September 15 – An archbishop and taxman
Posted By Claire on September 15, 2022
On this day in Tudor history, 15th September 1500, in the reign of Henry VII, John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, cardinal and Henry’s Lord Chancellor, died at the archbishop’s country residence of Knole in Kent.
Archbishop Morton was not a very popular man due to his role in Henry VII’s financial policies. However, he died a natural death, from plague, rather than coming to the sticky and brutal ends of his colleagues, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson.
John Morton is associated with the tax rationale Morton’s Fork, but was it really down to him?
On this day in Tudor history, 15th September 1500, in the reign of King Henry VII, John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, cardinal and Henry’s Lord Chancellor, died at Knole, the Archbishop’s country residence, from the plague. He was buried in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral.
He has gone down in history for his unpopular taxation rationale Morton’s Fork which meant that everyone, no matter their status and situation, was liable to taxes. He 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”- so the poor man was living frugally and saving his money, so could afford taxes, and the rich man with all his money, could also afford taxes. There was no way out.
However, even though it’s referred to as Morton’s Fork, and that term now means “a false dilemma”, author Nathen Amin points out that this policy of taxation was not Morton’s and did not even originate in Henry VII’s reign, it was actually used in Edward IV’s reign – interesting!
So Morton’s Fork actually has little to do with Morton, even though Henry VII’s financial policies had become very unpopular by the end of his reign.
So let’s have some actual facts about John Morton…
- He was born in around 1420 in Dorset
- It is thought that he was educated at Balliol College, Oxford
- He practised law as well as being a clergyman
- He served Henry VI as Keeper of the Privy Seal and was a lawyer in his government
- He changed sides from the Lancastrians to the Yorkists after the death of King Henry VI and was pardoned for his past actions, such as being responsible for drafting the Bill of Attainder against Richard, Duke of York, by Edward IV.
- He served Edward IV as Master of the Rolls and also had many church offices in his reign, including being Archdeacon of Winchester, Berkshire, Norfolk and Leicester.
- He also served Edward IV as a diplomat
- In 1478, he was appointed Bishop of Ely
- He was not a supporter of King Richard III and spent some time imprisoned in Brecknock Castle
- In 1486, after the accession of King Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, he was made Archbishop of Canterbury and then, in 1487, Lord Chancellor
- In 1493, Pope Alexander VI made him a cardinal
- Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, served in Morton’s household as a page and More used Morton as one of his sources for his work “History of King Richard III”
- Morton was the builder of the Old Palace of Hatfield, the palace used by Elizabeth I as her main residence before she became queen. He used it as the bishop of Ely’s residence
- Morton, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson are known for their work in restoring the Crown’s wealth via taxation. Of course, Henry VIII had Empson and Dudley executed in 1510, but Morton was already dead.