The puzzling career of the luckless Sir Thomas Mallory (c.1416-1471), author of Le Morte d’Arthur

In today’s blog Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow for our Commons 1461-1504 project, explores the mysterious life of Sir Thomas Mallory, who spent much of his life incarcerated. Whilst Mallory’s literary legacy is clear to see, the reasons behind his long imprisonment are not so straightforward…

‘The Death of King Arthur’, James Archer 1861

As the author of a work of lasting literary significance, Le Morte d’Arthur, a vernacular compilation of Arthurian tales largely drawn from French romances, Sir Thomas Mallory is unique among fifteenth-century MPs. He is also unique, or almost so, in another sense. In an age when long incarceration was rarely used as a punishment, he suffered a term of imprisonment, albeit not a continuous one, that covered a significant part of his adult life. No other fifteenth-century English knight is known to have spent as long in an English (as opposed to a French) prison as he did; and it is a striking curiosity that, unlike others of his rank, he was unable to free himself either by acquittal or the pleading of a pardon. The question of his career is why this should have been so.

Mallory’s early life certainly gave no clues as to the troubles to come. Born into a well-established Warwickshire gentry family, he succeeded to the family lands in the late 1430s, and through the 1440s his career was typical of that of young men of his rank. Knighted in the course of military service in Gascony in about 1440, he found a place in the retinue of the greatest Warwickshire magnate, the young Henry Beauchamp, duke of Warwick, whose patronage was probably responsible for his election to represent that county in the Parliament of 1445.

From this point Mallory’s affairs should have prospered; yet they emphatically did not. Beauchamp’s premature death a year later, leaving an infant daughter as his heiress, deprived him of a patron and protector, but this does nothing to explain his future troubles. As far as the available evidence goes, he brought ruin upon himself. On 4 January 1450 he committed the type of offence that was likely to condemn even a man of knightly rank to a period beyond the pale: he laid an ambush in the woods of Combe Abbey, a few miles from his home at Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, with the alleged intention of murdering no less a man than Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham. What might have prompted so unwise an action is unknown, but it marked the beginning of his decline into ruinous political friendlessness. He soon ceased to be treated as an ordinary gentry criminal, suffering periods of imprisonment not only in the relative comfort of the Fleet but also in the harsher conditions of Newgate.

Why was he treated so harshly? Serious although his alleged ambush of Buckingham was in local political terms, it was an offence that he should have been able to purge himself. This is not how things worked out. One reason was his recidivism and his failure to choose his victims carefully. When free in the summer of 1454, for example, he committed a series of offences in Essex against an important local lawyer, John Green (who was to be Speaker in the Parliament of 1460), a close associate of Buckingham’s half-brother, Henry, Viscount Bourgchier. Even so, his new offences were not, in themselves, enough to explain the length of his renewed detention, and they certainly do not explain why he was unable to win his freedom after securing a general pardon in November 1455. One possibility is that this harshness is explained by Buckingham’s personal animosity, but it is questionable whether even so powerful a lord could adapt the processes of common law so as to ensure such a long-term incarceration. Another possibility is that there was a broader political explanation for his detention, but, if so, it is hard to explain why he remained in prison through periods of both Yorkist and Lancastrian control of government.

Not until 1460 did Mallory secure any sustained period of freedom, but this proved only an interlude. In the general pardon issued by Edward IV on 14 July 1468 he was one of 15 men excluded from its terms. Most of the 15 had been implicated in a recently-discovered Lancastrian plot, but all the evidence suggests that Mallory was not among the conspirators. By the spring of 1469, he was confined in Newgate rather than, as he would have been as a suspected traitor, the Tower of London. His detention there raises the prosaic possibility that he was imprisoned for debt, perhaps as damages awarded against him for some unrecorded offence, although this hardly explains his exclusion from the pardon. That exclusion, if it does not betoken treason, suggests some serious crime. Instructive here is the identity of another of the excluded, Robert Marshall, who in 1464 had commissioned the murder of his master, John Chaworth, for love of his mistress, Chaworth’s wife. With Marshall, Mallory was one of only six excluded from the general pardon of February 1470. Yet, if he had been guilty of a crime as offensive to contemporary mores as that of Marshall, no record of it survives. The reason for his final imprisonment must, like much else in his career, remain a mystery.

The only known manuscript copy of Le Morte, formerly owned by Winchester College. British Library, Add. Ms. 59678 (f. 35)

It was during this last period of detention that Mallory completed Le Morte, which was finished in the ninth year of Edward IV, that is between 4 March 1469 and 3 March 1470. He did not long survive its completion, dying in the spring of 1471 at the age of about 55. His place of burial – the chapel of St. Francis at the Greyfriars near Newgate – proves only that he died in London, but it is highly likely that he died a prisoner.

The relatively few facts that can be unearthed about Mallory’s career have been subject to much speculation. His detention throughout the 1450s militates against a proper understanding of his career, for his active life outside prison was so comparatively brief. What, however, is known of him during the 1440s and 1460s does not mark him out as a figure of political significance, and it is safest to assume that he owed his imprisonment to his criminal propensities. He appears to have behaved with a randomness and unpredictability that alienated potential patrons and left him as persona non grata with successive regimes in the rapidly-changing world of mid fifteenth-century politics. Even, however, this modest conclusion leaves a question. Other men of his rank had criminal records far more striking than his, yet suffered only the briefest periods of detention. Why, one wonders, was Mallory so unlucky?  

S.J.P

Further reading

P.J.C. Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Cambridge, 1993)

S.J. Payling, ‘Sir Thomas Mallory, in The Commons, 1422-61, ed. L. Clark, v. 367-76.

Mallory’s biography, along with that of John Green, features in our recently published volumes House of Commons 1422-61. Find out more about the publication here.

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