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Sir Thomas Malory

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Sir Thomas Malory

Sir Thomas Malory (died 14 March 1471) was an English writer, the author or compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur. Since the late nineteenth century he has generally been identified as Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire,[1] a knight, land-owner and Member of Parliament.[2] Previously, it was suggested by antiquary John Leland as well as John Bale that he was Welsh (identifying 'Malory' with 'Maelor'). 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'.[3]


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 'knight prisoner', distinguishing him from the other six individuals also bearing the name Thomas Malory in the 15th century when Le Morte d'Arthur was written.[4] At the end of the "Tale of King Arthur", being 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."[5]
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."[5]
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."[5]
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."[5]
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."[5]

The author must have been from a rich enough family to ensure his education was sufficient to the point of being able to read French, and also to have been familiar with the Yorkshire dialect. A claimant's age must also fit the time of writing.[5]

Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel

By far the likeliest candidate for the authorship is Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. H. Oskar Sommer first put forth this theory in his 1890 edition of Le Morte d'Arthur and Harvard Professor George Lyman Kittredge provided the evidence in 1896. Kittredge showed Malory as a soldier and member of Parliament who fought at Calais with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. However, a biography by Edward Hicks in 1928, revealed him as a thief, bandit, kidnapper, and rapist, hardly in keeping with the high chivalric standards in the book.[6] Helen Cooper referred to his life as one that 'reads more like an account of exemplary thuggery than chivalry.'

Thomas Malory was born to Sir John Malory of Winwick and Lady Phillipa Malory, heiress of Newbold. Judging by the fact that he attained his majority (21) between 1434 and 1439, he was born after 1415 and before 1418.[7] He was knighted before 8 October 1441.[8] He became a professional soldier and served under the Duke of Warwick, but all dates are vague, and it is unknown how he became distinguished. He acted as an elector in Northamptonshire, but in 1443 was accused, along with an accomplice, Eustace Barnaby, of attacking, kidnapping, and stealing £40 of goods from Thomas Smythe. Nothing became of this charge, and he soon married a woman named Elizabeth Walsh,[9] who would bear him at least one son, Robert,[5] and possibly one or two others.[10]

The same year, Malory was elected to Parliament, serving at Westminster as knight of the shire for Warwickshire for the rest of 1443, and being appointed to a Royal Commission charged with the distribution of monies to impoverished towns in Warwickshire. Despite the charge against him, he seemed to have remained in good standing amongst his peers.[5] In 1449 he was elected as MP for the Duke of Buckingham's safe seat of Great Bedwyn.

However, this changed abruptly, when, in 1450 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. The accusation was never proved. In May of that year, he was next accused of extorting 100 shillings from Margaret King and William Hales of Monks Kirby, and, the next August, of committing the same injury against John Mylner, for 20 shillings.[5]

In between, in June 1450, he found the time to break into the house of Hugh Smyth of Monks Kirby, stealing £40 of goods, and raping his wife. Eight weeks later, Malory alone was charged with attacking the same woman, in Coventry. 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.[11] Nine months later, on 15 March 1451, he and 19 others were ordered to be arrested. Nothing came of this and in the following months, Malory and his followers committed a long 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.[5] Most of these crimes seem to have been targeted at the property and followers of the Duke of Buckingham. As a supporter of the family of Buckingham's former rival, the Duke of Warwick, there may have been a political motivation behind Malory's attacks.

This continued, until the matter finally came to trial on 23 August 1451, in Nuneaton the heartland of Buckingham's power and a place where Malory, as a supporter of the Beauchamps, would find little support.[10] Those accused included him and several others, with numerous charges. The judgement went against Malory and he was sent to London's Marshalsea prison by 1452, where he remained for a year. His response was to plead "not guilty," and demand a retrial with a jury of men from his own county. This never took place, but he was released. In March, he was back in Marshalsea, from which he escaped two months after, possibly by bribing the guards and gaolers. After a month, he was back in prison, and was held until the following May, released on a bail of £200 to a number of his fellow Warwickshire magnates, a considerable sum.[5][10]

Next, when Malory was to answer for his crimes, he could not be found. This was because he was in custody in Colchester, accused of more crimes involving robbery and the stealing of horses. Once again, he escaped, and was at liberty until November, when he was apprehended and returned to Marshalsea.[5] The penalty his gaolers would face in the event of his escape was £1000, a record for the Middle Ages. He was pardoned at the accession of Edward IV to the throne in 1461 and was never actually tried on any of the charges against him.[10]

In 1462, he settled his estate on his son Robert. In around 1466/67 Robert fathered a son, Nicholas, who was Malory's ultimate heir. However, by 1468 Malory appears to have changed allegiance (having previously been a Yorkist) and entered into a conspiracy with the new Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, to remove the King. However, the plot was discovered and Malory was imprisoned in June 1468. In the following eighteen months he was - uniquely in English history - excluded by name from two general pardons in July 1468 and February 1470.[11] The collapse of the Yorkist regime and the return of Henry VI to the throne saw him released for the final time.[10]

Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel died on 14 March 1471, and was buried with adequate splendour in Christ Church Greyfriars, near Newgate Prison. His being interred here suggests that his misdeeds were forgiven and that he possessed some wealth, either the result of his robberies, or some unknown patron, possibly Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, under whom Malory may have spent time as a paid spy.[5] However, it was certified at the granting of probate that he owned little direct wealth, having previously settled it on his son some years before: on his son's death, it had passed to his grandson, Nicholas.[10]

Malory's tomb read:
"Here lies Lord Thomas Mallere, Valiant Soldier. Died 14 March 1471, in the parish of Monkenkirby in the county of Warwick."[5]

His grave was lost when Greyfriars was dissolved by Henry VIII. His grandson, Nicholas lived to inherit his lands and was respected enough to be appointed High Sheriff in 1502.[5]

Alternative identities

Over the centuries, many alternative identities have been proposed for Malory, in part because of the enormous gulf between the lifestyle of Malory of Newbold Revel and the chivalric ideals espoused in Le Morte d'Arthur. Some of the more popular theories are listed below.

