meaning and origin of ‘Morton’s fork’





Morton’s fork: a practical dilemma, especially one in which both choices are equally undesirable




John Morton (circa 1420-1500), Archbishop of Canterbury, cardinal and Lord Chancellor to King Henry VII, is traditionally believed to have developed a method of levying forced loans by arguing that those who were obviously rich could afford to pay, and those who lived frugally must have amassed savings.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), philosopher, politician and Lord Chancellor, was the first to describe the method attributed to Morton in The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seuenth (London, 1622). (In this text, benevolence denotes a forced loan levied by Henry VII on his subjects; the benevolence was first so called in 1473 when astutely asked, without legal authority, by Edward IV as a token of goodwill towards his rule.):

There is a Tradition of a Dilemma, that Bishop Morton the Chancellour vsed, to raise vp the Beneuolence to higher Rates; and some called it his Forke, and some his Crotch [= crutch]. For hee had touched [misprint for couched] an Article in the Instructions to the Commissioners, who were to leuie the Beneuolence; That if they met with any that were sparing, they should tell them, That they must needs haue, because they laid vp; and if they were spenders, they must needs haue, because it was seene in their Port, and manner of liuing. So neither kinde came amisse.

In Morton’s fork, the second term means a choice of alternatives. The word was used in this sense in The bloody brother (London, 1639), a play written in collaboration by John Fletcher (1579-1625), Philip Massinger (1583-1640) and Ben Jonson (circa 1573-1637); a character who is about to be hanged sings the following:

But I that was so lusty,
And ever kept my bottles,
That neither they were musty,
And seldome lesse than pottles,
For me to be thus stopt now,
With hemp in stead of cork sir,
And from the gallows lopt now,
Shewes that there is a fork sir,
In death, and this the token,
Man may be two wayes killed,
Or like the bottle, broken,
Or like the wine, be spilled.

In The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, from the earliest times till the reign of King George IV (1847), the British politician, lawyer and author John Campbell (1779-1861) mentioned Henry VII’s role in tax-levying:

(from The Southern Quarterly Review (Charleston) – October 1847)
It is well known that Henry was exceeding avaricious and died possessed of great riches. He induced his Chancellor Morton to claim the “benevolence” which had been expressly prohibited by act of Parliament. In assessing this tax, the Chancellor would tell those who spent but little, that they were better able to pay it, and those who spent freely, that they must be rich or they would not live in such style. In this way he caught all, and his argument was called “Morton’s fork.”

And, in Dictionary of National Biography (New York, 1894), William Arthur Jobson Archbold explained that John Morton probably had in reality a moderating influence:

He assisted in collecting the benevolences in 1491 for the French war, and has been traditionally known as the author of ‘Morton’s Fork’ or ‘Morton’s Crutch,’ but the truth seems rather to be that he and Richard Foxe¹ did their best at the council to restrain Henry’s avarice.

¹ Richard Foxe (1448-1528) was an English churchman made Lord Privy Seal by Henry VII.

The earliest figurative use of Morton’s fork that I have found is from the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette, and Paisley Herald (Renfrewshire, Scotland) of Saturday 16th May 1885:

Mr. Childers²’s Budget is highly popular amongst the Temperance party. It places the Teetotal working-man in a singularly favourable position. He is hurt neither by the increased income-tax nor by the increased duty on beer and spirits. A few years ago the water-drinkers, especially amongst the lower orders, were insignificant in numbers; but in these days blue-ribbonites [sic]³ form a very considerable proportion of the community, and it will not do for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to leave this fact permanently out of his consideration. One prong of “Morton’s fork” certainly applies to the Teetotalers [sic]. If they do not spend money on liquor, they must be better able than others to contribute to the national necessities.

² Hugh Childers (1827-96), Chancellor of the Exchequer 1882-85
³ A blue ribbon was worn as a sign by a person who had taken a pledge of temperance or belonged to a temperance movement.

The author of a letter published in The Times (London) on 28th September 1888 signed themself Morton’s fork:

Morton's fork - The Times - 28 September 1888


Sir,—Whatever Archdeacon Thomas may reply to his somewhat angry correspondent, I take leave to say to the latter that the farmers of Meifod are dishonest.
Either the tithe is the titheowner’s, in which case they should give it him, or it is public property, in which case they should not keep it in their own pockets. How will they escape?
                                                                                                                                                 MORTON’S FORK.

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