A Cardinal's Skull
While in the north of England I had the opportunity of visiting the Jesuit College of Stonyhurst, Lancashire, which is a fantastic treasure-trove of Catholic relics and antiquities. Sitting on one display cabinet was the skull of Cardinal Morton, one of the last great Churchmen before the Reformation.
Born at Milborne St Andrew or Bere Regis in Dorset, he was educated at nearby Cerne Abbey and then Oxford as a lawyer and soon attracted the attention of Cardinal Bourchier. He rose up the ecclesiastical ladder, ending up as Bishop of Ely (1478), Archbishop of Canterbury (1486), Lord Chancellor (1487), and Chancellor of Oxford University (1494). In 1493, he became Cardinal Priest of S Anastasia.
Fifteenth century England was in the grips of a civil war between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions, both fighting for the Crown. Morton was a staunch Lancastrian and was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London after the battle of Towton (1461). Morton is, in fact, the only Cardinal to have managed to escape from this formidable fortress-prison. He spent several years in France with the Lancastrian government-in-exile. It was only with Henry VI’s final defeat at Tewkesbury and subsequent murder in 1471 that he was able to give himself to Edward IV’s Yorkist regime: hence his promotion to the See of Ely in 1479. One of the more unexpected results of his rule in the fenland See was the building of a twelve-mile dyke from Peterborough to Wisbech known as ‘Morton’s Leame’. This was a pioneering feat and, later in Canterbury, Morton turned his mind to the drainage of lands in Kent.
In 1485 Henry Tudor landed in England and defeated the King at Bosworth Field. Henry found it difficult to assert his authority, especially in the North, and increasingly relied upon a small circle of advisers, including Morton. Morton was held responsible by many for the high taxation that marked the first decade of Henry VII’s reign thus it was easy for the early seventeenth century historian Francis Bacon to falsely ascribe to Morton a notorious principle for tax assessment that he called ‘Morton’s Fork’. This device involved ‘persuading prodigals to part with their money because they did spend it most, and the covetous because they might spare it best’.
Morton kept a magnificent court at Lambeth, where the young St Thomas More, from the age of twelve, served as a page and attended the small private school. It was thanks to Morton’s nomination that the future martyr got a place at Canterbury College, Oxford. More was clearly influenced by Morton, as can be seen most clearly in his controversial History of Richard III – his old mentor would have undoubtedly approved of his account of the ‘croke backed’ tyrant and usurper. Although Francis Bacon said that Morton was ‘in his nature harsh and haughty…envied by the nobility and hated of the people’, this comment does not at all agree with the more reliable witness of Thomas More who held as the model of an astute and prudent administrator. William Roper’s biography of Sir Thomas More recalls that Morton also had a high estimation of the young Thomas More: 'in whose wit and towardness the Cardinal much delighting, would often say of him unto the nobles that divers times dined with him: “This child here waiting at table, whosoever shall live to see it, will pove a marvellous man.”'
Morton died at the manor of Knole, near Sevenoaks, on 15 September 1500 during a plague epidemic and was buried in the crypt of his Cathedral, close to the shrine of Our Lady of the Undercroft. His skull somehow ended up at Stonyhurst.