Dark Knight

Tom Shippey

  • The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory by P.J.C. Field
    Boydell and Brewer, 218 pp, £29.50, September 1993, ISBN 0 85991 385 6

‘What? seyde Sir Launcelot, is he a theff and a knyght? And a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode, and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyté that he lyvyth!’ This indignant outburst by Sir Lancelot in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the work and of its author. Ever since G.L. Kittredge, a hundred years ago, identified the author of Morte Darthur with Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, a gap has grown between the Morte Darthur itself, Caxton’s ‘noble and joyous hystorye’, and its presumptive author, in C.S. Lewis’s phrase, ‘little better than a criminal’.

Actually, Lewis much understated the case. If one goes by the records, slowly unearthed in the Twenties and Thirties by Edward Cobb, Edward Hicks and A.C. Baugh, the Malory of Newbold Revel was not ‘little better than a criminal’, he was a criminal, and probably by some way the most distinguished criminal ever to have won a place in English letters. Despite a reasonably secure and prosperous background in Warwickshire life, he quite suddenly began a career of violence by lying in wait, with 26 others, to murder Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Stafford, in 1450. The ambush failed, so Malory cannot be given too much blame (or credit) for that. But in a very short period this Warwickshire Sir Thomas found himself accused of a string of other crimes, including doing barely credible damage to the Duke of Norfolk’s deer-park – he may have thought it was Buckingham’s – twice breaking into Combe Abbey to steal its goods and insult the abbot, and repeatedly mustering large numbers of armed men to lead in theft, raid, or riot. High points of his career include breaking out of prison at Coleshill in 1452: ‘prisonam ... noctanter fregit et ultra motam ibidem natavit sicquid a custodia ... evasit’, says the charge, ‘he broke out of prison by night and swam across the moat of the same and so escaped from custody.’ Two years later he was lodged in the greater prison of Colchester, that ‘grim and strong fortress’; this time it took him a fortnight to break out, which he did ‘vi et armis videlicet gladiis langodebeves et daggariis ... et sic extra eandem gaolam felonice ... evaserit’, ‘by armed force, that is to say with swords, daggers and langues de boeuf, and so feloniously escaped out of that same gaol’. Some have wondered whether Malory seized the weapons from his jailers, or had them smuggled in, but the thought of smuggling in a langue de boeuf, or ‘oxtongue’ halberd, under one’s jacket defies the imagination: Malory must have overpowered his guards and fought his way out in true cinematic style.

From other records it became clear that the same Malory (not surprisingly) had set a record during the Middle Ages for the amount of security which his unfortunate jail-governors were to forfeit if he escaped again: £2000, no less – or, to put it in perspective, a hundred years’ pay for a prosperous functionary like Chaucer. Also, a Sir Thomas Malory, presumably the same one, received the distinction of twice being left out of general pardons issued by Edward IV. Edward, a merciful man even at critical periods of the Wars of the Roses, was prepared to hand out pardons for free to people who couldn’t afford to pay for them. But in 1468 he specifically excluded 15 people from the hope of pardon, the first three being the Lancastrian royal family, the fourth being Edward’s cousin and rival Sir Humphrey Neville, and the fifth being Malory – a man, one has to say, who made the (dis)Honours List by (de)merit alone, without assistance from birth.

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