Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1415 – 14 March 1471) was an English writer, the author of Le Morte d'Arthur, the classic English-language chronicle of the Arthurian legend, compiled and in most cases translated from French sources. The most popular version of Le Morte d'Arthur was published by the famed London printer William Caxton in 1485. Malory's identity has never been confirmed, but since modern scholars began researching his identity, the only widely accepted candidate has been Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. Much of Malory's life history is obscure, but he identified himself as a "knight prisoner", apparently reflecting that he was either a criminal or a prisoner-of-war. The generally accepted candidate from Newbold Revel was imprisoned at various times for criminal acts and possibly also for political reasons during the Wars of the Roses, in which he may have supported both sides at different times.
|Born||c. 1415 (contested)|
|Died||14 March 1471 (contested)|
|Le Morte d'Arthur (Possibly The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle)|
The British Library summarizes the importance of Malory's work thus:
It was probably always a popular work: it was first printed by William Caxton... and has been read by generations of readers ever since. In a literary sense, Malory’s text is the most important of all the treatments of Arthurian legend, influencing writers as diverse as Edmund Spenser, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck.
Most of what is known about Malory stems from the accounts describing him in the prayers found in the Winchester Manuscript of Le Morte d'Arthur. He is described as a "knyght presoner", distinguishing him from several other candidates also bearing the name Thomas Malory in the 15th century when Le Morte d'Arthur was written.
At the end of the "Tale of King Arthur" (Books I–IV in the printing by William Caxton) is written: "For this was written by a knight prisoner Thomas Malleorre, that God send him good recovery." At the end of "The Tale of Sir Gareth" (Caxton's Book VII): "And I pray you all that readeth this tale to pray for him that this wrote, that God send him good deliverance soon and hastily." At the conclusion of the "Tale of Sir Tristram" (Caxton's VIII–XII): "Here endeth the second book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, which was drawn out of the French by Sir Thomas Malleorre, knight, as Jesu be his help." Finally, at the conclusion of the whole book: "The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthure Sanz Gwerdon par le shyvalere Sir Thomas Malleorre, knight, Jesu aide ly pur votre bon mercy."
However, all these are replaced by Caxton with a final colophon reading: "I pray you all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights, from the beginning to the ending, pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul. For this book was ended the ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth by Sir Thomas Maleore, knight, as Jesu help him for his great might, as he is the servant of Jesu both day and night."
With the exception of the first sentence of the final colophon, all the above references to Thomas Malory as a knight are, grammatically speaking, in the third person singular, which leaves open the possibility that they were added by a copyist, either in Caxton's workshop or elsewhere. However, scholarly consensus, as has been previously mentioned in this article, is that these references to knighthood refer to a real person and that that person is the author of Le Morte d'Arthur.
The author was educated, as some of his material "was drawn out of the French," which suggests a degree of French fluency indicating that he might have been from a wealthy family. A claimant's age must also fit the time of writing.
Since George Lyman Kittredge, a professor at Harvard, published the first significant investigation into Malory's identity in 1894, the primary candidate for authorship has been Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. Kittredge discovered a record of this Malory’s service under Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick in William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), stating of Sir Thomas:
In K. H.5 time, was of the retinue to Ric. Beauchamp, E. Warw. At the seige of Caleys, and served there with one lance and two archers, receiving for his lance and 1 archer xx. Li per an. And their dyet; and for the other archer, x marks and no dyet.
In modern English:
In King Henry V's time, was of the retinue to Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick at the siege of Calais, and served there with one lance and two archers, receiving for his lance and first archer 20 pounds per year and their diet; and for the other archer, 10 marks and no diet.
Dugdale's history also revealed that this Malory had served as a Member of Parliament, and recorded the date of his death, the location of his tomb, and many other details of his life and family; without any mention of his authoring Le Morte. To date, this original candidate for authorship remains the only Thomas Malory known to be living at the time who was recorded as having been a knight.
Kittredge accepted the details of Dugdale's history at face value: specifically, that he was commissioned to serve at Calais under Henry V; a campaign which took place in 1414-1415. Under this view, Malory would have been a junior officer in Henry V's famous Battle of Agincourt - a member of what William Shakespeare cemented in popular memory as the Band of Brothers in the famous St. Crispin's Day Speech. However, subsequent scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting instead that Dugdale's record was erroneous and that Malory instead served under Henry VI, at an action in Calais in 1436 - a brief mobilization which was disbanded without combat and which Dugdale, in their view, erroneously called a seige.
