MORTON, John (c.1628-99), of Milborne St. Andrew, Dorset.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. c.1628, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir George Morton, 1st Bt., of Milborne St. Andrew by Anne, da. of Sir Richard Wortley of Wortley, Yorks., wid. of Sir Rotherham Willoughby of Aston Rowant, Oxon. educ. travelled abroad 1647. m. (1) 12 Aug. 1662 (with £2,000), Eleanor (d.1671), da. of John Fountaine, serjeant-at-law, of Wood Dalling, Norf., s.p.; (2) lic. 24 Feb. 1676, Elizabeth, da. of Benjamin Culme, DD, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, 1da. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 28 Feb. 1662.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Poole Apr. 1660; commr. for assessment, Dorset 1661-80, Poole 1661-3, 1665-79, Wilts. 1665-9, Lincs. 1665-80, Dorset and Poole 1689-90, corporations, Dorset 1662-3, dep. lt. 1663-83, May 1688-?d., j.p. 1664-80, June 1688-?d., commr. for recusants 1675.2

Gent. of privy chamber by June 1660-85, 1689-d.; commr. for drowned lands 1690.3

Biography

Morton’s ancestors were established in Dorset by the reign of Henry VI, producing a Member for Shaftesbury in 1429, as well as Henry VII’s minister, Cardinal Morton. Morton’s father sat for the county in 1626, but his estate was encumbered and under extent for debt before the Civil War; he was ‘enforced to repair for necessary subsistence to his friends and kindred (though in the King’s quarters)’. With estates valued at £690 p.a., and debts of £26,430, he was allowed to compound for £600.4

Morton was returned for Poole at a contested election in 1661. There was a double return, but his name was on both indentures. An active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was appointed to 267 committees, acted as teller in nine divisions, and made 15 recorded speeches. In the first session he was named to the committees for the uniformity bill and the bill of pains and penalties. His father died an outlaw in 1662, enjoining him to satisfy his creditors ‘in discharge of a good conscience’. Morton secured himself against arrest by a post at Court, and the estate was restored to him in 1663. There is no further evidence of financial difficulties, and at the Stop of the Exchequer he had £1,120 on deposit. Listed as a court dependant in 1664, he served on no further committees of major political importance during the Clarendon administration. But in the autumn of 1667 he was named to the delegation to confer with the Duke of Albemarle (George Monck) about security against highwaymen, and to the committees to inquire into the miscarriages of the war, the sale of Dunkirk, and the charges against Lord Mordaunt. After the Christmas recess he was among those entrusted with inquiries into abuses in the hearth-tax and the state of the militia, and with the bill to prevent the refusal of habeas corpus. He helped to prepare the impeachment of (Sir) William Penn, and, during a debate on the failure to follow up the victory off Lowestoft, impugned the courage of Henry Brouncker, who retorted that Morton might have been present himself, the danger was so slight. Morton was included by Sir Thomas Osborne among the Members who usually voted for supply, and William Constantine, the unsuccessful candidate of 1661, saw to it that his constituents were informed accordingly. Morton complained to the House that this was a reflection on Parliament, and a poisoning of the minds of the people. The matter was referred to the committee of privileges but no more was heard of it. On the other hand his quarrel with Brouncker again came before the House in the 1669 session. An accidental encounter in the street had led to the drawing of swords. Brouncker sent a challenge which Morton referred to the King’s bench under the Duelling Act of 1666 which he had helped to draft; but on government instructions, as he alleged, no proceedings were taken. Edmund Waller I, who had shown scant sympathy with Morton over the Constantine case, ridiculed the affair, and it was allowed to drop. In the following year Morton again stood on his privilege over a dispute about a pond and a water-course, and had the satisfaction of consigning a senior Exchequer official, who was also a Dorset neighbour of his, to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms over Christmas. In the same session he acted as teller against an amendment proposed in committee on the supply bill (16 Feb. 1671). On the death of his colleague, John Fitzjames, Morton canvassed for Thomas Strangways against Shaftesbury’s brother, George Cooper.5

