In This Article Sir Thomas Malory

  • Introduction
  • Biography

Medieval Studies Sir Thomas Malory
by
D. Thomas Hanks, Jr.
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0117

Introduction

Most members of British and US cultures know the broad outlines of the Arthur story—the story of the Round Table, King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere—and see it almost daily in references reaching from T. H. White’s Once and Future King or the films First Knight or Camelot (with music by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe), to such commercial references as “King Arthur Flour” and “Camelot Music.” This cultural knowledge and those daily references stem from Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Malory finished his prose fiction account of Arthur and his Round Table in “the ninth yere of the Reygne of Kyng Edward the Fourth” (i.e., either in the year 1469 or 1470, depending on the calendar used). Thus, at any rate, his final comment reads, as it lies preserved in William Caxton’s 1485 first printing of the work. Little else was known of Sir Thomas Malory’s identity until fairly recently. In fact, P. J. C. Field, the author of the definitive biography, comments with characteristic humility that “[a]ll that is known for certain about [Malory] comes from his book” (Field 1999, cited under Biography, p. 1). George Lyman Kittredge did signal service in the cause of determining Malory’s identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All sources agree in noting that charges against Malory of rape, attempted murder, and theft were allegations, and that he was never convicted of any of them—though he spent years in Newgate Gaol (and some time in Coleshill Prison) waiting to be brought into court. He was in Newgate in 1469, either the year in which he finished the Morte or the year preceding his concluding it. In either case, he died in 1471, and his dust now resides in or just outside the shell of the old Greyfriars Church, once a major establishment just across the way from Newgate Gaol. The area has been converted to a rose garden.

Biography

For a detailed view of Malory’s life, one cannot do better than to read one of the major biographies (Field 1999 or Hardyment 2005). Limited biographical comment also appears in Vinaver 1929. An essential detail, establishing Malory’s stay in Newgate as lasting until a later date than had been thought, appears in Sutton 2000. Field 2000, a review of Malory’s life records, shows in small the associations and activities of an active 15th-century life. It was the author of Kittredge 1925 who first persuasively argued that the Sir Thomas of the Morte Darthur was the Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel now widely agreed to have been the author of the work. Kittredge also noted some discreditable references to Malory’s activities; further details appear in both the major biographies.

  • Field, P. J. C. Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    An eminently scholarly survey of the available documents on Malory’s life, this study definitively establishes him as the Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire. The 1999 paperback edition records Anne Sutton’s discovery of the late date of Sir Thomas’s sojourn in Newgate Gaol, an important addition to the records of Malory’s life. Originally published in 1993.

  • Field, P. J. C. “The Malory Life-Records.” In A Companion to Malory. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald and A. S. G. Edwards, 115–130. Arthurian Studies 37. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A helpful condensation of the major dates and events of Malory’s life as they were known in 1996, with some additions in the 2000 paperback reissue. See Field 1999 for a fuller early treatment of the topic.

  • Hardyment, Christina. Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Less provided with footnotes and rigorous scholarship than Field’s biography, this study tills no new ground beyond Hardyment’s vigorous writing style and conjectural reconstructions of occurrences in Malory’s life—for example, his death and interment in the St. Francis Chapel of Greyfriars Convent, across from Newgate Gaol (pp. 462–467—what Hardyment calls a “romantic surmise,” p. 466).

  • Kittredge, George Lyman. Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge, MA: Barnstable, 1925.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study, in pamphlet form, follows Kittredge’s privately published essay (1897), “Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?” (also in Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature V [1896]: 85–106). Kittredge argues that the author of the Morte was the Sir Thomas of Winwick and Newbold [Revel] said by Dugdale to have died on 14 March 1470. Kittredge corrects the date to 14 March 1471, adding a carefully documented set of biographical details.

  • Sutton, Anne. “Malory in Newgate: A New Document.” The Library, 7th series I.3 (2000): 243–262.

    DOI: 10.1093/library/1.3.243E-mail Citation »

    Sutton points out a document in the Colchester Register of Deeds from the 14th and 15th centuries, which appears to show that Malory was incarcerated in Newgate much later than had been thought. See Richard Britnell’s Medieval Colchester home page.

  • Vinaver, Eugène. Malory. Oxford: Clarendon, 1929.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Malory’s work as known through the printed editions of Caxton and de Worde prior to the discovery of BL Additional MS 59678. In 1929, this was the best compendium of Malorian knowledge and insight. Characteristically, Vinaver treats the French sources in some detail. The bibliography lists few critical works on the Morte to that date. Some biographical material.

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