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.

However, these events – variously explained or apologised for by biographers – have caused less difficulty for the morality of our times than the double accusation that the same Sir Thomas Malory, on two different occasions, on 23 May and 6 August 1450, broke into the house of Hugh Smyth and raped his wife Joan. The terms of the charges are perfectly clear: ‘domos Hugonis Smyth fregit et Johannam uxorem dicti Hugonis ibidem adtunc felonice rapuit et cum ea carnaliter concubuit’, ‘he broke into the house of Hugh Smyth and then feloniously raped Joan the wife of the said same Hugh and lay with her carnally.’ Despite the clarity of this charge, the reaction of 20th-century admirers of the Morte Darthur has been simply to reject it. A man who wrote the words of Lancelot quoted at the start, with such apparent force and sincerity, simply could not be both a knight and a rapist himself – or so it has repeatedly been said. Raptus need not mean a sexual offence, claimed Kittredge (ignoring the carnaliter concubuit). Maybe the house was ransacked for money Malory thought he was owed, and Smyth’s wife was ‘forcibly removed from the dwelling ... On neither occasion is there any likelihood that Goodwife Smyth was actually ravished. The duplication of this particular charge’ – three months apart, see above – ‘is reason enough for rejecting such an idea: it is ridiculous to suppose that Malory actually ravished the woman twice.’ One may wonder quite why Kittredge thought repeated rape ‘ridiculous’: possibly buried in his thinking was the assumption that this was/would be a rape of ‘phallic aggression’, directed against husband, not wife, and so of such symbolic importance as not to need repeating. C.S. Lewis meanwhile preferred to put the incident into Arthurian terms (adding to it a touch of his own characteristic if occasional false-heartiness): ‘Rape need mean no more than abduction; from the legal point of view Lancelot committed rape when he saved Guinevere from the fire. If Malory, loving Joan Smyth par amours, and knowing her cuckoldy knave of a husband to be little better than a King Mark, carried her off behind him ... he may have done what a good knight should.’ In any case, Lewis claimed, ‘cuckoldy knaves’ apart, none of the charges was proved: ‘what should we think of Tristram himself if our knowledge of him were derived only from King Mark’s solicitors?’

For all the rhetorical skill deployed, one can see that these reactions are simple fantasy born of embarrassment. Generation after generation of scholars have refused to believe that a man could write one way and act another. The end of the line came, perhaps, with William Matthew’s well-written and wittily-titled book of 1966, The Ill-Framed Knight, which argued that the author of Morte Darthur, like his hero Lancelot, was a chevalier mal fet, an ‘illframed knight’ who had been ‘framed’ in the modern sense: the crimes above may indeed have been committed by Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, but the Morte Darthur was written by Thomas Malory of Hutton Conyers in the North Riding, not a thief, not a rapist, but the soldier sent to besiege Alnwick and Bamborough in 1462, and the man excluded from pardon six years later for supporting his near-neighbour, Sir Humphrey Neville, in Lancastrian rebellion.

Matthew’s view has been widely accepted, at least in the USA, perhaps with some measure of relief. It has always carried less conviction in the UK, because of residual awareness that the dialect of someone from the North Riding, even in the 15th century and even through the mist of ‘standardising’ created by Caxton and the scribe of the one manuscript, ought nevertheless to have been perfectly obvious to any English person during the centuries for which the work has been read. In any case, the present exhaustive survey by Peter Field has surely put paid to the Matthew thesis, the Kittredge denial and the Lewis exculpation all together: it is no longer possible to say, in chorus or separately, ‘it wasn’t him, it never happened, and anyway he did right.’ We are left instead face to face with the contradiction of Lancelot and Joan Smyth; as also with a string of other doubts settled but questions raised.

The old issue of Malory’s age for one thing disappears. It was a cornerstone of the Kittredge biography that Sir Thomas Malory had begun his military career under Sir Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and paragon of chivalry; but this would have had him starting his criminal career in his fifties and writing the Morte Darthur in his seventies. Field shows easily that Beauchamp’s retainer must have been another man. Malory accordingly was not present at the burning of Joan of Arc (prominent though female burnings-at-the-stake are in his work), and cannot have founded his wish to murder the Duke of Buckingham on the latter’s caddish treatment of the Maid – he drew his sword on her while she was a prisoner and had to be restrained by the chivalric Beauchamp. The attack on Buckingham remains mysterious, as does Malory’s whole violent career during the 1450s. But Field is confident that it was the Newbold Revel Malory who went north with Edward IV to besiege the Northern castles of Alnwick and Bamborough, which the Morte Darthur alone identifies with Lancelot’s own ‘Joyous Garde’. Why, then, if Malory was on campaign with the Yorkists in 1462, was he bracketed with the most dangerous Lancastrians in 1468? Because he had changed sides along with Warwick – not Beauchamp, but his successor the Kingmaker – and been suspected of connivance with the Lancastrian ‘Cornelius plot’ of that same year. Does this square, finally, with the Morte Darthur’s only evident comment on contemporary politics, the statement near the end, when Mordred rebels, that it was a great ‘myschyff’ that Englishmen could not be content with the king who upheld them all? ‘Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe, and men say that we of thys londe have not yet loste that custom. Alas! thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.’ Did Malory, the ‘knyghte presonere’, writing in prison ‘the ninth yere of the reygne of king Edward the Fourth’ (i.e. 1469-70), mean by this to reproach his countrymen for their disloyalty to Edward, the warlike but merciful king, the man who locked Malory up very tightly but allowed him nevertheless to have free run of (perhaps) his brother-in-law’s library? No, Field replies. Following Lewis, he suggests that one of Malory’s distinctive characteristics is his understanding of the workings of a bad conscience; Malory followed the fortunes of the Earl of Warwick, but at the end of his life felt guilty for his betrayal of King Henry – as it happens, held prisoner in the same building as Malory, as Malory was actually writing.

