Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 8: the Witch in the Tower

This is episode 8 in a series of posts researching the mystery of the dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

The city is under occupation; the occupiers are quartered in the castle north of the city. Their discipline and morale isn’t what it was, a common problem of occupying armies whose job is to hold and police rather than conquer.  On a spring evening in May, a group of men-at-arms, nearly all esquires but fully equipped with white plate armor, tend their weapons and harness.  Many are younger sons or brothers of those who fought in the great campaigns of the late king which enriched and sometimes ennobled their fathers or brothers.  This is different.  This is strange.

There’s a witch under guard in one of the towers.  Sometimes they talk about her, sometimes they don’t.  It’s a very good thing that she was finally captured and is now being examined.  It’s known she has satanic powers but also that she is a virgin who prays to saints and orders even her gaolers to stop swearing.  There’s a laugh:  tell an Englishman to leave off swearing.  Even their enemies nickname them “goddams” for their rugged speech.

Tonight they’re not talking about the witch.  It’s Sunday evening and they’re telling bawdy stories when the great Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp, enters the room.  The rain on his ermine tipped cloak glitters like stars in the candle light.  Two other senior commanders are with him, the younger, imperious Sir Humphrey Stafford and Count Jean de Luxemburg-Ligny, as well as two sallow faced Burgundian bishops.  Warwick says he needs two men and looks around.  The second one he gives the nod is one of the senior ones.  He fought in the late king’s campaigns and sometimes tells good stories about them.    His name is Thomas and he’s also from Warwickshire and devoted to the Earl who trusts him in return.  The Earl instructs them not to bother putting on armor but to bring weapons and a cloak.

The party crosses the courtyard to the prison tower where the witch is held.  The rain is soaking.  A guard opens a narrow door to let them in and they climb the close winding stairs to the second level where a gaoler admits them to the witch’s cell.  She stands very straight against the far wall.  She wears a plain dress of gray homespun and holds a rotting blanket about her shoulders.  The cell, like most cells, smells a little of shit and urine and rushes that need to be changed.  The witch is very white, her hair is ragged and she is shivering though it’s not so cold.  Thomas is shivering, too.  He wonders why the Earl wanted two additional men-at-arms to attend him.  Is it something about the witch?

“They say you’re sick,” the Earl of Warwick declares in French.

“Is it a surprise?” the witch answers.

Count Jean explodes at her, telling her it is no one’s fault but her own that she finds herself come to such a dolorous condition.  She should beware:  she is wasting the time of many great lords which will lead to her great sorrow.  The deep lines at the corners of his mouth betray his anger and stress.
The witch, just a girl, is not intimidated.  “I am abused by these English.  They are not knightly.  A knight should protect a maid, not threaten her, spit in her food, threaten her with violation.”  She turns to glare at Sir Humphrey.

“You surly bitch, I’ll kill you myself.”  Sir Humphrey lunges at her, drawing his dagger.  The others move to stop him, but it is Thomas who catches Humphrey’s arm before he can strike.  Humphrey shrugs him off but Thomas only releases Humphrey’s arm when Warwick nods.

“How dare you lay hands on me?” Sir Humphrey says.

Warwick addresses the witch.  “You are to come to trial, Joan of Domremy, and you are not to be harmed before.”  Warwick makes a point of looking at both Sir Humphrey and Count Jean.  When he glances at Thomas, Thomas realizes this why he was brought, not for fear of the witch but for her safety.

“Your guards will be changed,” Warwick tells her.  “Your sickness will be tended.”

Thomas follows the others out.  He is conflicted and sick at heart.  She probably is a witch but she spoke the truth.  Perhaps there was more chivalry in that unarmed maid than any other in that dolorous cell.

Of course, it may not have happened that way at all.  We do know that Joan of Arc received such a visit on May 13, 1331 and that she was verbally abused by Count Jean and that Sir Humphrey Stafford began to draw his dagger to stab her.  Thomas Malory may or may not have been one of the men-at-arms in the party.  However, Sir Humphrey Stafford, later Earl then Duke of Buckingham was to prove Malory’s nemesis in years to come and it may have developed as a consequence of Malory’s loyalty to the Beauchamp family and particularly Richard Beauchamp whom he served under.

The first criminal accusation against Sir Thomas Malory was 12 years later in October, 1443.  He and his brother-in-law Eustace Burneby were accused of swearing at, wounding and imprisoning one Thomas Smith of Spratton, a small town 24 miles east south-east of Newbold Revel.  They were also accused of taking £40.  (Why is it always £40 in such accusations?)  The sheriff sent two men to fetch them but they were not tried.  As Christina Hardyment, who recounts the story, suggests, perhaps some settlement was made out of court.  No more is known.

However, as it’s the first recorded accusation against Malory, the context merits careful examination.   Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, exercised unusual hegemony over Warwickshire.  Usually, the county lived under a balance of power between the Dukes of Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick.  But Henry VI who was Duke of Lancaster as well as King at that time was a less than forceful presence in the county which allowed Warwick to dominate.  Warwick died in 1339 and was succeeded by his son Henry who at 14 was still in his minority which created a power vacuum into which stepped Sir Humphrey Stafford, the Earl of Buckingham.   According to Christine Carpenter, Locality and Polity:  A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society 1401-1499, Stafford already exercised considerable control in the south of Warwickshire and aspired to control in the north.  If Malory was a faithful retainer of the Beauchamps it is easy to imagine that the changing political environment would have brought him into conflict with those seeking to rise with Stafford’s ambitions.  Further, a common strategy for establishing control was placement of one’s supporters in judicial positions, as the Paston letters prove.  This Stafford did.  Malory’s conflict with Thomas Smith may have been an example of Stafford testing his strength against a loyal Beauchamp supporter and the decision not to prosecute reflected that his strength was not yet ripe.  That time would come later.

Perhaps Sir Malory was bewitched in that cell in 1430 as my small fiction suggests.

The Elizabethans were great believers in analogy.  The state was like the human body:  the monarch was the head,  the shoulders and arms were the nobility,  the ears the judges, the “inferior parts” the lower orders responsible for sustaining the rest.  Here’s another kind of analogy:  Warwickshire in the middle of the 1400s serves as a kind of microcosm for England itself and the consequences of the death of the Earl of Warwick were analogous to those of the death of Henry V for England as a whole.

(To my knowledge Hardyment is the first to note the possibility of Malory’s presence in that cell in the castle of Rouen on May 13, 1331.)
Episode 9 is here.

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