(1410 – 1471)
Thomas Malory is recognized as a towering figure of medieval English literature. His masterwork, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), is the best-known treatment in English of the tales of the exploits and deeds of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Fought in Hundred Years’ War Malory’s birth date is uncertain, but believed to be just before 1410. He was probably the son of John Malory, esquire, of Newbold Revel. As a young man, Malory served with the Earl of Warwick’s forces in France. England had been at war with France since 1337 in what came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). The conflict was over territories controlled by the English in France. At the war’s end, England was expelled from the continent except for Calais.
Thomas Malory succeeded to his father’s estate in 1433 or 1434. Far from being the sort of man likely to write what William Caxton called a ‘‘Noble and Joyous book,’’ Malory was a ruffian of the most extreme kind. He was indicted for theft in 1443 and served in parliament later in the decade. He is next heard of in 1450, when he evidently embarked upon an appalling career of rape, robbery, and brutal violence. All together, this ‘‘servant of Ihesu [Jesus] bothe day and nyght’’ (as he claimed of himself) was to spend years in prison for his crimes.
The most damaging document relating to Malory is the memorandum of an inquisition held at Nuneaton in 1451. Therein, it is stated that on January 4, 1450, Thomas Malory led an attempt to murder Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham. A few months later, he raped Joan Smyth of Monks Kirby, and the following week he extorted one hundred shillings from Margaret Kyng and William Hales. He raped Joan Smyth again on August 6, stealing forty pounds Sterling in goods belonging to her husband. On August 31 he extorted twenty shillings from John Mylner. Almost a year later, on June 4, 1451, Malory and five others stole seven cows, two calves, a cart worth four pounds Sterling, and 335 sheep from a Warwickshire farm.
He was arrested a month later and placed in custody, but he broke out of prison by swimming the moat. The very next day, he reconvened his band of abettors. That night, he led an attack on Coombe Abbey, stealing jewels, cash, religious objects, and other valuables. The next night, he returned to Coombe for more booty, this time inciting a riot in which he may have personally beaten the abbot bloody with a stick.
In spite of the seriousness of the charges brought at Nuneaton, Malory was never brought to trial for the crimes enumerated in the memorandum, though he was summoned in March 1452 to answer charges not sufficiently explained the year before. For a time, he apparently continued his criminal enterprises, jumping bail in 1454 to avoid felony prosecution. He was subsequently imprisoned in Colchester, but escaped and was recaptured and sent to Marshalsea Prison. Malory was called before the King’s Bench on January 16, 1456, and released on a royal pardon. He was sent to Ludgate, a debtor’s prison, and released on bail in 1457. Read the rest of this entry