Book Review – John Morton: Adversary of Richard III and Power Behind the Tudors by Stuart Bradley

By Nathen Amin

John Morton may not be a name familiar to the casual observer of English history, but few men were as integral in establishing the Tudor Dynasty upon the English throne as this son of Dorset who rose steadily through the church ranks to become an archdeacon, bishop, archbishop, and finally in 1493, a cardinal.

In his introduction to this fascinating project ‘John Morton, Adversary of Richard III, Power Behind the Tudors’, Dr Stuart Bradley declares the subject of his biography to have been ‘a man of immense ability’ whose story deserves to be brought ‘from the obscurity where for too long he has remained hidden’, and by the end of this concise study, it is clear to the ready he has done exactly this.

Morton was born around 1420, and received his first appointment of note when he was made a Rector of Shellingford, Berkshire, in 1453. Within two years, however, this rising churchman’s career was impeded by the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, and having pledged his support towards the Lancastrian cause, was captured by the Yorkists in 1461. Though he escaped captivity and fled into exile, by 1471 Morton was reconciled to the House of York under Edward IV, and served this king until his death in 1483.

Opposing the rise of Richard III, during whose reign he became an ‘agent provocateur and master spy’, Morton played a ‘major role in coordinating the rebellion and ongoing subversion throughout Richard’s reign and in the machinations that resulted in the accession of Henry VII’. It was thus Morton became the ‘power behind the Tudors’ as described in the book’s subtitle. One of the few men the new king had utter trust in, Morton ‘gritty doggedness’ thereafter, as Archbishop, Cardinal and Chancellor, helped establish the fledgling dynasty, refilling the royal coffers and, with pen and parchment rather than sword and shield, helping fend of repeated challenges to the Tudor ascendancy.

The book is clearly the work of an author who really understands the period he is writing about, with extensive use of source material such as chancery documents, diplomatic correspondence and chronicler accounts, with insightful analysis to bolster his argument – an unusual but appreciated inclusion is the occasional use of tables within the text to support a claim, for example on page 38 which shows a breakdown of the amount of Patent Rolls issued for each month between 1476-1485, allowing the reader to really see for themselves how the conflict of the day affected government business. Rather than just make the point, Bradley invites the reader to see just how he arrived at this deduction.  The level of research is not lacking, either; chapter 6, for example, has 123 instances of endnotes.

It was the opinion of the 17th century antiquarian George Buck that Morton was ‘a stern and haughty man, odious at court and more generally so in the country’, an ‘evil spirit transformed into an angel of light and wearing the habit of religion’; any reader will put Bradley’s work down full informed this caricature of the cardinal was not a fair statement, and does not stand up to scrutiny. As the author himself declares, ‘the arguments of Ricardian apologists are difficult to reconcile with the evidence’, and that particular king exempted, Morton was nothing other than ‘the exponent of faithful loyal service’ to the other kings he served, namely Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VII.

I am presently unaware of any other biography of Morton, certainly not a modern publication, so Dr Bradley’s book is a welcome addition to 15th century study, bringing, as he intended, this intriguing royal servant out of the shadows. Though only 135 pages (with another 75 as an appendices), it is not long, but covers everything that is known about Morton’s life, using all surviving source material and commendably avoiding the common trap of merely padding out a biography with semi-relevant fluff that may or may not be pertinent to the study at hand. Bradley never loses sight of his subject, and the result is truly a scholarly study with a fresh angle. Morton was ‘a man whose story deserves to be told’, and here, Bradley has made a highly admirable attempt to do so.

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