Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075
Though it is clear that “Sir Thomas Malory, knight prisoner,” wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, there is serious debate about which Thomas Malory actually authored the work. Records of fifteenth century England contain references to more than one dozen Thomas Malorys. Most modern scholars believe that the author of Le Morte d’Arthur was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, Warwickshire, in southern England, but there are other candidates, most notably Thomas Malory of Hutton and Studley, Yorkshire, in the north.
That Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell was the author of Le Morte d’Arthur was first proposed in 1894 by George L. Kittredge, who examined both the Caxton text and historical records and deduced that the Newbold Revell knight met all the necessary criteria for authorship. From the explicit at the end of book 21 of Le Morte d’Arthur, Kittredge concluded that Thomas Malory was a knight, that he was in prison (he prays for “good delyveraunce”), and that the book was concluded in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (March, 1469-March, 1470). Extant records indicated that the Malory from Newbold Revell was the son of a gentleman and therefore probably received the education requisite to produce the work. He had been exposed to knightly virtues while in service to Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who was said to have embodied the knightly ideals of the age. Malory from Newbold Revell is reported to have died on March 14, 1471, after the terminus ad quem of the book’s composition.
Kittredge’s identification of Malory was reinforced when, in the early 1920’s, Edward Cobb found an indictment consisting of eight charges against the Newbold Revell knight. Although it is not clear that Malory was ever found guilty on any of the charges, it is certain that he spent time in jail; in fact, it appears that between 1460 and 1471, the Newbold Revell knight spent most of his time at Newgate prison. His presence there would explain his having access to the books on which he based Le Morte d’Arthur, because Newgate was situated near a monastery with an excellent library. Malory may well have bribed his keepers to allow him to borrow the books.
The Winchester manuscript, discovered in 1934, contains several new explicits that provide additional information about the author. For example, at the end of the “Tale of Sir Gareth,” Malory petitions his readers to pray that God will send him “good delyveraunce sone [soon] and hastely.” Even more clear is the explicit at the end of the “Tale of King Arthur,” in which the author says that “this was drawyn by a knyght presoner sir Thomas Malleorre.” On this evidence, the knight from Newbold Revell has emerged as the leading candidate for the authorship of Le Morte d’Arthur.
The primary arguments discrediting the Newbold Revell knight have been made by William Matthews in The Ill-Framed Knight (1965). According to Matthews, no evidence suggests that this Malory had any familiarity with northern poetry, yet the dialect of Le Morte d’Arthur and its English sources (especially the alliterative Morte Arthure) are clearly northern. Further, none of the references to real places (many are mentioned in the text) are to locations near Warwickshire. Matthews contends, too, that it is doubtful that a criminal would have had access under any circumstances to the library near Newgate, and that there is no evidence that the monastery’s library had the books on which Le Morte d’Arthur is based. At the time the work was completed, Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell could have been seventy-five years old, much too old to have completed such an arduous task. Finally, the Newbold Revell knight’s political alliances were Yorkist, and Le Morte d’Arthur is distinctly Lancastrian in outlook. Kittredge had also cited two documents to support his claim, but this documentary evidence is discounted by Matthews. Matthews says that Kittredge’s Malory was too old to have participated in a 1462 winter siege in which a Malory is recorded to have taken part. Similarly, the Newbold Revell knight could not have been the one named in the pardon made by Edward IV in 1468, since the pardon applied to political prisoners, and the Warwickshire man was a common criminal.
Matthews has proposed a second candidate, Thomas Malory of Hutton and Studley in Yorkshire. This Malory was a member of an eminent northern family; it is realistic to assume that he could read French, had access to the necessary source documents, was familiar with northern poetry and places, and spoke the northern dialect prominent in Le Morte d’Arthur. In addition, he supported the Lancastrian cause. The objections to his candidacy for authorship are that he is not described in family genealogies as a knight or chevalier, and there is no record of his ever being a prisoner. Matthews argues, however, that these are not serious discrepancies. Many men who could do so did not claim the title of knight. That there is no record of the Yorkshire Malory being a prisoner is also explainable. Although records abound detailing the imprisonment of criminals, it was not a fifteenth century custom to keep records of prisoners of war. These prisoners often had some measure of freedom and several wrote books while in captivity. It seems more likely that a work the scope of Le Morte d’Arthur would be written under these conditions than under those imposed on criminals. Further, the expression “knight-prisoner,” used by Malory to refer to himself in the explicits, is applied in Le Morte d’Arthur to Lionel, Lancelot, and Tristram when they become prisoners of war. Similarly, “good deliverance” is used when Malory speaks of Tristram’s trials in prison. Thus, the term “knight-prisoner” is used in a somewhat complimentary fashion as the epithet of a prisoner of war, not a common criminal. The claim for Thomas Malory of Studley and Hutton rests on these grounds.
Other candidates have been proposed as the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, but few can be considered seriously. Thomas Malorys appear in the records of English courts and parishes as laborers, armigers—and one as a member of parliament (though he is mentioned only once, and nothing else is known about him). What is known for certain about the author of Le Morte d’Arthur can only be gleaned from the text of the work itself, and then verified—with much conjecture—by searching the records of fifteenth century England.