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Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur'

Image from Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur'

Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur'
British Library Add. MS 59678, f.35
Copyright © The British Library Board
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This sole surviving manuscript copy (known as the Winchester manuscript) of Thomas Malory’s version of the legends of King Arthur and his knights was made within a decade of the author’s death in 1471. Malory wrote ‘The Death of Arthur’ during 1469 while imprisoned for a series of violent crimes. The chivalry of Arthur’s world was a far cry from Malory’s own, which was torn by war between the noble dynasties of York and Lancaster.

Who was Thomas Malory?

In his own words, Malory was a ‘knight prisoner’ who implored his readers to pray for his deliverance in life and his soul in death. Though his identity is not certain, he is generally believed to have been the Sir Thomas Malory who inherited the estates of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire and Winwick in Northamptonshire in 1434, aged around 24 years.

Malory led the unremarkable life of a country gentleman, attending to his judicial and social responsibilities as lord of the manor until 1450 when, for unknown reasons, he turned to a life of crime.

With 26 men, he ambushed the Duke of Buckingham and tried to murder him. He stole livestock, and extorted money with menaces. He was accused of rape on two occasions. Leading a small army of 100 men, he attacked Combe Abbey, terrifying the monks and stealing their money and valuables. Malory was arrested and spent most of the 1450s in various prisons without ever coming to trial. He made his escape twice and was bailed out on two other occasions.

Malory was one of a number of gang leaders who exploited the increasing breakdown of law and order across England. Central government was weak under Henry VI, who suffered from bouts of insanity. Local disorder thrived. Richard, Duke of York ruled as Regent during the illness of Henry VI, who came from the house of Lancaster. When Henry recovered in 1455, Richard was not about to relinquish power. Civil war broke out as the houses of York and Lancaster fought for the throne in the Wars of the Roses.

By 1462, Malory had been released from prison and was fighting with the powerful Earl of Warwick on the side of the Yorkists. He joined a campaign to re-take the Northumbrian castles at Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanbrugh. When Warwick later switched his allegiance to the Lancastrian cause, Malory followed. It was a political miscalculation. In 1468, he was specifically excluded from the list of Lancastrians granted pardon by the new Yorkist king, Edward IV. Malory was back in prison.

It was during this second imprisonment, in London’s Newgate Prison, that Malory began occupying his time in writing the work he called “the whole book of King Arthur and his noble knights of the Round Table”. Malory’s book was re-titled Le Morte Darthur by William Caxton who produced the first printed edition in 1485. Caxton’s was the only known version of Malory’s text until the discovery of this manuscript in 1934.

When Henry VI briefly regained the throne in October 1470, all Lancastrian political prisoners in London’s jails were freed. Just five months later, Malory died and was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard – just across the road from Newgate Prison.

What’s the story about?

It tells the famous legend of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, the knights of the Round Table and their quest for the mystical Holy Grail. Malory worked from a late-14th-century French poem, adding some material from other sources, to produce his English prose translation.

In 21 books, the story covers the founding of Arthur’s kingdom and the institution of the Round Table; the various adventures of individual knights; the quest for the Holy Grail; the death of Arthur and the fall of his kingdom.

This page opens the third book. It starts, “In the begynnyng of Arthure, after he was chosen kynge by adventure and by grace…” People’s names and some place names are shown in red lettering, known as ‘rubrication’. Malory goes on to describe the wedding of Arthur to Queen Guinevere. Arthur tells Merlin, “I love Guenever the king’s daughter, Leodegrance of the land of Cameliard, the which holdeth in his house the Round Table that ye told he had of my father Uther.”

Despite the upheavals of Malory’s day, there was a strong revival of interest in chivalry and Britain’s past. The adventures of Arthur’s knights epitomised the self-same aristocratic values that were being eroded by the political opportunism of the War of the Roses. Loyalty had become an endangered virtue. In his narrative Malory compares the behaviour of its lords and ladies to that of contemporary nobility. He criticises the current reluctance to reward faithful service – an injustice he felt particularly keenly, no doubt, as he languished in jail.

Who was the real King Arthur?

A question many have asked, but none has answered with credible proof. Early accounts of the history of Britain are generously laced with legend and imagination. Disagreement remains about whether King Arthur, or a historical model for him, ever lived.

Nennius, a Welsh monk writing in the late-eighth century, compiled a history that describes a ‘dux bellorum’, a war lord, called Arthur who led the Britons in 12 battles against the Saxons some three hundred years earlier. The ancient annals of Wales date one of Arthur’s battles, the Battle of Mount Badon, to the year 518. But the description of that battle by Gildas, a chronicler writing less than 30 years after the event, makes no mention of Arthur.

It’s likely that the King Arthur handed down to the middle ages was largely a literary figure, echoing mythological traditions from Celtic Britain. He emerges as a fully-formed hero in the ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first half of the 12th century – a work condemned by a contemporary for being more fiction than fact.

Geoffrey’s history of the kings of Britain tells of Arthur becoming king at the age of 15 and conquering Scotland, Orkney, Ireland and Iceland. He introduces other elements of the legend too: Merlin, the powerful wizard; the beautiful Guanhamara, who becomes Guinevere; and the magical sword Caliburn, Excalibur.

Arthur’s legend was embellished by later writers, both English and European. In France, the story formed the perfect subject for a new literary form called the ‘romance’, a long poem written in the native tongue rather than Latin. The Arthurian romances by Chrétien de Troyes were the most popular and probably formed the starting point for Malory’s work.

What was the Holy Grail?

In medieval legend, the Holy Grail is the cup from which Jesus Christ drank during the Last Supper before his crucifixion. The same cup was used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch drops of Christ’s blood as he hung on the cross. Joseph brought the holy relic to Britain where it was eventually concealed in a mysterious castle surrounded by a blighted landscape.

Though no historical evidence supports the existence of such a cup, legend endowed the Holy Grail with miraculous qualities of regeneration and spiritual self-realisation for the knight who found it. The mystic qualities of the vessel may be a legacy of Celtic mythology, which features magical cauldrons that provided endless amounts of food and drink. Some belonged to gods, while others were kept in enchanted lands beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.

What’s known about the history of the manuscript?

Until 1934, William Caxton’s printed edition of 1485 was thought to be the earliest surviving version of Malory’s text. That year a librarian at Winchester College, Walter Oakeshott, was organising a display of the college’s most interesting books when he discovered this manuscript in a safe. He determined that the text had been written sometime between 1471 and 1483 by two scribes working together.

Clues on its pages proved this was one of the manuscripts used by William Caxton in the preparation of his Le Morte Darthur. Pages fresh from his press had been laid on the manuscript and the wet ink accidentally transferred reversed images of Caxton’s distinctive type faces. So it’s probable that the manuscript was in Caxton’s Westminster workshop during the early 1480s.

The printer may even have borrowed the manuscript from one of Malory’s family members. Some 50 years later, a reader called Richard Followell wrote his name and a short rhyme in the margin of one page. Followell lived at Litchborough in Northamptonshire, where a branch of the Malory family was still lord of the manor.

How Winchester College acquired the manuscript is not known. It was purchased by the British Library from the Warden and Fellows of the college on 26 March 1976.

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