Last reviewed: June 2018
Early fifteenth century
Newgate Prison, London, England
On July 31, 1485, from the press of William Caxton, the first English printer, issued the collection of Arthurian romances known as Le Morte d’Arthur. Caxton’s preface names the author as Sir Thomas Malory but gives no further information about him. At the end of the volume is a farewell to the reader in which the author begs prayer for his “good delyveraunce,” states that the book was finished in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (that is, after March 4, 1469), and names himself as “Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght.”
The historical figure with whom this Sir Thomas Malory has been identified was a member of an old Warwickshire family. He came into his father’s estates about 1433 and with “one lance and two archers” was in the train of Richard Beauchamp at the siege of Calais in 1436. In 1455 he was a member of Parliament for Warwickshire. At this point his career underwent a drastic change, and within the next five or six years he was accused of crimes including cattle raiding, extortion, breaking and entering, theft, rape, sedition, and attempted murder. He was imprisoned eight times and twice made dramatic escapes. After this interlude of lawlessness, he is known to have followed the earl of Warwick on his expedition into Northumberland in 1462; probably was present at the siege of Alnwick, which lasted until January 30, 1463; and very likely went over with Warwick to the Lancastrians. When the king granted general pardons to the rebels in 1468, Malory was excluded from the amnesty by name. He died in 1471, possibly as a prisoner, and was buried near Newgate Prison.
The identification of Malory, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, with Malory, the traitor and criminal, is supported by the information found in a manuscript version of the work discovered in 1934 in the library of Winchester College. This manuscript contains several explicits which were suppressed in the printed version; one of them says specifically that the book was “drawyn by a knyght presoner Sir Thomas Maleorre.” Perhaps more important, the manuscript shows that Caxton treated Malory’s work with considerable freedom and that many of the inconsistencies and garbled passages in the text are traceable to the printing house rather than to the author. The most reliable modern editions (such as the Eugène Vinaver version) therefore are based on the Winchester manuscript rather than on Caxton’s version of the text.
The book consists of the legends of Sir Launcelot, Sir Gareth, Sir Tristram, and the Holy Grail as well as stories of Arthur’s coming to the throne, his wars with the Emperor Lucius, and his death. Malory’s sources were principally French romances, which he translated into vigorous and resonant English prose. The earliest written tales clung closely to the sources, the departures being chiefly to extol the virtues of the high order of knighthood. Later, however, Malory seems to have gained more confidence, and his changes in the source material took the form of reordering and altering to increase the aesthetic value of the story. The last-written work, The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur, which is based partly on a French romance and partly on an English stanzaic poem, is thought to be the greatest; in it Malory’s genius reached its highest pitch in describing the deeds of heroes in the service of a great national leader.