Scholars consider the question of this timeline to be important in determining authorship, as the original timeline would indicate that Malory's birth would have been in the early to mid 1390s and his age at the time Le Morte was completed in the mid- to late 70s - this assumes he was in his late teens or early 20s at the time of his commission; his peers of the same rank in Dugdale's record were in their mid- to late-twenties. According to the alternate and currently more accepted timeline, his birth would have been around 1415 and age when Le Morte was completed would have been around 55. William Matthews emphasizes the importance of the question thus: "There is considerable evidence that the medieval view was that by sixty a man was bean fodder and forage, ready for nothing but death's pit... it might be best to find out how old the Warwickshire knight really was in 1469."
Matthews’s research on Malory of Newbold Revel included an original discovery: Sir William Dugdale’s 15th century notes and papers surviving in the Bodleian Library relating to the Agincourt campaign contain a lengthy military roster (apparently in Dugdale’s own hand) with the following detail:
Thomas Mallory est retenuz a j lance et ij archers pr sa launce ouve j archer xx li par an et bouche de court et pour lautre archer x marcs saunz bouche de court.
Because this original French note perfectly matches the English translation in Dugdale’s published work, and because a number of the other knights listed on the same commission roster are known to have died long before 1436, Matthews concludes that these commissions cannot refer to the 1436 campaign; and therefore Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel must have been commissioned into Henry V’s Agincourt campaign around 1414 or 1415, confirming the original timeline. Matthews asserts, “seventy-five is no age at all to be writing Le Morte Darthur in prison.”
Much more detail was added to Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel's biography by Edward Hicks in 1928, revealing that Malory had been imprisoned as a thief, bandit, kidnapper, attempted murderer, and rapist; which hardly seemed in keeping with the high chivalric standards of his book. Helen Cooper referred to his life as one that "reads more like an account of exemplary thuggery than chivalry". Shortly before his death, C.S. Lewis stated that this issue was a grave one for readers of Le Morte D'arthur.
E.K. Chambers emphasizes the importance of the problem by quoting the author himself:
"What?" seyde Sir Launcelot, "is he a theff and a knyht? and a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode, and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyte that he lyveth."
"What?" said Sir Lancelot, "is he a thief and a knight, and a raper of women? He does shame to the Order of Knighthood, contrary to his oath. It is a pity that he lives."
Chambers comments, "Surely the Sir Thomas of Monks Kirby [one of Newbold Revel's nearby properties] could not have written this without a twinge."
Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel was born to Sir John Malory of Winwick, Northamptonshire, who had served as a Justice of the Peace in Warwickshire and as a Member of Parliament, and Lady Phillipa Malory, heiress of Newbold. P.J.C. Field calculates that he was born around 1418, suggesting that his first public record in adulthood indicates the date of his majority (at the age of 21) in 1439. He was knighted before 8 October 1441, became a professional soldier, and served under Henry Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick. While it is not recorded how he became distinguished, he acted as an elector in Northamptonshire. However, in 1443 he and accomplice Eustace Barnaby were accused of attacking, kidnapping, and stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods from Thomas Smythe, though nothing came of this charge. He married a woman named Elizabeth Walsh, with whom he had at least one son, named Robert, and possibly one or two other children. Despite the criminal charges against him, he seems to have remained in good standing with his peers because in that same year, Malory was elected by the men of Warwickshire to Parliament to serve as a knight of the shire for the rest of 1443, and was appointed to a royal commission charged with the distribution of money to impoverished towns in Warwickshire. In 1449–50, he was returned as member of Parliament for Great Bedwyn, a seat controlled by the Duke of Buckingham.
