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Malory, Sir Thomas (1415x18–1471), author, was son and heir of John Malory esquire (c.1385–1433/4), and Philippa (d. 1441×5), daughter of Sir William Chetwynd of Ingestre in Staffordshire and Grendon in Warwickshire.

Origins and early career

John Malory held the manor of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, that of Winwick in Northamptonshire, and lands nearby in Leicestershire. He was a person of importance in Warwickshire, where he was sheriff, escheator, justice of the peace, and five times MP, and his brother or cousin was preceptor of the hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in Warwickshire, and later prior of the hospitallers in England. Philippa Malory was probably a few years older than her husband. They had three daughters, but Thomas was their only known son, and may have been the youngest child.

Thomas Malory must have been born between 25 April 1415 and 22 May 1418, because after John died in 1433 or 1434, it was Philippa who acted as head of the family, proving his will and arranging the marriage of their daughter Isobel. Thomas must have been born by mid-1418, because on 23 May 1439 he witnessed a settlement for his cousin Sir Philip Chetwynd. Prior Robert died a few months later, after which Malory's best hope of serious advancement may have lain with Chetwynd, who was making his mark in the service of the earl of Stafford and elsewhere. His own knighthood, by 8 October 1441, suggests ambition. On 28 December 1441 he acted as a parliamentary elector for Northamptonshire. He must then have been a Northamptonshire resident: most likely he had married, and Winwick had been settled on him and his wife. She may have been Elizabeth Walsh (d. 1479) of Wanlip in Leicestershire, who bore him his son and heir, Robert, in (if his inquisition post mortem can be trusted) 1447 or 1448, who probably bore him one, perhaps two, other sons, and who survived him. There is no evidence of daughters.

For Sir Thomas the routines of provincial life may have been interrupted in 1442 by serving under Philip Chetwynd in the war in Gascony: it is the most likely way for him to have acquired the detailed knowledge of south-west France he shows at the end of the Morte Darthur. It was certainly interrupted in 1443 by an accusation of robbery with violence near Winwick, a charge that apparently fell through. Philip Chetwynd died soon afterwards, and in 1445 Malory was elected MP for Warwickshire, and became a commissioner to assess tax exemptions in the county. This would mean both that he had returned, presumably on his mother's death, to live at Newbold Revel, and that he was persona grata to the two great Warwickshire magnates, Chetwynd's patron Stafford, now duke of Buckingham, and Henry Beauchamp, duke of Warwick. About this time Warwick was paying him an annuity, and Buckingham may have helped him in 1449 to be returned as MP for his borough of Bedwin in Wiltshire.

Criminal career, trials, and imprisonment

With the new decade, however, Malory's life underwent a sudden, startling, and unexplained change. During the first recess of the new parliament, on 4 January 1450, he and twenty-six other armed men allegedly lay in ambush to murder Buckingham in the abbot's woods at Combe near Newbold Revel. This was followed by eighteen months of well-supported allegations of crime, including extortion, theft, rape, cattle rustling, robbery of the local abbey, and deer stealing and enormous damage to property at Caludon Park, a hunting lodge belonging to the duke of Norfolk, but of which Buckingham apparently had the use. Malory's attack was no doubt deliberate provocation of Buckingham, who at the time was hunting him with a large posse, but put him at odds with Norfolk too. His natural protector should have been Warwick, but Duke Henry was dead, and his newly installed successor, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, was unable or unwilling to help. Malory seems to have turned to the duke of York, who was trying to bring political pressure to bear on the government, and for whose borough of Wareham a Thomas Malory was returned to the parliament that met in September 1450.

It was a bad move. In May 1451 York's efforts collapsed, and in July Buckingham caught up with Malory and committed him to the sheriff, who detained him in his own house at Coleshill. Malory escaped by swimming the moat at night, but was recaptured. He was charged at Nuneaton, the centre of Buckingham's power in Warwickshire, before a court presided over by Buckingham, with a long list of offences including the attempted murder of Buckingham; and when the two juries returned true bills, a writ of certiorari transferred the proceedings to the king's bench at Westminster. In January 1452 Malory was in prison in London, awaiting trial. All of this was clearly meant to keep the legal process away from the assize town of Warwick and the influence that Malory's friends might bring to bear there. Someone had also clearly encouraged potential complainants to bring forward every possible charge against him. That does not mean the charges were false.