Many things still remain obscure, even after Field’s detached, painstaking, and blessedly unsentimental sifting of the sources. It seems unlikely that we will ever be able to guess at what drove Malory the MP into a career of crime: it must have been something personal. Field notes Malory’s good luck in having a rich Crusader uncle in Sir Robert Malory, prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, who led an English contingent against the Turks, 1435-8; but also his bad luck in having Uncle Robert die in 1440, before his nephew could profit from any nepotism. Personal injury, coupled with feelings of political impotence, might have accounted for Malory’s first unsuccessful resort to violence.

Even more puzzling is the question of why Malory was treated with such unusual care, attention and seriousness all his life, being locked up with (as had been said) record-breaking precautions, but also repeatedly bailed or recruited, unpardoned but respectfully treated. A good deal of time and money seems to have been expended by the great in looking after a poor knight with no influential connections. It is hard not to connect this with Malory’s career of violence. Field notes the ease with which Malory could recruit followers; and also makes a very firm connection in identifying Robert Malory, lieutenant to the Constable of the Tower of London 1461-70, as Sir Thomas’s son. The Tower of London was a most important military command, as the author of the Morte Darthur knew well: he has Mordred anachronistically shooting ‘grete gunnes’ at it, as indeed happened during the Yorkist siege of 1460 (Malory may have been inside as an important prisoner, or – if the Yorkists had released him from Newgate – outside as a besieger). Malory junior was furthermore present at the execution under Warwick’s orders of King Edward IV’s father- and brother-in-law, at the same time as his own jailed father was completing the Morte. This double execution was a decisive and potentially unforgivable event, and as Field says, ‘those whose loyalty or nerves were weak would have found urgent business elsewhere.’ But it looks as if the Malorys, father and son, had strong nerves if not reliable loyalties; in a civil war those who will commit themselves to violent action without temporising are especially valuable. Especially, of course, if they are good at it, as Malory’s jailbreak from Colchester would indicate. Field believes that Sir Thomas was released from Lancastrian imprisonment by the Yorkists in 1460: if from Newgate in July, he could either have stayed to besiege the Tower, or gone on to the battle of Northampton (where someone killed his old enemy Buckingham); if from the Tower later on, he could have been present at Wakefield, Second St Albans, or Towton, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. After Arthur’s last battle, Sir Lucan ‘saw and harkened by the moonelyght how that pillours and robbers were com into the fylde to pylle and to robbe ... And who that were not dede all oute, there they slewe them for their harneys and their ryches.’ Had Malory seen casualties lying untended under a full moon (as happened at Towton, fought on Palm Sunday)? Just afterwards Sir Lucan helps Sir Bedivere to lift the wounded Arthur, ‘that parte of hys guttis felle oute of his bodye, and therewith the noble knyght his harte braste’. It is one of many matter-of-fact details added to the Morte Darthur. They make it very likely that the author was indeed not a carpet-knight or knight-by-rank, but a miles strenuus with a long and valued record of active service.

Is such a man appropriate for the great work of English chivalry, as also for the rape of Joan Smyth? The chivalry seems easily compatible with the violence and the settling of personal scores. If one searches for a modern parallel, one might think of Jesse James, forced into a life of crime (the legend says) by the atrocities of Unionist Kansans; or of W.K. Quantrill, whose Missouri guerrillas shot dead at least 150 men and boys in their raid on Lawrence, Kansas, but (obeying a kind of chivalry) harmed no women. But was the rape charge against Malory completely untrue? Or is there a kind of explanation in what the Morte’s Sir Lancelot goes on to say, just after his outburst quoted at the start: ‘A false knyght and traytoure unto knyghthode, who dud lerne the to distresse ladyes, damesels and jantyllwomen?’ And Lancelot cleaves the false knight’s head to the throat, thus ‘learning’ him not to distress ladies. ‘Goodwife’ smyth, however, was perhaps not under class-protection as lady, damsel or gentlewoman. In which case one can credit Sir Thomas, man and author, with consistent chivalry, at the same time noting that this ‘chivalry’ applied only to the upper ranks of society, protecting them from casual outrage – but also exposing the males among them to the enormous casualty rates of 15th-century civil war.

Peter Field’s book, with its clear demonstration that we know of only one Thomas Malory who was both a knight and a prisoner in mid-15th century England, must settle many issues of biography. What it now enforces is a reconsideration of the Morte Darthur. Malory must have a claim to be not only the 15th century’s John Dillinger but also the least ‘politically correct’ author still commonly read. His potential as a test-case for historicist, feminist, or anthropological approaches has just been very much expanded.