Malory's status changed abruptly in 1451 when he was accused of ambushing the Duke of Buckingham, Humphrey Stafford, a prominent Lancastrian in the Wars of the Roses, along with 26 other men sometime in 1450. The accusation was never proved. Later in 1451, he was accused of extorting 100 shillings from Margaret King and William Hales of Monks Kirby, and then of committing the same crime against John Mylner for 20 shillings. He was also accused of breaking into the house of Hugh Smyth of Monks Kirby in 1450, stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods and raping Smyth's wife, and with attacking her again in Coventry eight weeks later. At this period, however, a charge of rape could also apply to consensual sex with a married woman whose husband had not agreed to the liaison. On 15 March 1451, Malory and 19 others were ordered to be arrested. Nothing came of this and, in the following months, Malory and his cohorts allegedly committed a series of crimes, especially violent robberies, rising past 100. At one point, he was arrested and imprisoned in Maxstoke Castle, but he escaped, swam the moat, and returned to Newbold Revel. Nellie Slayton Aurner points out that most of these crimes seem to have been targeted at the property and followers of the Duke of Buckingham. Malory was a supporter of the family of Buckingham's former rival, the Duke of Warwick, so there may have been a political motive behind either Malory's attacks or Buckingham and others bringing charges against him. Aurner suggests that Malory's enemies tried to slander him, giving evidence that the Duke of Buckingham was Malory's long-time enemy.
Malory finally came to trial on 23 August 1451, in Nuneaton, a town in the heartland of Buckingham's power and a place where Malory found little favour as a supporter of the Beauchamps. Those accused included Malory and several others; there were numerous charges. Malory was convicted and sent to the Marshalsea Prison in London, where he remained for a year. He demanded a retrial with a jury of men from his own county. Although this never took place, he was released. By March 1452, he was back in the Marshalsea, from which he escaped two months later, possibly by bribing the guards and gaolers. After a month, he was back in prison yet again, and this time he was held until the following May, when he was released on bail of 200 pounds, paid by a number of his fellow magnates from Warwickshire. Malory later ended up in custody in Colchester, accused of still more crimes, involving robbery and the stealing of horses. Once again, he escaped and once again was apprehended and returned to Marshalsea Prison.
From Malory's first criminal charge in 1443 through his eighth charge in 1451 after several escapes from captivity, little was done to contain his actions. In 1451 a royal arrest order was issued, followed by increasing fines on the lords overseeing his imprisonment in case of his escape, culminating in a maximum fine of 2000 lbs set by the King's Bench in June of 1455. As Malory aged through several subsequent imprisonments, fines for his escape decreased to 1000 lbs and then 450 lbs in January and October of 1457, and then 100 lbs if not captured when he was somehow at large again despite no formal release in 1458. Malory was released as part of a general pardon at the accession of King Edward IV in 1461. He was never actually tried on any of the charges brought against him, except at Nuneaton in 1451.
After 1461, few records survive which scholars agree refer to Malory of Newbold Revel. Two pardons were issued in 1462 and 1468 mentioning a Sir Thomas Malory (the second specifically excluding him); the first was for participants in a siege in the North of England by members of the Lancastrian faction. P.J.C. Field interprets both to refer to Malory of Newbold Revel, suggesting that this shows Malory changed sides in the war and that he was involved in a conspiracy with Richard Neville to overthrow King Edward IV. Matthews and others interpret these records as referring to one of the other candidates for authorship.
No record survives showing Malory of Newbold Revel or any other candidate for authorship being in prison at the time Le Morte was completed. As Field describes, "Repeated scholarly searches of legal records have found no trace of arrest, charge, trial, or verdict" that would place any Thomas Malory in prison at time documented by the author in the Winchester manuscript. Field suggests that Malory's political rivals "simply put him in prison without formal charge." and that he could have been released from prison in October 1470, at the collapse of the Yorkist regime and the temporary return to the throne of Henry VI.
In 1462, Malory settled his estate on his son Robert and, in 1466 or 1467, Robert fathered a son named Nicholas, Malory's grandson and ultimate heir. Malory died on 14 March 1471 and was buried in Christ Church Greyfriars, near Newgate Prison. His interment there suggests that his misdeeds (whatever they really amounted to) had been forgiven and that he possessed some wealth. However, it was certified at the granting of probate that he owned little wealth of his own, having settled his estate on his son in 1462. The inscription on Malory's tomb read: "HIC JACET DOMINUS THOMAS MALLERE, VALENS MILES OB 14 MAR 1470 DE PAROCHIA DE MONKENKIRBY IN COM WARICINI," meaning: "Here lies Lord Thomas Mallere, Valiant Soldier. Died 14 March 1470 [new calendar 1471], in the parish of Monkenkirby in the county of Warwick." The tomb was lost when Greyfriars was dissolved in 1538 by King Henry VIII. Malory's grandson Nicholas eventually inherited his lands and was appointed High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1502.
