Sir Thomas Malory; Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory is the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, said to have been completed in 1469 (or 1470) then revised and printed by William Caxton in 1485. Malory’s most commonly accepted historical identity as a Warwickshire knight is based on the research and advocacy of George Lyman Kittredge (1860-1941), an American scholar and noted authority on the English language and literature, who published a monograph “Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?” in 1897.
[ See also
a summary of Le Morte d'Arthur ]
In brief: according to the Kittredge version Thomas Malory lived at Newbold Revell in Warwickshire, England. He served in France under the earl of Warwick and was a Lancastrian during the Wars of the Roses. He was knighted in 1442 and entered the British Parliament representing Warwickshire in 1445, then in around 1450 he turned towards a life of crime, being accused of armed assault and rape. Being imprisoned for most of the 1450s (mostly in London’s Newgate Prison) Malory the “knyght presoner” wrote an Arthurian legend which he named ‘The noble and joyous historye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur’ and died shortly after its completion (c. 1470).
The life of Thomas Malory in more detail
Thomas Malory was born in around 1416. His father was John Malory, a landowner in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire, who was twice sheriff, five times a Member of the British Parliament, and a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate). John Malory married Philippa Chetwynd and they had several daughters and one son, Thomas.
Professor P.J.C. Field in ‘The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory’ (1971) says that almost nothing is known of Malory’s early years. As a young man of 23 he was a respectable country landowner with a growing interest in politics, dealing in land, witnessing deeds for his neighbours, and acting as a parliamentary elector. By 1441 he had become a knight, and his life so far suggested a degree of political and social ambition.
Sir Thomas married Elizabeth Walsh of Wanlip in Leicestershire, who bore him a son, Robert. In 1443 Malory was charged with wounding and imprisoning a Thomas Smith and stealing his goods, but the charge apparently fell through. In 1445 he was elected Member of Parliament for Warwickshire and served on commissions to assess tax-exemptions in the county. The year 1449 was a time of increasing division and unrest in England, eventually to leading to civil war. This part of Malory’s life has the stamp of a traditional English country gentleman, but then its course, inexplicably, took a dramatic change.
Malory’s life of crime
On January 4th 1450 he and 26 other armed men were said to have laid an ambush for the Duke of Buckingham in the Abbot of Combe’s woods near Newbold Revell. On May 23rd he allegedly raped Joan Smith at Coventry. The charge was brought by her husband under a statute of Richard II intended to make elopement into a crime of rape, even when the woman had consented. On May 31st he allegedly extorted money from two residents of Monks Kirby, then on August 6th allegedly raped Joan Smith again and stole money and goods from her husband. On August 31st he again allegedly committed extortion from another resident of Monks Kirby.
On March 5th 1451 a warrant was issued for Malory’s arrest and a few weeks later he and various accomplices were alleged to have stolen cattle in Warwickshire. The Duke of Buckingham and 60 men from Warwickshire tried to arrest him but in the meantime Malory apparently raided Buckingham’s hunting lodge, killing deer and doing damage to the property.
He was arrested and imprisoned at Coleshill, but soon escaped (by swimming the moat), then reportedly raided Combe Abbey with a band of one hundred men, breaking down doors, insulting the monks, and stealing money. By January 1452 he was in prison in London, where he spent most of the next eight years waiting for trial. He was bailed out several times and at one point joined a horse-stealing expedition across East Anglia in ended in Colchester jail, from which he escaped too, but was recaptured and taken back to prison in London.
Malory and the Wars of the Roses
During King Henry VI’s insanity, when the Duke of York was Lord Protector, Malory was given a royal pardon, which the court dismissed but he was pardoned and set free again when the Yorkists expelled the Lancastrians in 1460. He repaid his deliverers by taking part in King Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick’s recovery from the Lancastrians of various castles in Northumberland.
He then seems to have changed sides – in 1468 and 1470 he was named as one of many Lancastrians excluded from royal pardons, most of whom were at liberty but at that time Malory was in Newgate prison, completing Le Morte d’Arthur. In October 1470, when the Lancastrians returned to power, those of their party who were in London prisons, including Malory, were freed. He died six months later and was buried at Greyfriars, Newgate. Although his tombstone was destroyed its inscription survives in a sixteenth-century transcript which refers to him as a “valiant knight of the parish of Monks Kirby in Warwickshire.”
