Sir Thomas Malory

   Le Morte Darthur is considered by many as the definitive interpretation of the Arthurian myth. In the closing words of his great work, sometime between Mar 4, 1469 and the same date in 1470, he described himself as a knight-prisoner and seems to indicate a similar personal state in the story of Tristan. Yet Malory's own  identity remains as elusive and as mysterious as that of Arthur with serious attempts to identify him going back over a hundred years. In letters to The Athenaeum in July 1896, Mr. T. Williams pointed out that the name of a Sir Thomas Malorie occurred among those of a number of other Lancastrians excluded from a general pardon granted by Edward IV in 1468, and that a William Mallerye was mentioned in the same year as taking part in a Lancastrian rising. In September 1897, in another letter to the same paper, Mr. A. T. Martin reported the finding of the will of a Thomas Malory of Papworth, a hundred partly in Cambridgeshire, partly in Hunts. This will was made on September 16, 1469, and as it was proved the 27th of the next month the testator must have been in immediate expectation of death. It contains careful provision for the education and starting in life of a family of three daughters and seven sons, of whom the youngest seems to have been still an infant. There are a total of about nine possible candidates for the knight and author of our Arthurian epic, but the most likely candidate is Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel.
   Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire "was born into a gentry family that had lived for centuries in the English Midlands near the point where Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire meet. His father, John Malory, was an esquire with land in all three counties, but was primarily a Warwickshire man, being twice sheriff, five times M.P. and for many years a justice of the peace for that county. John married Philippa Chetwynd... and they had at least three daughters, and one son, Thomas, who was probably born within a year either way of 1416" - The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory, PJC Field. As Field notes: "In late medieval England, taking up knighthood could be expensive, and doing so may imply political and social ambition". This was also the turbulent period of the War of the Roses with its struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster. Just as Arthur faced many opponents claiming right to be king, the civil struggles that culminated in the War of the Roses started in 1399 when the Lancastrian Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne from his cousin Richard II and crowned himself Henry IV. This period saw the heavy loss of many of the gentried knights and a weakening of the powers of the nobles that eventually gave way to the strong centralized control of the Tudor line. We can easily see a new knight of both intelligence and ambition being drawn deeply into the struggle that led to full civil war by 1455.
   Starting around 1439, records for Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel provide an image of a country landowner with a growing interest in politics. His name is on a witness deed for his neighbor, he was a parliamentary elector; and in 1441, he was knighted. Sir Thomas married Elizabeth Walsh of Wanlip in Leicestershire. She later bore him a son, Robert. In 1443, Malory was charged with wounding and imprisoning Thomas Smith and stealing his goods, but the charges apparently fell through. This strange event may have been politically motivated or related to Malory's increasing involvement in the growing struggle; for, in 1445, he was elected M.P. for Warwickshire and served on commissions to assess tax-exemptions in the county. Perhaps, it was a foreshadowing of a darker side to the man. We do not know the motivations or personal and political reasons, but in the years leading up to the War, the character of Malory took on aspects that are hard to reconcile with the image of chivalry invoked in his great work.
   On January 4, 1450, records state that "[Malory] and 26 other armed men were said to have laid an ambush for [the Duke of] Buckingham in the Abbot of Combe's woods near Newbold Revel". Less than 6 months later, on May 23, he allegedly raped Joan Smith at Coventry. The charge is not of abduction but of rape in the modern sense. The record specifies cum ea carnaliter concubit, ‘he carnally lay with her.’ It was brought not by Joan under common law, but by her husband under a statute of Richard II intended to make elopement into rape even when the woman consented. Perhaps to pay for his defense or freedom, records state that Malory extorted money by threats from two residents of Monks Kirby May 31.
   On August 6, Malory allegedly rapes Joan Smith again and steals 40 pounds worth of goods from her husband in Coventry to be followed on August 31, by extortion from a third Monks Kirby resident.
   On March 5, 1451, a warrant was finally issued for his arrest; but rather than go into hiding, a few weeks later, Malory and various accomplices were alleged to have stolen cattle and sheep at Cosford, Warwickshire. While the Duke of Buckingham with a force of 60 men sought to apprehend Malory, Malory apparently raided Buckingham's hunting lodge, killing his deer, and did an enormous amount of damage (500 lb.). Malory was finally arrested and imprisoned at Coleshill, but after two days escaped by swimming the moat at night. He then reportedly twice raided Combe Abbey with a large band of men. By January 1452, Malory was in prison in London, where he spent most of the next eight years waiting for trial. During his imprisonment, he was bailed out several times, and on one such occasion may have joined a horse-stealing expedition across East Anglia that ended in his jailing at Colchester jail. He escaped, but was recaptured and returned to prison in London. After this date, he was shifted frequently from prison to prison, and the penalties put on his jailers for his secure keeping reached a record for medieval England.
   During one of the several bouts of Henry VI's insanity, when the Richard Plantagenet Duke of York was Lord Protector, Malory was given a royal pardon, which the court dismissed. Once the Yorkists under Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, invaded in 1460 and had expelled the Lancastrians, Malory was freed and pardoned. He was never tried on any of the charges brought against him. Malory repaid Warwick by taking part in the expedition against the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh, and Dunstanborough, which the Lancastrians had seized. The castles were taken, and Malory settled down to a more peaceful life.
   Yet, Malory seems to have switched allegiances once more, for in 1468 and again in 1470, he was named in lists of irreconcilable Lancastrians who were excluded from royal pardons for any crimes they might have committed. Most of those on the lists were at liberty; but the Morte Darthur indicates that Malory was again in prison, completing his great work.
   In October 1470, when the Lancastrians returned to power, among their first acts was freeing those of their party who were in London prisons. Six months later, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel died and was buried under a marble tombstone in Greyfriars, Newgate. On the day of Malory's death, King Edward landed in Yorkshire, and two months later the Yorkists were back in power. Although the original tombstone was destroyed, the inscription survives in an early sixteenth-century transcript, which calls Malory valens miles (a valiant knight) of the parish of Monks Kirby in Warwickshire and says he died on 14 March 1470, which by corrections to today's calendar is 14 March 1471. 

The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Arthurian Studies) by P.J.C. Field (Paperback - Nov 11, 1999

Knight prisoner: The tale of Sir Thomas Malory and his King Arthur by Margaret Hodges (Paperback - 1976)

Sir Thomas Malory: Views and Re-Views (Ams Studies in the Middle Ages, No. 19) by D. Thomas Hanks Hardcover - Sep 1992


Sir Thomas Malory: His Turbulent Career: A Biography (Bcli-Pr English Literature Series) by Edward Hicks (Library Binding - Jan 1928)

Sir Thomas Malory by Edmund. Reiss (Textbook Binding - Jun 1966

The Official Website of The Sir Thomas Malory Society can be found at

See Also Le Morte D'Arthur