Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1415-1471 CE) was an English knight during the War of the Roses (1455-1487 CE) best known for his highly influential work of medieval literature, Le Morte D’Arthur regarded as the first novel in English, the first in western literature, and the most comprehensive treatment of the Arthurian Legend. Malory wrote the book while in prison for various crimes (real or imagined), completing it in 1469 CE. He was released in early 1470 CE and died the following year.
Malory’s title for his work was The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table but when the book was published by William Caxton in 1485 CE, Caxton mistook the title of the last chapter (Le Morte D’Arthur = The Death of Arthur) for that of the book. Once published, the book became popular reading and the name stuck. Malory may also be the author of the romance The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, but this is disputed, and the style of that work is of far less quality than Le Morte D’Arthur.
Malory’s identity was debated for years. All that is known of him comes from commentary in his book and some legal records referring to a knight named Thomas Malory charged with crimes and imprisoned at different times between 1451-1470 CE. Whoever he was, his work was a bestseller when it was first published, fell out of favor during the Renaissance, and was revived through the works of the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1859 CE. Since then, the Arthurian Legends and Malory’s version, in particular, have exerted significant influence in art and culture worldwide.
The War of the Roses & Malory
The War of the Roses was a civil conflict between the House of York (symbolized by a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (a red rose) for the throne of England. Neither side referred to the conflict by this name, which only came into vogue some centuries later, but both sides were identified by the heraldic badges they wore which featured a different colored rose. Henry VI of England (l. 1421-1471 CE), who suffered bouts of mental illness, had no male heir and so both the houses of York and Lancaster had a legitimate claim to the throne, which they pressed as Henry VI became less competent.
There were formal armed engagements between the opponents but the conflict took on more of the character of a feud with guerilla-type raids by Lancasters on the estates of Yorks and then retaliatory raids by Yorks. This conflict began to heat up just as the 100 Years’ War (1337-1453 CE) was ending, which England lost to the French, and Britain had only known warfare for generations, but the battles of the 100 Years’ War had been fought in France while the conflict of the War of the Roses was fought in people’s backyards and farmlands.
The Britain of the 100 Years’ War was the world Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire was born into (son of Sir John Malory of Winwick and Lady Phillipa Malory of Newbold) c. 1415 CE. Nothing is known of his youth but he was knighted at some point prior to his c. 1440 CE service to Henry Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick (l. 1425-1446 CE). After Henry Beauchamp’s death, his estate went to his sister Anne Beauchamp, 16th countess of Warwick, who married Richard Neville (l. 1428-1471 CE). The Beauchamps and Neville favored the House of York.
Malory the Criminal
All of this becomes important in understanding the only information on Malory’s life outside of his book: his criminal record and time spent in prison. It seems more than a little incongruous that an author who wrote so beautifully of honor, law, justice, and right should have lived a life in which he was charged with robbery, blackmail, burglary, assault, rape, and attempted murder. The charges against Malory were so many and so varied that he was in and out of prisons c. 1451-1470 CE.
Malory was a member of Parliament in 1443 CE, married to a woman named Elizabeth Walsh with whom he would have a son, Robert. In 1445 CE, Henry Beauchamp was made Duke of Warwick, which angered Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham (l. 1402-1460 CE), who lost both land and prestige due to Beauchamp’s advancement. Shortly after this, Malory’s troubles with the law begin, and it is quite likely that they had to do with the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster since the Duke of Buckingham was for Lancaster while Beauchamp, as noted, was for York. Malory, knighted by Beauchamp, would have taken up his cause after his death in 1446 CE.
In early 1450 CE, Malory was accused of ambushing Buckingham and his entourage, and in 1451 CE, he was accused of robbery, extortion, and rape involving people associated with Buckingham. Buckingham had him arrested and jailed at Maxstoke Castle (which Buckingham owned), a thickly-walled stronghold ringed by a moat (still standing in excellent condition in the present day). Malory escaped by leaping from a window, swimming the moat, and returning home to his estate of Newbold Revel.
Although the start of the War of the Roses is not “officially” dated until 1455 CE, the two houses were already engaged in the conflict at the time Malory’s alleged “life of crime” began. The rest of his criminal career consistently involves the Duke of Buckingham or his supporters with Malory clearly aligned with the family of Beauchamp.
His alleged criminal activity, therefore, was most likely of the same sort as people of both houses were involved in at the time. Malory was sent to Marshalsea Prison, London, after escaping from Maxstoke, was released, retaken, escaped from Marshalsea, and was recaptured. It is reasonable to assume that Malory was a political prisoner based on his trial, judged by Buckingham’s people, and that Marshalsea housed a significant population of such prisoners.