The Winchester Manuscript
Walter F. Oakeshott, a librarian at Winchester College, England in 1934 and a student of late medieval and renaissance book bindings, was at that time studying the early book-bindings on the open shelves in the library. At the suggestion of an expert colleague (to fill gaps in knowledge of the Library’s holdings) he obtained permission to access the library’s safe, located in the bedroom of the College Warden.
Amongst twenty or thirty medieval manuscripts Oakeshott noticed one about King Arthur and his Knights, written in English rather than Latin. He passed on to the next item, but discovered by chance a few weeks later that no surviving manuscript of Le Morte d’Arthur was known. He bought the Everyman edition of Le Morte d’Arthur and returned to the library safe to compare the two, where he realised that it was an authentic version of Malory, though Caxton had revised parts of the original work.
Oakeshott wrote three articles about his discovery, which were published in The Times in 1934, prompting the Arthurian scholar Eugène Vinaver to drive from Manchester to Winchester (followed, it is rumored, by “an aircraftman on a motor-cycle”: T.E. Lawrence – none other than Lawrence of Arabia). Oakeshott eventually obtained permission to re-open the safe, and in due course Vinaver secured his claim to scholarly privilege and published the ‘The Works of Sir Thomas Malory’ in 1947.
With what became known as ‘The Winchester Manuscript’ comes the first direct connection in modern times between Le Morte d’Arthur and the life of its author. He identifies himself in person as a “knyght presoner” and asks for the prayers of “all jentylmen and jentylwymen,” requesting that they pray “that God sende me good delyveraunce” (from prison). Especially interesting are ‘hand-pointers’ and phrases written in the margins of the manuscript by Malory or his scribes – and in some cases Caxton – which serve to clarify particular aspects of the work. Malory also included personal annotations within the actual text, to educate the reader on the context of the current action or to guide attention to specific issues. In some of his annotations he praises the actions of various characters – reinforcing the fact that in writing Le Morte d’Arthur he is interpreting previous version of Arthurian Legend rather than creating new – and he compares the behaviour of knights and ladies within the narrative with that of his own contemporaries, for example criticizing their failure to reward faithful service.
The author’s aim was not simply to tell a story but also to build a relationship with the reader; the effect was to expand our knowledge of Thomas Malory, and the Winchester Manuscript sparked off further discussion amongst Arthurian scholars about who he really was.
For anyone who finds it hard to reconcile the deeds of Sir Thomas Malory the “knyght presoner” with the passionate morality of the Thomas Malory who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the great literary masterpieces of all time, it should come as no surprise that there are those – notably the writer and scholar William Matthews – who claim mistaken identity: that the author was not the Knight and Warwickshire Member of the British Parliament but a different and law-abiding Yorshire Knight from Studley and Hutton.
What is clear is that the author of Le Morte d’Arthur was a member of the English gentry who mourned the passing of the age of chivalry and that the work was largely written whilst he was encarcerated. Not only did Thomas Malory spend many years in Newgate Prison in London but as a result of service in France he may also have been held captive by Jacques d’Armagnac who owned an extensive collection of Arthurian literature. According to a detailed bibliographical note written by the 20th Century literary historian A.W. Pollard:
“The name of a Sir Thomas Malorie occurred among … Lancastrians excluded from a general pardon granted by Edward IV. in 1468. In September 1897 … the finding of the will of a Thomas Malory of Papworth … This will was made on September 16, 1469, and as it was proved the 27th of the next month the testator must have been in immediate expectation of death. It contains the most careful provision for … a family of three daughters and seven sons. We cannot say with certainty that this Thomas Malory, whose last thoughts were so busy for his children, was our author, or that the Lancastrian knight discovered by Mr. Williams was identical with either or both, but … the Morte Darthur offers … such a belief … most naturally from an author who was a Lancastrian knight.” Read the full bibliographical note here.
See also Arthurian Legend homepage.