Morton, John an English cardinal and archbishop, one of the most noted characters of the history of England during the Middle Ages, figuring prominently in the political history of Europe, was eldest son of Richard Morton, of Milbourne St. Andrews, in Dorsetshire, and was born at Bere in that county in 1410. He received his primary education at the Benedictine abbey of his native place, and thence went to Baliol College, Oxford, to study canon and civil law; and after having become master of arts, went to London, and practiced law in the Court of Arches, retaining, however, all the time his connection with the university. In 1453 he was made principal of Peckwater Inn, having been previously ordained. In 1450 he was appointed subdean of Lincoln, and in 1458 he was collated to the prebend of Fordington with Writhlington, in the cathedral of Salisbury, which he resigned in 1476. In the same year he was installed prebendary of Covingharp, in the cathedral of Lincoln. In 1472 he was collated by archbishop Bourchier to the rectory of St. Dunstan's-in-the-East, London; and the same year also to the prebend of Isledon, in the cathedral of St. Paul, which he exchanged in the following year for that of Chiswick. In 1473 he was appointed master of the rolls, and in 1474 archdeacon of Winchester and Chester. In the following year he became archdeacon of Huntington and prebendary of St. Decuman, in the cathedral of Wells. In April 1476, he was installed prebendary of South Newbald, in the metropolitan church of York, and archdeacon of Berkshire; and in January following he was made also archdeacon of Leicester. Rarely were appointments bestowed so liberally upon any one as upon Morton. But the reason is easily found. While yet practicing as an advocate in the Court of Arches, his eminent qualities were a matter of general comment, and brought him to the notice of cardinal Bourchier, who, besides conferring many of the above preferments on him, had introduced him to Henry VI, by whom he was made one of the privy council. To this unfortunate prince Morton adhered with so much fidelity, while others deserted him, that even his successor, Edward IV, admired and recompensed his attachment, took him into his council, and was principally guided by his advice. He also in the same year, 1478, made him bishop of Ely and lord chancellor of England; and at his death he appointed him one of his executors. On this account, however. he was considered in no favorable light by the protector, .afterwards Richard III, and he was marked as one whose life was required to give peace to the sovereign. Accordingly, when Morton and others assembled in the Tower, June 13, 1483, to consult about the coronation of Edward V, the bishop, with archbishop Rotheram and lord Stanley, were taken into custody, as known enemies to the measures then in agitation. Morton's execution was expected by everybody. His numerous friends, however, made bold, particularly those at the University of Oxford, and these learned men addressed king Richard "in the most courteous language of which their Latinity was capable in behalf of their imprisoned patron; and praised him and apologized with such success that the king relented so far as to direct his being sent to Brecknock, in Wales, to be in charge of the duke of Buckingham" (Williams). He was accordingly sent to the castle of Brecknock, but thence made his escape to the Isle of Ely, and soon after, disguising himself, went to the Continent, to Henry, earl of Richmond. It is said that the plan of marrying Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, to Henry, and thus, by joining the white rose with the red, effecting a coalition between the jarring parties of York and Lancaster, was originally suggested by Morton. In 1485 the word came to Morton, then in Flanders, that his enemy had been dethroned, and with it an invitation for his attendance upon the coronation of the new king, afterwards Henry VII. He returned forthwith, easily got his attainder reversed, and was at once admitted into the :confidence of his new royal master, who was no sooner seated on his throne than he made Morton one of his privy council; and on the death of cardinal Bourchier in 1486, secured his election to the archbishopric of Canterbury, a position which he honored, and in which he accomplished much for the good of his country.
Williams thus sums up his official character and conduct (Lives of the English Cardinals [Lond. 1862, 2 volumes, 8vo], 2:167 sq.):
"In the performance of his ecclesiastical duties Morton took high ground. To a considerable extent he favored the pretensions of the papal court, but while doing so exercised a vigilant superintendence over the Anglican establishment, and maintained a severe discipline. The objects with which the principal religious houses of a mixed charitable and religious order had been founded were gradually lost sight of; and the great abbeys and priories throughout the country, with a few honorable exceptions, had become so notorious for the luxurious and depraved living of the fraternities, as to excite satirical attacks from both clergy and laity. The archbishop of Canterbury, knowing the scandalous practices that existed in his own diocese, as well as in others, was anxious to remedy so grave an evil. He heard the reports of various persons likely to be well informed on the subject, and then sent to Rome for instructions. He was well aware that without die support from the highest quarter no amelioration of the disease, which he knew to be eating like a leprosy into the Church, could be effected. The immorality of the English clergy had become so flagrant in the last quarter of the fifteenth century that the primate readily procured the pope's authority for a visitation. He proceeded from one to another of the monasteries and abbeys, and laid the result before a provincial synod. His exposure of folly and profligacy produced no great effect upon the assembly; admonitions and cautions Were bestowed upon the great offenders, but the swarm of clerical roysterers, sportsmen, and swashbucklers were scarcely at all interfered with judicially. The severest thing done was the sending around to religious houses a written address dilating on the scandalous lives that many priests were living, and exhorting them to reform.
