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 only historical figure now known with whom this Sir Thomas Malory could be 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 and tried for a number of crimes: 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....
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Controversy surrounds the precise identity of the Sir Thomas Malory who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur. Long identified as a knight born in Newbold Revell, Warwickshire, who wrote his work in prison, and died in 1471, modern scholars have identified several other contenders. Opinion seems divided concerning whether he supported the York or the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses which ravaged England in the fifteenth century.
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...
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