Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Sir Thomas Malory, (c. 1416–1471)
The life and career of Sir Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), one of the greatest literary works of medieval England, illustrates how the quarrel between the houses of LANCASTER and YORK forced even politically insignificant members of the English GENTRY to choose sides.
Because little is known about the writer of Le Morte d’Arthur, historians have debated which of several fifteenth-century Thomas Malorys was the author. The most likely candidate is Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, a Warwickshire knight whose sketchily preserved life best fits the few facts definitely known about the Arthurian writer. In the concluding paragraphs of Le Morte d’Arthur, the author stated that the book was completed in the ninth year of EDWARD IV by “Sir Thomas Malory, knight,” and also requested his readers to pray “that God will send me good deliverance” (Malory, p. 750). The writer was thus an imprisoned knight who finished his work between 4 March 1469 and 3 March 1470.
Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel was knighted about 1441, and served in PARLIAMENT in 1445 and again in 1449. Malory’s life in the 1440s was unexceptional, but he spent most of the 1450s in various LONDON jails. His imprisonment was the result of a crime spree that began in January 1450 when Malory reportedly lay in ambush, with armed men, to murder Humphrey STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham. In May and again in August, Malory was charged with rape and extortion. In June 1451, Malory and a band of accomplices were accused of stealing livestock, and, in July, Malory and his confederates threatened a house of Warwickshire monks, an action that led to the issuance of orders for his arrest. On 20 July, while Buckingham and a party of sixty men searched for him, Malory and his accomplices vandalized the duke’s deer park at Caludon.
Because such violent crimes conflict with the chivalric values enunciated in Le Morte d’Arthur, the authorship of the Newbold Revel Malory has been disputed. However, the charges against him may have had more to do with local political rivalries than with outright criminality. Malory’s transgressions, which probably originated in a private quarrel with Buckingham, soon entangled Malory in the national political struggle. After Malory’s capture in July 1451, the Lancastrian government imprisoned him without trial through the mid-1450s. Because the Lancastrians seemed intent on keeping him confined, and because he had shown himself capable of raising and leading large numbers of men, Malory probably attracted the attention of the Yorkists, who in the late 1450s were seeking any possible supporters. In 1457, after being temporarily released on bail through the good offices of the Yorkist lord, William NEVILLE, Lord Fauconberg, Malory likely became an adherent of Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, Fauconberg’s nephew and Buckingham’s chief rival in Warwickshire. In early 1462, Malory used Edward IV’s general pardon to win his release and wipe out all charges against him. In late 1462, Malory participated in Edward’s campaign against the Lancastrian-held castles in northern England.
Although no legal records confirm the statement in Le Morte d’Arthur that he wrote while a prisoner, Malory was one of only fifteen people excluded by name from a general pardon issued by Edward IV in July 1468. This exclusion raises the likelihood that Malory was arrested by the Yorkist government some time in 1468 and remained in confinement until the restoration of HENRY VI in October 1470, over six months after the stated completion of Le Morte d’Arthur. Although the reasons for Malory’s imprisonment are unclear, the probability is that he was somehow involved in a shadowy Lancastrian conspiracy known as the CORNELIUS PLOT, which came to light in June 1468. Many of the men excluded from the pardon with Malory were Lancastrians implicated in the plot. According to his tombstone in Greyfriars Church in London, Malory died on 14 March 1471, only a month before the restoration of Edward IV would likely have again jeopardized his freedom.
Further Reading: Field, P. J.C., The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Cambridge:D. S. Brewer, 1993); Malory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte d’Arthur, edited by R. M. Lumiansky (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1982).