"Everybody was killed," he repeated, "except a certain page. I know what I am talking about."
"This page was called young Tom of Newbold Revell near Warwick, and the old King sent him off before the battle, upon pain of dire disgrace. You see, the King wanted there to be somebody left, who would remember their famous idea."
|Arthur goes to his rest, by Aubrey Beardsley|
The above is an extract from the final chapter of The Candle in the Wind, the third book in TH White's The Once and Future King. The aged King Arthur, on the eve of his last battle, is hoping to preserve something of his idealism by sending away the young squire, Tom of Newbold Revell, to spread the message of Camelot after Arthur and all his men are slain.
White's Arthur was fictional, but Tom wasn't. In a neat trick, merging fantasy with reality, White briefly introduces his tragic King to the author of La Morte d'Arthur, possibly the most famous and certainly the most influential version of the Arthurian cycle. White seems to have adored Malory for his achievement, and describes himself at the end of The Book of Merlyn as the 'humble disciple' of 'Thomas Malory, Knight', whom he asks his readers to pray for.
The New York Times described White's book as 'a glorious dream of the Middle Ages as they never were, but as they should have been.' A similar description could be applied to his depiction of Malory. Since the late nineteenth century the author of La Morte has been generally accepted to be one Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell (there are other candidates, but he is by far the likeliest) in Warwickshire, born between 1415-18 to Sir John Malory of Winwick and Lady Philipa Malory.
We know little of Malory's early life, save that he was knighted before 8th October 1441, possibly as a reward for military service in France: we know he was a professional soldier for a time under Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick. In 1443 he was elected to Parliament, and appointed to a royal commission charged with distributing funds to poor towns in Warwickshire.
So far, so standard for a minor gentry figure of the era. Then things take a turn for the nasty. In the same year as his election to Parliament, Malory and an accomplice were accused of assaulting and kidnapping one Thomas Smythe and stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods from him. The charges failed to stick, and Malory was free to go on his merry way as a respectable member of society. He married one Elizabeth Walsh, who bore him one son and possibly a couple of other children.
Perhaps Malory found the quiet life of a country gentleman a tad dull, or perhaps he just flipped. In 1451 he and 26 other men were accused of having tried to ambush no less a person than the Duke of Buckingham. Again, the charge was never proved, and Malory remained a free man. Next he dabbled in a spot of extortion, extracting 100 shillings from Margaret King and William Hales of Monks Kirby, and 20 shillings from John Mylner, presumably via threats with menaces. He was also accused of breaking into the house of Hugh Smyth of Monks Kirby, stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods and raping Hugh's wife for good measure. Eight weeks later he attacked the same woman in the street in Coventry.
|Sir Lancelot. Not much like Malory.|
By now a picture should be emerging of a very different man from the honourable, chivalrous knights of La Morte. Malory was a vicious gentrified thug, taking advantage of the general disorder of Henry VI's chaotic reign to break heads and grab what he fancied. Little could be done to stop him. Arrest warrants went out in March 1451 for him and his gang, but they remained at large for months, committing over a hundred violent robberies. At one point Malory himself was captured and imprisoned in Maxstoke Castle, but - in an exploit worthy of one of his characters - he broke out, jumped the wall and swam the moat to freedom.
|The man Malory betrayed - Edward IV|
For the next 17 years he was in and out of various prisons, including The Marshalsea in London, from which he escaped after bribing the guards and gaolers. More a sort of medieval Dick Turpin than Sir Lancelot, he took to horse-stealing, and was finally - incredibly - given a royal pardon by Edward IV in 1461. He remained free for another seven years, when he pushed his extraordinary luck too far by swapping his allegiance from York to Lancaster and supporting the ill-fated rebellion of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. In 1468 the plot was uncovered and Malory shoved back into prison, this time at Newgate.
Edward seems to have taken serious umbrage at Malory's treachery, and excluded his name from two general pardons in 1468 and 1470. With little else to do save cool his heels in his (probably quite comfortable) prison, Malory settled down to write, drawing on a great pile of older material to craft his Arthurian epic. Thus one of the great sagas of medieval knightly chivalry was penned by a ruthless career criminal. It has been suggested that he based the downfall of King Arthur on the bloody events of The Wars of the Roses, with Henry VI as Arthur and Edward IV as the treacherous Sir Mordred. If so, he was hardly endearing himself to Big Ed.
Given his appalling crime sheet, various efforts have been made to identify some other Thomas Malory as the author, but there can be little doubt it was him: the initial versions of Books I-IV of La Morte printed by William Caxton end with the following line:
"For this was written by a knight prisoner, Thomas Malleore (Malory), that God send him good recovery."
In 1471 the Yorkist regime collapsed and Henry VI restored to his throne. Malory was released from prison, but didn't live to witness the triumphant return of Edward IV and the final destruction of the Lancastrians. He died on 14th March 1471 and was buried in Christ Church Greyfriars, near the prison at Newgate where he spent so much quality time. The inscription on his tomb reads:
"Here likes Thomas Mallere, Valiant Soldier. Died 14 March 1471, in the Parish of Monkenkirby in the county of Warwick."
Presumably there wasn't enough space on the tomb to add 'thief, bandit, kidnapper, extortioner and rapist' to his epitath. I wonder what Sir Galahad would have made of him?