There has been a great deal of scholarly research on the subject, but no candidate for authorship has ever been found to continuously command widespread support, other than Malory of Newbold Revel. This is based on the assumption that neither Winchester Manuscript nor Caxton's first edition references to the author reflect confusion in identity by an early copyist. The hypothesis that the real Malory was indeed both a knight and a prisoner provides strong support for Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel as the best candidate, as no other Malory family contained a Thomas who was certainly knighted or who spent many years in a prison with a good library (the Tower of London in the case of Malory of Newbold Revel) - though the extensive record of this Malory's imprisonments does not indicate that he was imprisoned at the time of the writing. In the entry on Malory in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, P.J.C. Field stresses that recent scholarship has focused primarily on Malory of Newbold Revel, stating that "he was the only knight of the right name alive at the right time", while other scholars have presented evidence suggesting that alternative candidates may also have been knights, as detailed below.
Several alternative identities have been proposed for Malory, in part because of the perceived discordance between the crimes charged against Malory of Newbold Revel and the chivalric ideals espoused in Le Morte d'Arthur and because of the lack of documentary evidence to support the later (c.1415) proposed date of his birth. The evidence for alternative candidates has been described as "no more than circumstantial" by Cooper, however. Some of the more popular alternatives are listed below.
The earliest identification was made by John Bale, a 16th-century antiquarian, who declared that Malory was Welsh, hailing from Maloria on the River Dee. This theory received further support from Sir John Rhys, who proclaimed in 1893 that the alternative spelling indicated an area straddling the border between England and North Wales border, Maleore in Flintshire and Maleor in Denbighshire. On this theory, Malory may have been related to Edward Rhys Maelor, a 15th-century Welsh poet. It was also suggested by antiquary John Leland that he was Welsh, identifying "Malory" with "Maelor".
A second candidate was presented by A.T. Martin, another antiquarian, in an article in the Athenaeum in September 1897, who proposed that the author was Thomas Malory of Papworth St Agnes in Huntingdonshire. Martin's argument was based on a will made at Papworth on 16 September 1469 and proved at Lambeth on 27 October the same year. This identification was taken seriously for some time by editors of Malory, including Alfred W. Pollard, the noted bibliographer, who included it in his edition of Malory published in 1903.
This Thomas Malory was born on 6 December 1425 at Moreton Corbet Castle, Shropshire, the eldest son of Sir William Mallory, member of Parliament for Cambridgeshire, who had married Margaret, the widow of Robert Corbet of Moreton Corbet. Thomas inherited his father's estates in 1425 and was placed in the wardship of the King, initially as a minor, but later (for reasons unknown) remaining there until within four months of his death in 1469. Nothing else is known of him, apart from one peculiar incident discovered by William Matthews. A collection of Chancery proceedings includes a petition brought against Malory by Richard Kyd, parson of Papworth, claiming that Malory ambushed him on a November evening and took him from Papworth to Huntingdon, and then to Bedford and on to Northampton, all the while threatening his life and demanding that he either forfeit his church to Malory or give him 100 pounds. The outcome of this case is unknown, but it seems to indicate that this Malory was something other than an ordinary country gentleman. However, there is no evidence that this Malory was ever actually knighted and the very specific use of the word "knight" in respect of the author Malory tells against him.
A third contender is Thomas Malory of Hutton Conyers and Studley Royal in Yorkshire. This claim was put forward in The Ill-Framed Knight: A Skeptical Inquiry into the Identity of Sir Thomas Malory by William Matthews, a British professor who taught at UCLA (and also transcribed the diary of Samuel Pepys).
Matthews makes an argument based on linguistic clues both in the Winchester manuscript and the Caxton edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, including distinctive dialectal and stylistic elements such as alliteration that are characteristic of northerly writing. His claim drew scholarly attention including a review co-written by eminent medievalist E. F. Jacob and the famed linguist Angus McIntosh. Neither reviewer accepted Matthews’s claims entirely. Jacob agrees that the dialect of Le Morte is not that of Warwickshire, deferring to McIntosh for a more detailed dialectal analysis while noting that Matthews makes a good case for reopening the question of Malory’s identity.