Malory was to have a long wait for his trial. During his first year in prison he made his peace with Norfolk, and later was bailed to a group of Warwickshire gentlemen. However, a neighbour's complaint that Malory had stolen her oxen probably dates from this period of freedom, and at the end of it he failed to surrender to his bail; Buckingham had to be called out again to recapture him. Bailed a second time, in 1454, to a group of Norfolk's men, he joined an old crony on a horse-stealing expedition across East Anglia that ended in Colchester gaol. From there he escaped again, ‘using swords, daggers, and halberds’, but was again recaptured and sent back to London. After that he was shifted frequently from prison to prison, and, as far as is known, the penalties imposed on his gaolers for his safe keeping reached a record for medieval England. In 1455, when Henry VI suffered a mental collapse, Malory was granted a pardon by the lord protector, York. However, if his imprisonment had begun as an incautious feud with a powerful and vindictive magnate, it had now become politicized: the Lancastrian chief justice dismissed his pardon. This was the lowest point in his fortunes. He was twice sued for small sums he could not repay, and a young Thomas Malory, presumably his son, died at Newbold Revel. Late in 1457 he was bailed again, this time for two months to Warwick's men, and he seems to have been free again briefly in 1459. When the Yorkists invaded England in 1460, he was moved to a more secure prison, but their victory brought him lasting freedom. He was never tried on any of the charges against him.

In prison again, and death

The new decade looked more promising. A second pardon cleared the legal slate, and in 1462 (after settling an estate on his son Robert), he followed the new king, Edward IV, and his lords north to besiege the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh, and Dunstanburgh, which had been seized in a Lancastrian coup. When the castles were retaken, he settled down to a more peaceful life. In 1464 he witnessed another family land settlement, and in 1466 or 1467 his grandson Nicholas was born. But soon after that his political sympathies appear to have shifted. The new king was beginning to be at odds with his chief supporters, Warwick's family, and Malory seems to have been drawn into a plot against him that was discovered in June 1468, and arrested and imprisoned without formal charge, probably in the Tower of London. He was certainly imprisoned in relative comfort and with access to one of the best libraries in the country. This is shown by the Morte Darthur, which he wrote in prison at this time, and completed by 3 March 1470; but the Yorkists now thought of him as a dangerous enemy, and he was excluded by name from general pardons offered in July 1468 and February 1470.

Outside prison the balance of power shifted uncertainly. In October 1470 a sudden invasion brought the Lancastrians back, and among their first acts in London was the freeing of imprisoned members of their own faction. Six months later, on 14 March 1471, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel died in London. He was buried under a marble tombstone in St Francis's Chapel, Greyfriars, Newgate, which despite its proximity to one of the gaols in which he had been imprisoned, was one of the most fashionable churches in London. His epitaph called him ‘valens miles de parochia de Monkenkyrkby’ (‘valiant knight, of the parish of Monks Kirby’). On the day of his death the Yorkists landed again in the north, and two months later were back in power. When they held an inquiry into Malory's estate, the jurors testified that he had died owning nothing. In a prudent moment, the rash Sir Thomas had made over all his lands to others.

Malory's Morte Darthur and other works

His permanent memorial was to be the Morte Darthur. It may not have been his only work. A contemporary Arthurian verse romance called The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. C. 86) bears striking similarities to it in some aspects of treatment of the story and authorial comment. In particular, both end with prayers for the author's deliverance from prison, couched in similar terms. But although The Wedding shows some gusto in reworking the old folk-tale theme of ‘what women most desire’, its 855 lines of near doggerel would not purchase anyone literary immortality.

Le Morte Darthur is a very different matter. It survives in two important texts, the edition printed by William Caxton in 1485 and a manuscript rediscovered at Winchester in 1934 (now BL, Add. MS 59678). The two texts derive independently from a lost common original, and both have suffered from post-authorial tinkering. Modern editions have reversed some of the damage by careful comparison of the two texts with each other and with Malory's known sources, which he sometimes follows very closely.

Malory called what he wrote The Whole Book of King Arthur and his Noble Knights of the Round Table. Its usual name, now established too firmly to be altered, was accidentally given by its first printer, William Caxton, who mistook the name of its last section for the name of the whole. As Malory's title implies, he intended to retell in English the entire Arthurian story from authoritative accounts, which for him meant primarily the three major cycles of French Arthurian prose romance, although he knew many other Arthurian stories and drew on them for incidents, allusions, and minor characters that give his story additional solidity.

Malory's book falls into eight tales. The first is based on the end of the second romance in the post-vulgate Roman du graal. It relates Arthur's mysterious conception, his achievement of the throne, and the early wars and quests of his knights: it ends with Arthur as undisputed king of Britain. The second adapts a late medieval English alliterative poem, Morte Arthure, to tell how Arthur conquers the Roman empire. Malory replaces the poem's tragic ending with a triumphant return to Britain, so making Arthur the greatest monarch in the world, and increases Lancelot's part from a few passing references to that of the rising star of chivalry.