Welsh Poet

The earliest conclusion was made by John Bale, a 16th-century antiquarian, who declared that Malory was Welsh, hailing from Maloria on the River Dee. This candidate received further support from Sir John Rhys, who, in 1893, proclaimed that the alternative spelling indicated an area straddling the England-North Wales border, Maleore in Flintshire, and Maleor in Denbigh. This would possibly relate Malory to Edward Rhys Maelor, a fifteenth-century Welsh poet.[5]

Thomas Malory of Papworth

A second candidate was presented by A. T. Martin, another antiquarian, who proposed in an article written in 1897, that the author was Thomas Malory of Papworth St. Agnes in Huntingdonshire. The brief biography of Malory goes thus: Born on 6 December 1425 at Morton Court, Shropshire, he was the eldest son of Sir William Malory, representative of Parliament to Cambridgeshire. Thomas inherited his father's estates in 1425, and was placed in the wardship of the King for reasons unknown, remaining there until within four months of his death, in 1469. Nothing else is known of him, save one peculiar incident, discovered by William Matthews. In a collection of chancery proceedings, it is heard of 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, to Northampton, all the while being threatened on his life to either forfeit his church unto Malory, or else give £100. The outcome of this is unknown, but it seems to indicate something more than an average country gentleman, and his wardship might explain the "knight prisoner."[5] However, there is no evidence that this Malory was ever actually knighted, and the very specific use of the word 'knight' tells against him.[12]

Thomas Malory of Hutton Conyers

The third alternative contender is the little-known Thomas Malory from Hutton Conyers, in Yorkshire. This claim was put forth in The Ill-Framed Knight: A Skeptical Inquiry Into the Identity of Sir Thomas Malory, written by the aforementioned William Matthews, a British professor who taught at UCLA (and is most famous for his transcription of the Diary of Samuel Pepys).[13] Matthews' claim was met with little enthusiasm, despite considerable linguistic evidence which demonstrates that the author spoke a regional dialect which matches with the writing of Le Morte d'Arthur. Again, this Malory is not known to have been knighted.[5]

Validity of these claims

Although there has been a great deal of scholarly research on the subject, no candidate for authorship other than Malory of Newbold Revel has ever been found to command widespread support: no other Malory family contains a Thomas who was knighted, or who spent many years in a prison with a good library (the Tower of London, in Malory of Newbold Revel's case).[12] P. J. C. Field, in a recent Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, stressed that recent scholarship has focussed firmly on Malory of Newbold Revel ahead of these latter two (and with the 'Welsh Poet' hypothesis rejected entirely). Field's conclusion was that 'renewed investigation, however, has established that he was the only knight of the right name alive at the right time.'[10] Unless further evidence can be uncovered, that is where the position of scholarship on the subject will likely remain.

In fiction

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 "Sir Tom of Warwick", thus supporting the claim of Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel. Many modern takes on the Arthurian legend have their roots in Malory, including John Boorman's 1981 movie Excalibur, which includes selected elements of the book. Parts of Malory's book form a key element in Cynthia Harnett's children's novel "The Load of Unicorn".



  • Cooper, Helen, Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (OUP 1998) ISBN 0-19-28420-1
  • Malory, Thomas, Cowen, Janet & Lawlor, John. Le Morte D'Arthur. Volume II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969.googlebooks Retrieved 2 December 2007
  • Vinaver, Eugène, "Sir Thomas Malory" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Loomis, Roger S. (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
  • Field, P. J. C., The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993. ISBN 0261-9814
  • - Malory, Sir Thomas (1415x18–1471)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [1 Jan 2013] (requires login)
  • Smith, Sheila V. Mallory, A History of the Mallory Family, Phillimore, 1985, ISBN 0-85033-576-0
  • Hardyment, Christina, Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur's Chronicler, Harper Collins, 2005, ISBN 0-06-620981-1
  • Riddy, Felicity. Sir Thomas Malory. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987. Print.
  • Whitteridge, Gweneth. “The Identity of Sir Thomas Malory, Knight-Prisoner.” The Review of English Studies; 24.95 (1973): 257-265. JSTOR. Web. 30 November 2009.
  • Malory, Thomas & Matthews, John. Le Morte d'Athur. London: Cassell & Co, 2000.

External links

  • Arthuriana: The Journal of Arthurian Studies
  • Le Morte d'Arthur (Caxton edition, in Middle English) at the University of Michigan
  • eBooks@Adelaide
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Le Mort d'Arthur: Volume 1 at Project Gutenberg
  • Le Mort d'Arthur: Volume 2 at Project Gutenberg
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