Very little is known about this intriguing man. We can say with a fair degree of certainty that he lived in the fifteenth century and that he wrote a book called Le Morte D’Arthur, the first prose account in English of the first English king. In the epilogue of the book we are told that it was completed in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV, which would be 1469/70. The book was revised and printed by William Caxton in 1485. One thing more can be said: he spent some time in prison. And that’s about it.
The rest is based on the research of George Lyman Kittridge, an American scholar who wrote ‘Who was Thomas Malory’ in 1897 and is generally accepted as the most likely identification of Malory and account of his life.
According to Kittridge, Mallory was born at Newbold Revell in Warwickshire circa 1416 to John Malory and Philippa Chetwynd. His father held land in Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire and was sheriff, M.P. and J.P. several times. Thomas had several sisters but no brothers. Nothing is known of his early years.
As a young man he served in France under the Earl of Warwick and supported Lancaster during the War of the Roses. He was knighted in ’42 and became the Member of Parliament for Warwickshire in ’45 and served on commissions. He married Elizabeth Walsh of Wanlip in Leicestershire. His life seemed set upon the predictable course of a country knight, but, inexplicably, in 1450 he turned to a life of crime. In January, with twenty-six others, he allegedly planned to ambush the Duke of Buckingham. In May, he allegedly raped Joan Smith at Coventry. The charge was brought by her husband under a statute of Richard II making the act of elopement into a crime of rape even when the woman consented. Also in May, he extorted money from two residents of Monks Kirby, then in August allegedly raped Joan Smith again and stole money from her husband. Again in August, he allegedly committed extortion against another man of Monks Kirby. Whew! No wonder Sir Thomas ended up in prison.
On March 5th 1451, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but the crime spree wasn’t over and he apparently stole cattle in Warwickshire. The Duke of Buckingham with sixty men tried to apprehend him, but meantime Malory raided the duke’s hunting lodge, killing deer and damaging the property.
Finally he was arrested at Coleshill, but escaped by swimming the moat. Next he raided Combe Abbey with a hundred men, insulted the monks and stole money. By January 1452 he was in prison in London, mostly in Newgate, where he spent most of the next eight years awaiting trial. He was bailed out several times, and at one point joined a horse-stealing expedition, which put him in prison in Colchester. After escaping again, he was recaptured and taken back to London.
Malory received a pardon from the Yorkists and aided Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick in the recovery from the Lancastrians of castles they held in Northumberland. But in 1468 he seems to have changed sides again because from then on he was excluded from royal pardons. By that time he was in prison again, completing Le Morte D’Arthur. He died in 1471 and was buried in Greyfriars in Newgate. Nothing remains of his grave.
What a colourful, criminal life Sir Thomas had. There are some who cannot reconcile this reprobate with the author of Le Morte D’Arthur and claim that it is a case of mistaken identity, that the author was a law-abiding Yorkshire knight. Others claim he was a Welshman.
Would the real Sir Thomas Malory please stand up.