"The state of things was atrocious enough apparently to have caused the bones of the English pope to stir in his crave with indignation. Ample provocation had been given for the extreme exercise of the powers granted by the head of the Church thus disgraced and outraged; but archbishop Morton presently found that he had commenced a task which he had neither the power nor the courage to complete. Probably he was made aware that the abbot William had influential friends in England as well as in Rome, as such delinquents could always secure, and that his proper punishment was impossible; or discovered that St. Alban's was only one of the many establishments in England in which prodigality and profligacy flourished — in short, that the evil was too formidable to be grappled with successfully by him. So no further step was taken in the reformation that even then had become imperative in the opinion of right-minded Catholics. Several attempts had previously been made to check clerical foppery, but with scarcely any result. The archbishop made a strenuous effort at reform in this direction, threatening with sequestration those who offended by assuming the extravagances of fashion adopted by the laity. Priests were prohibited wearing hoods, with fur or without, doubled with silk, or adorned with a horn or short tail, or having camllet about the neck. They were not to array themselves with sword or dagger, or with decorated belts, but were to walk abroad in their proper crowns and tonsures, showing their ears.
"A most remarkable document was the bull of Pope Innocent VIII, published in 1489, stating that the English clergy were for the most part dissolute and reprobate, and giving authority to the primate for their correction and reformation. The latter was earnest in the cause, for he got the pope's bull backed by an act of Parliament for the sure and likely reformation of priests, clerks, and religious men, culpable, or by their demerits openly reputed of incontinent living in their bodies, contrary to their order, and directed punishment to be awarded to fornication, incest, or any other fleshly incontinency (Statutes at Large, 2:65). The king took special interest in this praiseworthy movement, and encouraged the primate to go through with his work. With the cooperation of pope, king, and Parliament, he increased his exertions, and proceeded with all the state he could assume, in accordance with his exalted spiritual and temporal offices, to make visitation after visitation at Rochester, Worcester, and Salisbury, twice; Lichfield and Coventry, Bath and Wells, Winchester, Lincoln, and Exeter. While he corrected abuses, he collected money, as he found the offenders ready to
"'Compound for sins they were inclined to, By damning those they had no mind to.'"
That Morton found favor in the eyes of his king is evident, inasmuch as he made this archbishop also lord chancellor. In a council of his suffragans, which the archbishop held in February, 1486, at St. Paul's, in London, the corruptions in the Anglican Church were further considered, and measures adopted to deepen the religious fervor of the people. It was also provided that "every bishop of the province shall cause a service and six masses to be said for the soul of a departed bishop, within a month from the time of their hearing of his death." Some measures adopted by this council were made the subjects of attack. Among other arrangements it was provided that ecclesiastics should not preach against the papacy or against any ecclesiastical officers before the lay people. Morton's intent, no doubt, was to favor and please the papacy in so far as was at all consistent with the end he desired to attain. He certainly did not mean to check any reforms. Thus he provided that if any spiritual person behaved himself wickedly, the ordinary was to be informed; and if the ordinary did not correct such offender, the archbishop was to be appealed to; and, finally, if he did not punish the delinquent, then it was the said prelate's will that the preachers generally should declaim against him.
In 1493 Morton, after repeated and urgent requests of the English king, was created a cardinal by pope Alexander VI. The few years that remained him for activity he employed in the work to which he had dedicated his life. He instituted and promoted reforms in the Church wherever his keen eye could detect their need. He also labored assiduously to advance the interests of his royal master, and even went so far as to urge upon the pope the canonization of Henry VI. He failed in this, but succeeded in securing the canonization of Anselm, which he had also desired. He died, according to the Canterbury Obituary, Tuesday, 16 kal. Oct.; but according to the Register of Ely, September 15, 1500. Leland says that cardinal Morton employed the fortune he possessed in building and repairing Church property at Canterbury, Lambeth, Maidstone, Allington Park, Charing, Ford, and Oxford; it is said also that he repaired the canon-law school, assisted in the building of the divinity school, and the rebuilding of St. Mary's Church. In February 1494, he was elected chancellor of the University of Oxford, in which year, Fuller says, he greatly promoted the rebuilding ;of Rochester bridge. Among other public-spirited enterprises which his liberality conduced to execute, was the famous cut or drain from Peterborough to Wisbeach, a tract of upwards of twelve miles across a fenny country, which proved a great benefit to his diocese and to the public, and was completed entirely at his expense. This is still known by the name of Morton's Leame. "Cardinal Morton," says Williams, "has left solid claims on the respect of posterity; but more enduring than his benevolent bequests, and his useful buildings and improvements, have been his labors to effect a reformation in the Church. They were not productive of much immediate result, but helped materially to bring about the vigorous movement which was successful in the following reign. His investigations proved beyond the possibility of doubt that the evils of the papal system had nearly reached their limit" (page 190). Cardinal Morton was the patron of Sir Thomas More, who eulogized him in his Utopia. The Life of King Richard III, sometimes attributed to More, is believed to have been written by Morton; and if Morton did not himself write the Life, it seems to be quite clear that More (who was in early life a page in Morton's house) must have derived part of his information directly from the archbishop., See Tanner, Bibl. Brit. Lib. pages 532, 533; Bentham, Hist. of Ely (Cambr. 1771), pages 179-181; Budden, Life of John Morton (1607); Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, volume 5; Williams, Lives of the English Cardinals, volume 2, chapter 7; Collier, Eccles. Hist. (see Index in volume 8).