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.

No comments: