Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 12: Horrible Accusations, a Night Escape and More


This is Episode 12 of a series of posts investigating the dramatic and contradictory record of the life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of “Le Morte d’Arthur,” the seminal book of King Arthur and his knights.  Episode 1 can be found here.

March, 1451.  Sir Thomas Malory, literary knight, an accomplished veteran of the French wars and landowner,  three times Member of Parliament, (for Warwickshire, Greater Bedwyn and, most recently Wareham in November of 1450) is married with a son.  He is around 50 and may even have begun work on his magnum opus of distilling over 34 sources in three languages into the single epic which informs  so much of our imagination and perception, of knighthood, chivalry and gentility.

On March 15th of that year, the King’s Council suddenly issued a warrant for his arrest, along with his servant, John Appleby and 18 others, most associated with his household.  They are accused of “diverse felonies, transgressions, insurrections, extortions and oppressions.”  As far as I can make out  from “Documenting Sir Thomas Malory,” Baugh, A. C., in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, January 1933 which contains the most comprehensive quotations of the accusations against Malory, no greater detail was provided.

At this time the void in power within the King’s Council left by the exiled and assassinated Duke of Suffolk, had been filled by the Dukes of Somerset and Buckingham.  The warrant was turned over to Sir William Mountfort, High Sheriff of Warwickshire, MP for Warwickshire 7 times and its wealthiest knight, who, like Malory, was a veteran of the French wars and had served as Captain of Honfleur in 1438.  Interestingly, according to Carole Rawcliffe’s biography The Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham, Montfort had at one time been close to Buckingham.  However, eleven years before, when Sir William wished to change his will and release manors to his eldest son and heir, Buckingham required Montfort to make Buckingham himself a feofee (a kind of trustee) for the property as well and “through his greatness so terrified (Mountfort) with threats” that he was forced to disclaim his younger children from any inheritance.

In 1451, Montfort, who was also a Malory family friend, possibly in spite of some danger, took no action on the warrant.

Four months later, on July 13, 1451, a second warrant was issued, not to the Sheriff, but to the Duke of Buckingham himself.  This warrant required that Malory and Appleby “shall cause no injury or evil to the prior and convent of the Carthusian Order of the Isle of Axholme” and they’re ordered to appear before the King’s Council on October 13-14 to answer charges to be preferred against them.  Further, the arrest of Malory and Appleby is ordered wherever they’re found, not just within Warwickshire.  The priory itself was located in North Lincolnshire but one of its holdings was Monks Kirby in Warwickshire to which the warrant may have been referring.

On a Sunday morning twelve days later, Buckingham and 60 followers rode the 13 miles from his manor at Atherstone to Newbold-Revel where he executed the warrant personally.  Sir Thomas was arrested and taken the 11 miles to Coventry where he was remanded into the custody of Mountfort.   This is interesting, given Mountfort’s previous behavior.  Why didn’t Buckingham incarcerate Malory in his own castle, Maxstoke, which was 18 miles away?  Did he fear having Malory on the road for that length of time, possibly after dark?  The sequel suggests there could have been good reason to fear a rapid popular response to free Malory.  Was Buckingham asserting his authority over Mountfort?  Whatever the reason, Mountfort then chose to incarcerate Malory in his own moated manor at Coleshill, possibly because it was more comfortable than other alternatives.

Two nights later, Malory escaped.  It’s recorded that he swam the moat, which may have been no small feat given that medieval moats could be particularly foul.  He returned to Newbold-Revel where on the next day, (according to another indictment discussed below) he raised a diverse band of 100, including his cook and groom, and armed them. They then rode to neighboring Coombe Abbey which they formally assaulted using “great baulks of wood” to batter open gates and doors.  They  allegedly insulted the abbot, broke open two of the abbey‘s chests, stole £40 of silver, gold and jewels, and broke open three other corded and sealed iron chests which, provocatively, were not described as the property of the abbey.

Why?  Had Malory after 50 years of aspirational military and public service suddenly turned to a capricious life of crime?  Or, perhaps, when Malory was arrested were documents taken from Newbold-Revel which established property rights or his innocence on charges that would later be preferred against him?  What was he looking for?  What, if anything, can we deduce of his ability to raise such a force so quickly from those on his estate?  The labor shortages resulting from the Black Plague in the previous century and the decline in serfdom which began with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 indicate many, if not all of his followers, had other alternatives than to participate in an action that just possibly could have been interpreted as treasonous and certainly was criminal.  The punishment for treason was horrific.

Where Malory went or what he did immediately afterwards is unknown.  Did he return to Newbold-Revel and prepare for a siege?  Did he and a band of followers take refuge in one of the great forests?  The next mention of Malory is in the records of a special court convened by the Duke of Buckingham at the exclusive Nun’s Priory of Nuneaton in Warwickshire on the 23rd of August.  The Duke himself sat in judgment, accompanied by two Warwickshire lawyers and Sir William Birmingham of Birmingham.  There is no mention of Malory’s participation; it is assumed he was not present and may not even have been summoned.  The purpose of the court was to indict.  Indictments were read in Latin and a jury of fifteen local men then swore to their truthfulness.  None of Hardyment, Field or Baugh record anything of the literacy of the jury, whether or not, for example, some level of comprehension of Latin was required.

Seven accusations were made against Malory:

First, and most seriously, he was accused of attempting to assassinate Buckingham himself in Coombe Wood more than eighteen months before (the details are discussed here.)  This is the first, and, to my knowledge, only record of the event.  The conflict of interest in Buckingham’s participation as a justice goes without saying.

Next, Malory was accused of the attack on Coombe Abbey mentioned above.  Two accusations of extortion from individuals follow, one for £5 on May 31st and another for £1 on August 31 of the previous year.

What is perhaps most discordant are two accusations of rape which come after.  It was alleged that Malory had raped Joan Smyth, wife of Hugh Smyth in Monks Kirby on the 23rd of May and again on the 8th of August of the previous year.  On the latter occasion, he purportedly also broke into the Smyth’s house and stole £40 of goods.  The indictment makes it clear that this was not just abduction but sex as well, “et cum ea carnaliter concubit.”  Did this indicate forcible sexual assault?  It may have.

Curiously, at that point a new jury was impaneled for the final charge:  that Malory and four others “extortionately took seven cows, two calves, a cart worth £4, and 335 sheep worth £22” from two Leicestershire men and carried them away to Newbold-Revel on June 7, 1451, which was before his first arrest.

A careful look at the 15th Century laws for rape in England, which had been recently changed, is merited along with examination of each of the charges and their consequences.  Is it possible to ascertain Malory’s guilt or innocence?  Before attempting to do so it’s necessary to examine Buckingham’s relationships with other notable Warwickshire families, not just the Mountfort’s, but the Ferrers and Harcourts, too.  Indeed, as I’ve stated before, a careful look at the life of the Duke himself is necessary and I expect to be able to do so shortly.  Some apparent ancillary details, such as Montfort’s experience with Buckingham in 1438, lead to some important and surprising deductions. 

Episode 13 can be found here.

(The first image is a portion of “The Hearthly Paradise”; the second is “The Prince Enters the Forest.  Both are by Sir Edward Burne Jones.  The final photograph is of St. Mary’s Abbey Church, Nuneaton.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Invisibility, Urban Exploration, An Old Department Store


Last week Lynn and I went for a morning walk in the city that ended at a rambling old bookstore.  I’ve always liked morning city walks; they can be unexpectedly memorable.  A particular favorite is a walk I took in Paris in April after a night of rain.  I left my tiny hotel off the Arc de Triomphe and ended with café au lait at the Café Deux Magots in La Place-de-Saint-Germain on the Left Bank; neither the beginning nor the end was remarkable as beginnings and endings sometimes are.  But during the walk I observed the city assembling itself for the day, not just in obvious things like street washing, garbage collection and deliveries of everything from dresses to baguettes, but, more interestingly, in people’s faces.  Sometimes the morning expressions people have as they’re walking to work, or waiting for a shop to open, or encountering someone unexpected, are more revelatory than the more practiced expressions later in the day.  I expect that people who run in the morning (I do not) may have a similar experience although I never feel as observant when I’m running as I wish I did.  There’s much to be said for morning walks in the city.

Last week as we were walking we passed an abandoned department store that had once been one of the most exclusive in the city.  At street level it was all graffiti’d, boarded-up windows; the many stories above were only a blank, dirty-white fascia.  It was unremarkable, for all practical purposes, invisible.  But I remembered going there with my mother as a young child at Christmas, the window displays, an aunt who worked there operating a wrought iron mechanical elevator while she was in college.  She always had to wear white gloves.  I wondered what it was like inside now.  Was it empty?  Or perhaps it was full of the detritus of its decades as a store?  Was it a suitable subject for some minor Urban Exploration?  I imagined contacting a real estate agent, requesting a tour for a future investment.  We walked on.

In 2010 my cousin Robert and I attended a lecture by Professor Graeme W. Milton on “Cloaking,” or as he put it, the science and maths of making something invisible like a Romulan space ship in Star Trek.  He discussed new research into bending light and even cancelling light waves, just as waves on a pond can cancel each other; it’s the same strategy that used in noise canceling headphones.  I was intrigued, not so much because of the possibility of invisibility but because it might also solve one of the most important problems for space travel itself:  gamma radiation.  If gamma rays could be bent around a space ship, the occupants wouldn’t be forced to travel in uncomfortable lead cocoons, or something equally implausible, to avoid being slowly roasted.

This week in the New Yorker Kathryn Schultz picked up the topic of invisibility again, discussing the manifold variations on the idea, literary precedents back to Socrates, and alluded to some novel applications.  One of the most intriguing is urban planning and architecture.  Why not blend light around a building or a part of it?  Imagine the cityscapes that could be created.  (It certainly could be used to address the sight-line issue I’ve addressed earlier in the context of medieval Bologna and modern London.) Naturally, that sent me off on a web search and I discovered that invisibility is a developing theme in architecture and that architects are already working to achieve various kinds of invisibility without the assistance of particle Physics.

Bradley Garret and the Urban Exploration subculture came to mind and I imagined a group of them at some time in the imaginable future attempting to explore a building or even an entire city, interesting portions of which were invisible.  It’s good science fiction story material I think.

In her article, Ms. Schultz observes, “almost everything around us is imperceptible, almost all the rest is maddeningly difficult to perceive, and what remains scarcely amounts to anything. Physicists estimate that less than five per cent of the known universe is visible—where “visible” means only that we could, theoretically, observe it, given the right instruments and sufficient physical proximity.”  Of that five percent, how much is invisible simply because we’re indifferent to it or it’s in too common a context?  Invisibility, that innocuous white building we passed and my personal memories associated with it make me think Urban Exploration has at least as important a role to play for historians as geographers.

We arrived at the bookstore and I was fortunate to find a book long out of print discussing Hopi culture, some of which now may be hidden away from view.

(A note on my Malory research:  a careful look at the life of Sir Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham is proving more challenging than expected.  A  study of Parliament in the 15th century has provided a few, possibly pertinent insights but I’m awaiting the arrival of a Stafford biography that may offer more clues.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 11: The Fall of London


This is Episode 11 in a series of posts about the mysterious life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

Jack Cade:   I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree  like brothers and worship me their lord.
Dick:  The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers...
All:  Oh brave! 
(One reenters with the heads of Lord Saye and his son-in-law on spikes) 
Jack Cade:  But is not this braver? Let them kiss one another, for they loved well when they were alive.  (The heads on spikes are made to kiss)  Now part them again, lest they consult about the giving up of some more towns in France.
- Shakespeare, King Henry VI, part 2, Act 4

No, that’s not a scene from this season’s “Game of Thrones,” though it could be.  Shakespeare’s sprawling trilogy about the age in which Malory lived is difficult for the uninitiated with its sweeping review of major events and prodigious cast.  Even Shakespeare had trouble keeping straight three successive Earls of Warwick:  in one place attributing the accomplishments of the first to the third.  Yet not surprisingly it has some extraordinarily powerful drama.  Jack Cade’s rebellion is particularly notable for its skillful macabre comedy of horror born of social chaos.

In March of 1551, a warrant was issued against Malory for an alleged attempt on the Duke of Buckingham’s life 14 months before. The Duke of Buckingham and sixty followers arrested him on the following July 25th.  Nothing I’ve uncovered of Malory’s life before the attack explains it or the great delay in its prosecution.  Are there clues to be found in the lives of his nemesis Buckingham or the Earl of Warwick?  Perhaps. 

It’s appropriate to consider the events of those months and one signal event in particular.

King Henry VI was born in December of 1421; his father, King Henry V, died in August of the next year.  At first the council of peers ruling in the infant king’s name did so effectively, compromising and navigating administrative ambiguities, such as the role of the Lord Protector, Humphrey of Gloucester, Henry V’s brother (under whom, you may recall, Malory had served in France.)  In 1445, Henry VI, now 24, was married to Margaret, the fifteen year-old daughter of Duke René of Anjou, a match engineered by William de la Pole, who was made Duke of Suffolk for his efforts.  In spite of her youth Margaret soon became a significant force in the King’s court and she formed an alliance with Suffolk, the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Buckingham.

By late 1440s the court had become polarized.  The Queen’s party had exploited their power, impoverishing the Exchequer through appointments and gifts to their supporters and inept management of their French territories.  They had engineered the arrest of Gloucester on charges of treason in 1447.  (He died under suspicious circumstances five days later.)  In February of 1449 a speech in the Commons complained “that murder, theft, manslaughter were increasing daily.”  By February of 1450 the Commons had had enough.  They forced the impeachment of Suffolk for “high, great, heinous and horrible treasons.”  Suffolk avoided trial and submitted himself to the sole judgment of the King.

On March 17, all the Lords attending Parliament were summoned to the King’s private chamber with a gable window over a cloister at the Palace of Westminster.  Suffolk knelt before King Henry, the great list of charges was read and Suffolk proclaimed his loyalty and innocence on all of them.  It’s a telling moment.  Arguably, the most powerful peer in the land had been forced to judgment for capital offenses by popular pressure.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone and no one was safe.  The King passed judgment:  Suffolk was found innocent of the charges but guilty of other “misprisons,” lesser charges, and sentenced to five years in exile.

I personally expect the event and sentence was a piece of legal theatre devised by all the lords in concert, to secure their positions, appease the Commons and restore public order.

It didn’t work.  Suffolk was chased from London.  At the beginning of his channel crossing, his boat was intercepted by another, “The Nicholas of the Tower.”  He was taken on board, summarily tried for his crimes by those on board and sentenced to death.  His head was struck off and his corpse was left on Dover beach with the head posted on a pike, possibly a gruesome pun on his name.  But his companions were released unharmed.  We don’t know who was ultimately responsible, although two men from Kent, Richard Lennard, a shipman, and Thomas Smith, a yeoman, were later indicted for participating in the incident before the Duke of Buckingham.  Was it the Duke of York, who was serving as the King’s lieutenant in Ireland at the time, the Duke of Warwick, the Duke of Norfolk, the enraged commons of Kent?

Certainly the commons of Kent feared they would be punished for it.  A rumour spread that the King intended to turn the entire county into a royal forest.  The result was rebellion.  On June 6, 1450, the Parliament, being held in Leicester learned that Kent was in revolt, led by one Jack Cade, a “captain of Kent” who was also going by the aristocratic name “John Mortimer,” which linked him to any royal pretentions of the Duke of York.  Dan Jones in his recent popular history characterizes Cade as an “effective captain capbable of articulating a sophisticated program of reform,” who counted the son of a peer amongst his followers, which is far from Shakespeare’s street-smart opportunist.

Henry VI returned to London and authorized two forces to repress the revolt, one under Viscount Beaumont and another under the Duke of Buckingham.  By June 11th, the rebels were encamped at Blackheath, just south of Greenwich.  Negotiations proved fruitless.  The rebels retreated into Kent pursued by the King’s forces.  Near Tonbridge, two relatives of the Duke of Buckingham, another Sir Humphrey Stafford and William Stafford and a force of 400 were slaughtered.  London dissolved into riot and disorder.  Henry ordered the arrest of Lord Saye, a prominent beneficiary of Suffolk’s largesse and others but it was to no avail in quelling the disorder.

On June 25th the King and his court deserted the capital for the safety and canons of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.  Cade returned to Blackheath, then captured Southwark and fought his way over the bridge.  His followers pillaged London.  Saye was pulled out of imprisonment in the Tower and executed.  Shakespeare’s scene is accurate.  Finally, on July 5th, the Lord Mayor with Lord Scales and Mathew Gough collected a force and after a bloody twelve hour street fight on the bridge managed to expel the rebels.  The rebellion then collapsed and Cade was subsequently apprehended and killed in Kent.

The capital and the country had seen nothing like it since the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, seventy years before.  That time King Richard II, just 14, had remained in London and had played an important role in ending the rebellion.  This time the King abandoned the city, leaving it to suffer riot, murder and wholesale destruction for 11 days.  The lesson was that the King could not guarantee the safety of his greatest city and wealthiest subjects.  When the Duke of York returned from Ireland in September calling for reform, the Queen’s party was never so vulnerable, and none more so, perhaps, than the Duke of Buckingham.  Not only had he witnessed Suffolk’s fall and the rebellion, he’d lost two of his family.

It was a “wolf time,” to use the Anglo Saxon phrase meaning a time of insecurity when everyone is forced to look after only themselves.  The Pastons’ letters record that the Duke of Norfolk was doing everything he could to solidify his position in East Anglia.  No doubt the Duke of Buckingham was doing the same in Warwickshire where he held Maxstoke Castle,20 miles from Sir Thomas Malory’s home at Newbold-Revel.
Episode 12 can be found here.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 10: Armiger Literatus


My last post narrated the incident which had such profound consequences for Sir Thomas Malory’s later life and career and previous posts have discussed equally dramatic episodes earlier in his life.  The circumstances raise questions which may be impossible to answer conclusively with the extant evidence.  The words “fine” and “terrible,” which I chose to describe this topic, weren’t chosen with insouciance.  You can find the first post here.

It’s apropos now to take a short but careful look at his whole life up to this point.  Doing so reveals some important additional surprises and insights and suggests aspects of his character which may prove essential when we come to the end and address the central question of who he really was.

He was born around 1401 to a wealthy Warwickshire family, the Malorys of Newbold-Revel (the issues surrounding his date of birth are discussed in Episode 3.)  Warwickshire is sometimes called the “heart of England” if by chance you’re not familiar with it.  Not only is it beautiful and geographically central, it has always played an important role historically and culturally.  Shakespeare was born there, for example, and aspects of his life and Malory’s have some curious correspondences, but that’s a topic for a later post.  Malory had three uncles, Thomas, Simon and Robert. each of whom may have served as a different kind of chivalric paradigm, from the martial, to the urbane, to the spiritual.

Around the age of fourteen he served as one of several squires under Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, as part of the Calais garrison which was England’s largest, best organized and most disciplined standing fighting force (David Grummitt, The Calais Garrison War and Military Service in England, 1436-1558.) He probably witnessed Warwick’s participation in the December 1414 “12th Night Tournament” outside Calais.  Indeed, Eugène Vinaver, (the first editor of Le Morte d’Arthur Winchester manuscript) believed the tournament in the tale of Sir Gareth was written in remembrance of Beauchamp’s deeds then.  (I can’t help thinking of the Winsor tournament in my own book As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields and the effect watching Henry of Grossmont had on the young Black Prince.)

I’m certain Malory’s life at that time was filled with physical training and practice.  We know how critical training was for long bowmen (the distortions in their skeletons prove it.)  I’m certain the same is true for men-at-arms.   If you’ve ever fenced, you know how critical daily training and practice are.  I can’t believe medieval sword-to-sword combat was any less intense; success was a matter of life and death.

In November of 1415, after Agincourt, one of the most important military events of the century, Henry V and his exhausted, victorious “band of brothers” arrived in Calais.  Malory probably witnessed it.  If so, it was certainly as inspirational and emotionally important to him as witnessing the moon landing was for those who witnessed that event in 1969.  When Henry died in 1422, King Arthur’s coat-of-arms were displayed along with the Plantagenet royal arms and Malory’s experience of Henry V must have informed his depiction of Arthur.

Muster rolls indicate that Malory returned to France with Henry V’s grand invasion of Normandy in 1417 as a fully armored and equipped squire under Lord Grey of Codnor and later under Warwick.  (In scale it was a kind of medieval “D-Day.”)  After the winter siege of Falaise with the King, he was part of a lightning force under Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester that captured 32 castles in six weeks.  (George Patton’s accomplishments with the US 3rd Army in WWII comes to mind as an apt analogy.)   Malory may have served at the siege of Rouen and been part of its garrison when Joan of Arc was imprisoned there.  He returned to Warwickshire in 1421.  By then his father, John Malory, had been Sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire (1416-1417) and had served twice as a member of Parliament for Warwickshire.  In 1420 John was one of 13 knights and esquires deemed most able to defend the realm in the King’s absence.  The Malorys were becoming a preeminent family.

What was Thomas himself like in his twenties?  He was an experienced soldier who’d served with elite units under capable, sometimes inspiring officers and there is nothing in the record to suggest he served other than honorably.  Perhaps, he was not unlike Shakespeare’s conception of Sir Henry Hotspur:  vainglorious, heroic, quick-tempered, romantic.  Some authors have judged him as such and it’s an easy, perhaps natural rationalization for later events.

I disagree.  Two incidents in the 1420s are why.  In 1422, newly returned from France he and others pursued a suit to recover property taken possession by Richard Clodeshall but enfeoffed or owned by Malory and his co-appellants.  This shows Malory’s considered use of the legal system as a young man to address a grievance as opposed to taking the law into his own hands as he will be accused later.  Further, in September 1427, his father was chosen to sit in the Commons as MP for Warwickshire when parliamentary elections were held at Warwick, his 5th election as MP.  However, one William Petyo, a soldier who’d also served in France, marched into the sheriff’s court with a threatening retinue and insisted his name be sent in instead, which was done.  It was a direct political assault on Malory’s immediate family.  Nevertheless, it was addressed legally in 1428 when Warwick returned again from France and Peyto’s election was legally voided.

There is much less known evidence of his life in the 1430s and 1440s than one would like.  We know the extended family flourished, exhibiting fiscal conservatism and pragmatism.  We know he was married and knighted in the 1440s although there are no specific extant records of either event.  In late 1446 or early 1447 he had a son, Robert.  Nevertheless, his knighthood in his 40s is telling.  The Malorys were moderately wealthy but not so much so that knighthood was an idle honour.  Rather, it was almost certainly a life goal the achievement of which at the end of a long military career suggests dependability and responsibility as well as courage.

During that time he also served in Parliament twice, first for Warwickshire, then for Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire.  The latter appointment is interesting.  P. J. C. Field in 1993 speculated that it was as a result of the patronage of the Duke of Buckingham, Malory’s later nemesis.  Christina Hardyment, in 2004, dug deeper and showed that it was just as likely the possible patronage of the Bishop of Winchester.  This is a perfect example of how Malory scholarship remains dynamic.

Hardyment makes the further point that there may have been a literary connection betwixt Malory and the Bishop of Winchester and summarizes a list of 34 sources (some over 1,000 pages) in at least 3 languages that he used.  Le Morte d’Arthur could have been a life-long project, not just a product of his prison years.  Certainly he was one of that very rare species, like Xenophon or T. E. Lawrence:  an armiger literatus, a literary knight.

What we know of Malory’s character to this stage is far from sufficient to explain what happened next, beginning on Sunday, 25 July, 1451.  It seems particularly important to consider what other events were transpiring then, particularly in the life of Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham and Richard Neville, the relatively new Earl of Warwick which is what I intend to focus on until my next post.

Episode 11 can be found here.