Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1415 – 14 March 1471) was an English writer, the author or compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur (originally titled, The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round table). Since the late nineteenth century, he has generally been identified as Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, a knight, land-owner, and Member of Parliament. Previously, it was suggested by antiquary John Leland and John Bale that he was Welsh (identifying "Malory" with "Maelor").
The name could also be rooted in Irish & Scottish Gaelic and mean "follower of the king," as in "maol" ("follower") and "ry" or "ree" ("king"). "Maol" or "Máel" is a common root of indigenous names and is found in the name "Malmesbury" which was founded by the Irish scholar Máel Dub meaning the "dark follower." Arthurian literature originates in the Irish & Scottish Gaelic traditions as Norman interpretation and (mis)translation. Occasionally, other candidates are put forward for authorship of Le Morte d'Arthur, but the supporting evidence for their claim has been described as "no more than circumstantial".
Most of what is known about Malory stems from the accounts describing him in the prayers found in the Winchester Manuscript. He is described as a "knyght presoner", distinguishing him from the other six individuals 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."
It should be noted that, 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 that he might have been from a wealthy family. A claimant's age must also fit the time of writing.
By far the likeliest candidate for the authorship is Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. H. Oskar Sommer first proposed this identification in his edition of Le Morte d'Arthur published in 1890, and George Lyman Kittredge, a professor at Harvard, provided the evidence in 1896. Kittredge showed Malory as a soldier and a member of Parliament, who fought at Calais with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. However, a biography by Edward Hicks published in 1928 revealed that Malory had been imprisoned as a thief, bandit, kidnapper, 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".
Malory 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. He was born after 1415 and before 1418, judging by the fact that he attained his majority (at the age of 21) between 1434 and 1439. He was knighted before 8 October 1441, became a professional soldier, and served under the Duke of Warwick—but all dates are vague, and it is not known how he became distinguished. He acted as an elector in Northamptonshire but, 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.
The same year, Malory was elected to Parliament, serving as a knight of the shire for Warwickshire for the rest of 1443, and being appointed to a royal commission charged with the distribution of money to impoverished towns in Warwickshire. Despite the criminal charges against him, he seems to have remained in good standing with his peers. In 1449, he was elected as member of Parliament for the Duke of Buckingham's safe seat of Great Bedwyn.
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. Most of these crimes, if they occurred, 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 (assuming that he committed them) or Buckingham and others bringing charges against him. It is possible that Malory's enemies tried to slander him, and there is 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 support 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. He was pardoned at the accession of Edward IV in 1461. He was never actually tried on any of the charges brought against him, except at Nuneaton in 1451. In 1462, Malory settled his estate on his son Robert and, in 1466 or 1467, Robert fathered a son named Nicholas, who was Malory's ultimate heir.
Malory appears to have changed his allegiance by 1468. He had previously been a Yorkist, but he now entered into a conspiracy with Richard Neville, the new Earl of Warwick, to overthrow King Edward IV. The plot was discovered and Malory was imprisoned in June 1468. Uniquely in English history, so far as is known, he was excluded by name from two general pardons, in July 1468 and February 1470. In October 1470, the collapse of the Yorkist regime and the temporary return to the throne of Henry VI was followed by Malory's final release from prison.
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 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. If the hypothesis is accepted that the real Malory was, indeed, both a knight and a prisoner, then Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel becomes the only possible candidate, as no other Malory family contained a Thomas who was 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). In the entry on Malory in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, P.J.C. Field stresses that recent scholarship has focused firmly on Malory of Newbold Revel, especially because "he was the only knight of the right name alive at the right time".
Nevertheless, over the centuries, many alternative identities have been proposed for Malory, in part because of the perceived gap between the crimes charged against Malory of Newbold Revel and the chivalric ideals espoused in Le Morte d'Arthur. 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.
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 (died 1420) 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.
The third contender is the little-known Thomas Malory of Hutton Conyers 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's claim was met with little enthusiasm, despite evidence that the author spoke a regional dialect that matches the language of Le Morte d'Arthur. This Malory is not known to have been knighted.
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, Geoffrey of Monmouth's 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 Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table, but printer William Caxton changed it to Le Morte d'Arthur 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, which was based on Le Morte d'Arthur. This cameo is included in the Broadway musical Camelot, and in the later film, where his name is given as "Tom of Warwick". In addition to T.H. 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, a novel for children by Cynthia Harnett.
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