Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery

There is a book I want to read but it hasn’t been written.  It’s a book which solves an important mystery, or at least provides the likely solution to the mystery embodied in the known life, deeds and works of a man who lived in the 15th century.

Call him Thomas.  He was born in 1416, approximately, near the year of Henry V’s great victory at Agincourt, in Stretton-under-Fosse in Warwickshire.  A minor noble, he was knighted sometime before 1441 (commonly at the age of 21) and in that year served as an Elector in Northamptonshire.   When he was 27 he and one Eustace Barnaby were accused of stealing  £40 from one Hugh Smyth.  (At that time £40 purchased £29,440 worth of goods at 2015 prices, but corresponded to £230,600 in the relative value of labor.)  It wouldn’t have been a minor theft yet it wasn’t prosecuted.

Thomas married Elizabeth Walsh in the same year and together they had a son, Robert and possibly 1-2 other children later.  In 1443 he was elected to Parliament as one of two “Knights of the Shire” for Warwickshire and was appointed to the Royal Commission for the distribution of funds to impoverished Warwickshire towns.  That trust could suggest the earlier accusation was frivolous and without merit.  In 1449, at the age of 33, he was elected Member of Parliament for the Duke of Buckingham’s safe seat of Great Bedwyn.

In 1451, when Thomas was about 35 years old, his life changed.  He was accused, along with 26 others, of trying to murder the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful Lancastrian magnates in the land.  Thomas probably owed allegiance to the Earl of Warwick, a powerful Yorkist supporter.  The accusation was never proved.  Later in the same year he was accused of extortion twice then of breaking into the home of Hugh Smyth of Monkskirby, stealing £40 and raping Smyth’s wife and attacking her in Coventry 8 weeks later.  (Rape at that time could mean abduction or consensual sex with a married woman.)  His arrest was ordered but nothing was done.  In the following months Thomas was accused of over 100 serious crimes, mostly violent robberies.

He was finally brought to trial in August of that year in Nuneaton, the heartland of Buckingham’s power and imprisoned in infamous Marshalsea Prison in Southwark in spite of pleas to be tried by a new jury from Warwickshire.  Over the next several years he escaped was imprisoned again, escaped, was imprisoned until he was released on £200 bail (worth £147,000 of goods at 2015 prices) gathered by Warwickshire magnates.

From 1460 until 1470 he was imprisoned at Newgate for further alleged crimes, including joining with the Earl of Warwick in a plot to assassinate the Yorkist King, Edward IV.  He was explicitly excluded from two of Edward IV’s general pardons afterwards but was finally released during the short period when the Earl of Warwick returned Henry VI to the throne.  He died in 1471, about the age of 55.

While Thomas was in Newgate he had access to the library of the Greyfriars Monastery adjacent to the prison, one of the finest libraries in western Europe at the time.  And he wrote a book, arguably the greatest achievement of prose literature in the 15th century, “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

Here is just one quote from Sir Thomas Malory’s book,  (there are many others that would have served just as well),

“Wherefore, as me seemeth, all gentlemen that beareth old arms ought of right to honour Sir Tristam for the goodly terms that gentlemen have and use, and shall do unto the day of doom, that thereby in a manner all men of worship may dissever a gentleman from a yeoman, and a yeoman from a villain.  For he that gentle is will draw him to gentle thatches (virtues) and to follow the noble customs of gentlemen.”

There are several obvious mysteries.  First, what happened in 1451 that caused a young knight with family, income and good prospects to turn into an apparently notorious outlaw?  If he was such an outlaw, why did the magnates of Warwickshire pay such a great sum for his bail?  Finally, most importantly, why is it that someone who was accused of such crimes wrote a book so intimately concerned with the issue of knightly morality?  Was he a redeemed sinner, a hypocrite, a Robin Hood, a rare honest man caught in an age in which everything, including the justice system was freely and cruelly manipulated by partisan politics (as the Paston letters indicate)?

I expect reasonable cases can be made for most, if not all, of the above.  As of late the study of Sir Thomas Malory’s life has become a bit of back water in spite of his importance to English letters.

Ian Mortimer has written a unique, thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening historical work:  “1415:  Henry V’s Year of Glory.”  The book chronicles everything that occurred on every day in 1415 in the world as far as Henry could have known it.  What makes the book so extraordinary is how a nuanced, complex and deep characterization of Henry Vth emerges from meticulous examination of that detail.

It seems to me that the life of Sir Thomas Malory, so important to understanding one of the seminal works of English literature and the English literary imagination might yield to a similar approach, particularly a close  examination of 1451 and the actions of the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of York, the Earl of Warwick and Queen Margaret as well as those more immediate to Malory himself. It's easily worthy of Sherlock Holmes, don't you think?

Episode 2 is here.

1 comment:

Mark said...

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

Good lord man write that book! I would buy that in a heartbeat.

Maybe you should test the waters with a kickstarter to fund the development 8)