McIntosh’s dialectal analysis states that: “To put the matter simply, the original Le Morte Darthur contained various forms which are too northerly for the everyday language of Newbold Revel”, “i.e. characteristic of anywhere roughly speaking north of a line from Chester to the Wash.” However, he ultimately concludes that the language does not specifically support Matthews’ claim of an origin in the Hutton Conyers / Studley Royal area of Yorkshire, but would rather be “most at home” in Lincolnshire. McIntosh concludes that such northerly influences suggest that Malory “simply had access to, and was deeply steeped in, far more northerly romance material than the specific texts … to which he owed a more or less direct debt.”
Other important elements of Matthews's argument for the Hutton Conyers candidate include his evidence of the advanced age of the Newbold Revel candidate at the time of writing, described in that section above; and his analysis of the exclusion of Sir Thomas Malory from the general pardon in 1468; the list of those excluded is generally agreed to be a group of Lancastrians in the North. Matthews shows that Thomas Malory of Hutton Conyers was closely related to the knight listed next to him in the short list of those excluded, and suggests that the exclusion refers to Malory of Hutton Conyers (a Lancastrian in the North) and is evidence that he was indeed a knight. (P.J.C. Field argues that the 1468 exclusion refers to Malory of Newbold Revel, and instead shows that the Newbold Revel candidate changed his lifelong Yorkist loyalty to become a Lancastrian.)
Other than Matthews's interpretation of the 1468 exclusion from pardon, the Yorkshire Malory is not documented as having been knighted, though his elder brother John and most of his recent forefathers were knights.
Malory was most probably confined at Newgate prison from 1460 until his release. He likely wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) based on Arthurian mythology, the first major work of English language prose. Richard Whittington, mayor of London, was responsible for philanthropic work that allowed prisoners access to a library in the Greyfriars monastery adjacent to Newgate. This, coupled with the probability that Malory had at least some wealth, allowed a certain level of comfort and leisure within the prison. His main sources for his work included Arthurian French prose romances, mainly the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) and Post-Vulgate cycles, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), and two anonymous English works called the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur.
The entire work is eight romances that span twenty-one books with 507 chapters, which was said to be considerably shorter than the original French sources, despite its vast size. Malory was responsible for organizing these diverse sources and consolidating them into a cohesive whole. The work was originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, but printer William Caxton changed it to Le Morte d'Arthur (originally Le Morte Darthur) before he printed it in 1485, as well as making several other editorial changes. According to one theory, the eight romances were originally intended to be separate, but Caxton altered them to be more unified.
There has been some argument among critics that Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was primarily intended as a political commentary of Malory's own era. Malory portrays an initially idyllic past under the strong leadership of King Arthur and his knights, but as intrigue and infighting develop, the utopic kingdom collapses, which may have been intended as a parallel and a warning against the infighting taking place during the Wars of the Roses. The seemingly contradictory changes in King Arthur's character throughout the work has been argued to support the theory that Arthur represents different eras and reigns throughout the tales. This argument has also been used to attempt to reconcile Malory's doubtful reputation as a person who continually changed sides with the unexpected idealism of Le Morte d'Arthur. It remains a matter of some debate whether this was a deliberate commentary or an imaginative fiction influenced by the political climate.
The sources of the romances that make up Le Morte d'Arthur, and Malory's treatment of those sources, correspond to some degree with those of a poem called The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle; they also both end with a similarly worded prayer to be released from imprisonment. This has led some scholars in recent years to believe that Malory may have been the author of the poem.
A young Malory appears as a character at the end of T. H. White's book The Once and Future King (1958), which was based on Le Morte d'Arthur. This cameo is included in the Broadway musical Camelot (1960), and in its film adaptation (1967), where his name is given as "Tom of Warwick".
In addition to White's treatment, many other modern versions of the Arthurian legend have their roots in Malory, including John Boorman's film Excalibur (1981). The discovery of Malory's book and its acquisition by William Caxton form key elements in The Load of Unicorn (1959), a novel for children by Cynthia Harnett.