Morton served on the committee which produced the test bill in 1673 and in the next year he came forward as an outright and savage opponent of the Cabal. He pressed for the impeachment of Buckingham as ‘one who has made bold with his own King, in contempt, and with the King of Kings’. He spoke in favour of hearing the charges against Arlington (16 Jan. 1674), acted as teller for the adjournment of the debate (19 Jan.), and a week later was added to the committee preparing the impeachment. On 23 Apr. 1675, he was teller in favour of the third paragraph of the draft address for the removal of Lauderdale, and he presented to the House a petition against him from a Scottish conventicler. He was also named to the important committees considering the exclusion of papists from Parliament and the growth of Popery. On the working lists it was hoped that he might be influenced by Ormonde, who supported the Irish venture of his cousin George Pitt. In 1677 he was marked ‘thrice worthy’ by Shaftesbury. When Sir John Holland complained that his speeches had been misquoted to the King, Morton’s blood rose, and he demanded the names of the flattering courtiers responsible. He continued the tactics of obstruction over supply which he had adopted in 1674, and was the first to move that (Sir) Solomon Swale should be compelled to take the test forthwith. He served on the committee for the recall of English subjects from French service, and with Sir John Coventry provided the House with rather dubious evidence of the pressing of Scotsmen for this purpose, using the Scottish connexions he had formed for his attack on Lauderdale. This attack he resumed in 1678, declaring that the corpulent ex-Covenanter had boxed the compass in religion, and his crimes were as gross as his body. He was added to the committee which prepared reasons for a conference on the growth of Popery, and he was teller against the adjournment of the debate on an address urging an offensive and defensive alliance against France. In the final session of the Cavalier Parliament he was added to the committee of inquiry into the Popish Plot.6

Morton surprisingly failed to find a seat in the first Exclusion Parliament. But in August 1679 he was elected for Weymouth, where he replaced Lord Ashley (Anthony Ashley), a fact which suggests how much Shaftesbury valued his services. He enjoyed the support of George Strangways, and also applied to the head of the family, offering his interest at Bridport in exchange, but received only a noncommittal reply. Morton was very active in the second Exclusion Parliament, sitting on 30 committees. He was added to the committee investigating the origins of the proclamation against tumultuous petitioning. He was entrusted with messages to the King, demanding the dismissal of Jeffreys and Halifax, requesting the proclamation of a day of fasting and humiliation, and conveying the House’s answer to the speech from the throne. He assisted Shaftesbury in selecting Dorset Papists for transplanting, and provided a rascally ex-footman as a witness in the Meal-Tub Plot. His Irish connexions entrusted to him a petition against Sir John Davies, for discouraging belief in the Popish Plot, which he presented to the House, and he was active in examining the Irish witnesses.7

Morton was the only Dorset Member ousted from the commission of the peace in 1680, and in 1683 the lord lieutenant (John Digby) was ordered to strike him off the list of deputies. Nevertheless, he was re-elected in 1681 and 1685, being named to the committee of elections in both Parliaments. He also served in James II’s Parliament on the committee for rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral, a project of great importance to his constituents who were engaged in quarrying and shipping Portland stone. He must have been restored to local office by June 1688, when he was asked for his views on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws; although his replies were negative, he was recommended for retention. Nevertheless, he came in to William at Sherborne in November 1688, and on 3 Dec. tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Weymouth corporation to sign an association for the defence of the Protestant religion.8

A moderately active Member of the Convention Parliament, Morton was named to 31 committees. His only recorded speech was in the grand committee on the state of the nation on 28 Jan. 1689, when he angrily demanded a vote. But this premature proposal was ignored by Richard Hampden, the chairman. He was among those entrusted with drawing up an address to urge the Prince of Orange to place an embargo on shipping to France, and on 22 Feb. 1689 he was named to the committee investigating the escape of Robert Brent, the ‘Popish attorney’. In the second session, he was on the committees to consider the mutiny bill, to examine disclosures of treason and to prepare a new oath of allegiance. The committee investigating complaints about the pressing of seamen, to which he was named on 18 Nov. 1689, was important to his constituency, especially as it was alleged to have caused the loss of merchant ships through undermanning. He supported the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations. Morton was evidently a diligent Member. His speeches were not devoid of the sort of humour that usually goes down well in the House, as, for instance, when a debate on supply had been protracted by accusations of ‘tacking’ and Morton suggested that the Speaker should ‘tack about’ and put the question. Nevertheless, it seems that Morton was neither liked nor respected in the House. In his moments of prominence, there is an unpleasantly vindictive flavour about his speeches and motions, a quality that no doubt explains Shaftesbury’s choice of him as a henchman. But under