Malory the Artist
C. 1468 CE, after Malory had been in and out of prison for the better part of the last decade, he sided with Richard Neville who had deserted the House of York for the Lancasters. Neville hatched a plot to overthrow the Yorkist king Edward IV, involving Malory, and when this was discovered, Malory was arrested and sent to Newgate Prison, London. This time, instead of escaping, he devoted himself to writing Le Morte D’Arthur.
Malory, as a political prisoner – or a knight-prisoner, as he calls himself – would have most likely had his own room on the upper level, probably with a window, access to the common rooms, and visitors who could bring him books. The popular vision of Newgate as a dungeon of filth, disease, and death may still have been accurate as far as the lower levels were concerned, but it would have been impossible for anyone to compose Le Morte D’Arthur under those conditions. While most prisoners at Newgate went about manacled, political prisoners were free to walk the grounds and perhaps even borrow books from the nearby Christ Church Greyfriars whose construction was completed in 1360 CE.
Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy, among others, has noted that Malory would not have needed an extensive library to write Le Morte D’Arthur but probably had access to one, even if he chose to use only select books from it:
Malory had read widely in Arthurian romance and had access to a splendid collection of such romances while he was writing [c. 4 March 1469 - 3 March 1470 CE]. He shows few signs of having read anything non-Arthurian. His English was that of the Midlands, with some more northerly elements perhaps deliberately adopted from Arthurian poems because he felt them suitable to the stories he was telling. He could read and write French and was proud of it but his French was far from perfect. (352)
Whatever books he had with him or close at hand, Malory was acquainted with the Arthurian Legends in French and was able to weave these together with an Arthurian work in English prose known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle (c. 1240-1250 CE) to create his masterpiece.
Le Morte D’Arthur
Le Morte D’Arthur tells the story of the rise and fall of King Arthur, the adventures of his noble knights in their quest for the Holy Grail, and the love affair between Arthur’s queen Guinevere and his best friend and champion Lancelot du Lac. In the present day, the work is divided into 21 chapters which the original publisher, William Caxton, called 'books' but Malory’s original intention was a complete volume of eight 'tales' – each of these tales, except for the fifth about the knight Tristram, builds on the events of its predecessor, develops the characters’ psychological and emotional motivations, and advances the narrative. It is for this reason that Le Morte D’Arthur is considered the first novel in English and the first in the western world.
By the time Malory was writing, tales of King Arthur had been in circulation for centuries. The first full-length work introducing the king and most of the central characters is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136 CE). Geoffrey’s work, in Latin, was so popular that other poets used the subject matter for their work, notably Chretien de Troyes (l. c. 1130-1190 CE) who created the character of Lancelot, his love affair with Guinevere, the quest for the Grail, and coined the name of Arthur’s court Camelot.
Other writers then built on the world Chretien had shaped in his Arthurian romances to deepen and broaden aspects of the legends, and these were largely Christianized in the 13th century CE in a work known as the Vulgate Cycle (1215-1235 CE). By 1468 CE, when Malory began his work, the mighty warrior-king of Geoffrey and the chivalric, romantic hero-king of Chretien had become the noble Christian king Arthur of Camelot whose knights had sworn to find the Holy Grail, the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper. Malory formed this story into eight tales.
Tale One: Arthur is conceived magically when Merlin casts a spell allowing Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, to impregnate the queen Igraine in the guise of Igraine’s husband. When Arthur is born, he is taken by Merlin and raised as a squire to his brother Kay until he draws the sword from the stone which proves him the true king of England. He is not instantly accepted by his barons and has to fight to subdue them but finally wins, receives the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, establishes his Round Table, and marries Guinevere. Lancelot comes to court.
Tale Two: Lancelot becomes Arthur’s premier champion when Lucius, emperor of Rome, demands tribute and Arthur refuses. Arthur leads his knights against Lucius, defeats him in France, and is crowned emperor. After reforming the government and laws on the continent, he sets aside the glory of empire and returns to Britain.
Tale Three: Lancelot’s chaste love for Guinevere informs all his adventures here. Dedicating himself to her service, without hope of reward or sexual satisfaction, Lancelot embarks on a series of challenges to prove himself worthy of his place at court and, in so doing, is recognized as the greatest knight in the world. Although he and Guinevere share affection, they have not yet spoken of it.