The third tale sets incidents mostly from the third romance of the vulgate cycle in a frame of Malory's devising, to show Lancelot becoming the greatest knight in the world. He is also Guinevere's knight, but Malory's choice of episodes suppresses the adulterous love that is prominent in his source. The fourth tale is almost certainly based on a lost English poem about Gawain's youngest brother, Gareth, in which Malory has transferred much of Gawain's role to Lancelot. It gives Lancelot a follower with followers of his own, who might support him and Lancelot against Arthur.

The long fifth tale is taken from the French prose Tristan. Malory cut the extended account of Tristan's ancestry with which his source begins and the grail story with which it ends, leaving as the centrepiece of his book a profusion of adventures without obvious plot and theme. The result, however, is what later authors would imitate or satirize as the characteristic Arthurian world of chivalric quest and adventure.

The sixth tale is based on the fourth romance of the vulgate cycle, and tells the story of the grail, the supreme quest, in which three of Arthur's knights succeed, Lancelot is caught between success and failure, and the rest fail. The seventh tale combines material from the last romance in the vulgate cycle (partly through a derived English poem, Le Morte Arthur) with additional material from the third romance and Malory's invention. Its five episodes follow Lancelot's resumption of his affair with Guinevere after the grail quest, through repeated risk of discovery. The eighth tale completes the vulgate cycle story, relating the discovery of the affair, the internecine war that it provokes, and the deaths of nearly all the principal characters.

Malory's influence

Malory made his story one of the rise and fall of a great king and his kingdom. The symbolic power provided by this, by the innumerable quests and adventures contained in the book, and by the half-strange, half-familiar world of chivalric romance, reinforced by a transparent colloquial style that made events seem to stand free of any controlling author, quickly made it popular. For sixteenth-century England, despite humanists and puritans, it was the definitive retelling of the Arthurian story. When the round table in Winchester Castle was repainted for Henry VIII, the names of the individual knights on it were mostly taken from the Morte Darthur. In the next two centuries different tastes meant that the few readers interested in the ‘matter of Britain’ mostly looked to Geoffrey of Monmouth; but nineteenth-century medievalism raised the status of Malory's book to previously unimagined heights: Dante Gabriel Rossetti put it second only to the Bible. The twentieth century has seen it less admired but perhaps even more influential, affecting the media of films, cartoons, and computer games as well as established literary genres.

Malory's own reputation followed an even more erratic course. John Bale in 1548 asserted that Malory came from Maelor in Denbighshire, and the Biographia Britannica in the mid-eighteenth century misread the closing words of the Morte Darthur as implying that its author was a priest. It was only in the 1890s that scholarship jettisoned the imaginary Welsh priest and discovered a trio of real Thomas Malorys, whose various claims to authorship became the subject of vigorous debate. As the only indubitable knight among them, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel began with a head start over his namesakes of Hutton Conyers in Yorkshire and Papworth St Agnes in Cambridgeshire, but when the criminal charges against him were discovered, many found them difficult to reconcile with the idealism that was commonly seen in the Morte Darthur. Renewed investigation, however, has established that he was the only knight of the right name alive at the right time. If an author's life and writings must echo one another, the criminal charges must be false, or the perceived idealism exaggerated, or the author's personality must have changed in the course of eighteen years, mostly spent in fifteenth-century prisons. It seems most likely that all three notions contain an element of truth.

P. J. C. Field

Sources  

T. Malory, Works, ed. E. Vinaver, rev. P. J. C. Field, 3rd edn, 3 vols. (1990) · P. J. C. Field, The life and times of Sir Thomas Malory (1993) [incl. copious references to unpubd sources] · TNA: PRO, C 140/36/12; E 149/224/18; C 140/75/46 · W. Dugdale, The antiquities of Warwickshire illustrated, rev. W. Thomas, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1730) · J. Nichols, The history and antiquities of the county of Leicester, 4 vols. (1795–1815) · G. Wrottesley, ‘The Chetwynd chartulary’, in G., Collections for a history of Staffordshire, William Salt Archaeological Society, 12/1 (1891), 244–336 · ‘Brief notes of occurrences under Henry VI and Edward IV from MS Lambeth, 448’, Three fifteenth-century chronicles, ed. J. Gairdner, CS, new ser., 28 (1880), 148–63 · C. Carpenter, Locality and polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society, 1401–1499 (1992)

Archives  

priv. coll., literary MSS |  BL, Add. MS 59678 · Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. C. 86


Wealth at death  

widow held lands in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire valued at £22: TNA: PRO C 140/36/12; E 149/224/18; C 140/75/46; Nichols, History and antiquities, 4.362