those who, to avoid this fate, were parsimonious, that they must have a great deal stored away from which they could give. While it has been argued that Morton actually acted to soften the demands of the king, there's no doubt he was Henry's companion in his policy, and attracted great hatred as a result.
Archbishop and death
In 1483 on the death of the aged Thomas Bourchier, Morton became Archbishop of Canterbury, and in 1493 Cardinal. As Archbishop, Morton energetically built the central power of the English church hierarchy; balancing the liberties of the church against royal control, but seeking to make sure English control was not bypassed by Rome. He died in 1500 at Sevenoaks in Kent, and was buried in Canterbury cathedral.
The opinions of contemporary writers vary; one accused him of acting “from base and sordid motives,” even of sorcery. As a young man the statesman and writer Sir Thomas More served in the Morton household. He later wrote that Morton was “a man not more venerated for his high rank than for his wisdom and virtue.”
Other writers said he was energetic, sometimes brusque with polished manners, exemplary as a lawyer, one possessed of a great mind and a phenomenal memory. Through discipline and hard study he improved the talents which nature had bestowed upon him. Writing at some distance of time, Bacon described him as a wise man but “a harsh and haughty one.”
Morton was without doubt talented; he became the right hand man at least of one queen and 2 kings. He was clearly a ruthless man, a player at the very highest level of politics. But without doubt effective; cultured, but along the way unsurprisingly gathered plenty of hatred, particularly from the nobility under Henry VII.