Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Morton's fork

King Henry VII acquired the throne of England by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He was well aware that his claim to the throne was not strong, and that challenges to his position were entirely possible. He therefore needed the backing of a strong army, and financial independence so that he would not have to rely on Parliament for the necessary funds.

He therefore set about acquiring more wealth than the monarchy had ever known. Indeed, the cupboard had been virtually emptied by Edward IV (Richard III’s older brother), and needed to be refilled.

Henry’s chancellor, who was given the task of finding the cash, was John Morton (c. 1420-1500) who had previously served Edward IV as an ambassador to France and had been rewarded in 1479 by being made Bishop of Ely. However, he was opposed to Richard III, and has even been accused of inventing the story of the murder, by Richard, of Edward’s sons, the “Princes in the Tower”.

After Bosworth, Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury and, in 1487, his Lord Chancellor. Morton was well aware that a good source of funds was the nobility of England, and he also knew that transferring wealth from them to the king would have the political benefit of making them less able to challenge Henry and more dependent on him for favours in the future.

As a churchman, he knew that the church was itself enormously wealthy, owning vast tracts of land in England. He had no intention of allowing that wealth to find its way into the royal coffers, so it was the secular powers in the land that would have to pay. Of course, Henry’s son, Henry VIII, was to have a very different attitude on this score!

Morton therefore set about a scheme of enforced loans, fines and taxes, designed to extract as much money as possible. In his own words, his policy was expressed as:

"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."

This was therefore the “fork”; if the nobleman was not caught on one prong he was caught on the other. To be fair, one could say that Morton had a point, the assumption being that the aristocrat in question was wealthy in the first place, which was probably not unreasonable.

Whatever the justice or otherwise of Morton’s policy, it was clearly highly successful. Henry’s reign was not a particularly long one, as he died in 1509 at the age of 52. However, the royal treasury was considerably fuller at the end of his reign than at its beginning, helped in great part by Henry’s refusal to spend anything more than was absolutely necessary; for example, he turned down Christopher Columbus’s request to finance his voyage to the “Indies”. Yet it was to Cardinal Morton, fork in hand, that he owed a large part of the wealth that Henry VIII was doubtless delighted to inherit.

In the 20th century the term “Catch 22” entered general use from Joseph Heller’s novel, to mean a choice that is not really there, but the principle is the same as that of Morton’s Fork. The latter term is however still used in some circumstances, such as the “Morton’s Fork coup” in contract bridge. The spirit of Henry VII’s wily old Chancellor is alive and well whenever a person in power makes an offer than cannot be refused.

© John Welford