Tale Four: Gareth, brother of Gawain, goes on a chivalric quest to help Lynette and her sister Lyonesse whose lands and honor are threatened by the Red Knight. Gareth and Lancelot become good friends as Lancelot’s reputation and that of Arthur’s Round Table grows. Tale Four represents Arthur, Guinevere, and the knights at their finest as they bring justice to the land and help those in need.
Tale Five: The tale of Tristan and Isolde makes up the entirety of this tale with some additions made by Malory. The hero’s name here is Tristram and the setting is England instead of Ireland but the love triangle of Tristram-Isolde-King Mark, written centuries earlier, remains central. King Arthur and the other knights serve as a kind of backdrop to the Tristram tale and his affair with Isolde is mirrored in Lancelot and Guinevere finally giving in to their passion and consummating their love. Lancelot also has an affair with the lady Elaine of Corbenic which will later produce his illegitimate son Galahad.
Tale Six: The Holy Grail appears in a vision at Arthur’s court before all the knights of the Round Table and a voice requests their help in finding it. Gawain, Percival, Bors, and others leave to take up the quest with Lancelot lagging behind. Lancelot is torn between his duty to God and his king and best friend and his love for Guinevere and can no longer claim to be the best knight. He fails in his quest, but Galahad will succeed as a blameless knight without sin.
Tale Seven: Guinevere is abducted by Maleagant and rescued by Lancelot; the two then continue their affair. Arthur is aware of what is between them but prefers to turn a blind eye as long as the affair remains private. He was warned by Merlin long ago when he said he wanted to marry Guinevere that she would one day betray him with a knight called Lancelot, and he has accepted his fate.
Tale Eight: Lancelot and Guinevere continue their affair and, after a number of near-discoveries, are finally caught together. Lancelot fights his way free and escapes, but Guinevere is caught and condemned to death through burning at the stake. Lancelot returns and rescues her, carrying her away to his kingdom, but she returns to Arthur to ask his forgiveness and be reconciled. Gareth, brother of Gawain, is killed by Lancelot when he rescues Guinevere, and Gawain presses Arthur to go to war against his former friend. Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, is made regent, and Arthur leads his army against Lancelot. Mordred betrays his father, seizes the kingdom, and attempts to abduct Guinevere. Arthur hurries back and defeats Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, but most of the knights on both sides are killed. Guinevere and Lancelot see each other one last time to say goodbye before renouncing the world and going off to take religious orders. Arthur kills Mordred but is mortally wounded. He is helped from the battlefield by Sir Bedevere, returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and is taken away to the Isle of Avalon.
Shortly after Malory completed the manuscript he died, and it is unclear how it made its way to the publisher William Caxton. Caxton is responsible for publishing some of the greatest works in the English language, including the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, and always clearly introduced the work and author in a prologue. When he published Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485 CE, however, the War of the Roses was still going on and Caxton did not want to say very much about the book’s author since the memory of Malory and his part in the war was still fresh enough to hurt book sales - Malory is mentioned by name in court records as being denied pardon three times in 1468 CE and once in February 1470 CE, stressing his importance as a prisoner of note - but another reason could be the nature of the work and its reflection of the war.
Malory grew up during the last part of the Hundred Years’ War and knew only conflict in Britain as an adult. Le Morte D’Arthur presents a world of violence and chaos transformed by Arthur and his knights into one of justice and peace, but humans being what they are, this world cannot last and again descends into bloodshed and disorder in the end. The work mirrors the time in which it was written when the unity of England under a king like Henry V during the 100 Years’ War splintered in the factions of the War of the Roses. The unity of Camelot is broken in the same way by Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s betrayal and Arthur’s weakness to do anything about it; in the end, the kingdom is destroyed. Malory never says that Arthur has died, however; only that he has gone to Avalon to be healed of his wounds. Le Morte D’Arthur has continued to be so popular because, finally, it is a story of hope.
Malory consistently depicts his characters as struggling to be better than they are. Some, like Galahad, succeed while most fail. Lancelot and Guinevere cannot keep away from each other, Arthur passively encourages their affair by refusing to confront it, Gawain gives in to his need for revenge, and in the end, even the loyal Sir Bedevere tries to deceive Arthur and keep Excalibur for himself. Even so, all of these characters recognize their weakness and try to rise above it or atone for it. Bedevere finally overcomes his desire and returns Excalibur to the lady of the lake, Lancelot and Guinevere devote their lives to sanctity and helping others, and Arthur is promised to return one day to again right wrongs, help the needy, and uphold justice as he did in the glory days of Camelot. In the end, Malory suggests, those who read his work can hope to find the same strength of purpose and redemption.