Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 22: Why did he write it?


This is episode 22 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.
Why did Sir Thomas Malory write Le Morte d’Arthur?   Here are three alternatives.  He was imprisoned and trapped in a labyrinth of legal difficulties from which he might never emerge.  His solace was a diverse library of Arthurian sources and, choosing an avocation, he undertook to reconcile and collect what he judged to be the most important of those stories into a single coherent chronicle of the legendary ruler.  It was simply a distraction.

Or, imprisoned and trapped in a labyrinth of legal difficulties but with access to a diverse library of historical and fictional writing about King Arthur he decided to extract the true history of that most worthy king into a single chronicle and through doing so develop the perspective and wisdom to understand and patiently bear his own situation.  It was a search for personal illumination.

Or, finally, imprisoned and trapped in a labyrinth of legal difficulties but with access to an extraordinary Arthurian library, he decided to write a new work of fiction compiled from them which would prove to the world the virtue and morality of the code by which he himself attempted to live in stories about a time as fraught with conflict and unrest as his own.  It was an act of self-affirmation.

I’ve been researching Sir Thomas Malory’s life and reading his works since January and I wouldn’t presume to opine which of the those three is most likely correct.  The events of his life and what I’ve learned has convinced me that he was most probably innocent of all the charges leveled against him in the 1450s.  At a minimum the extant evidence is far from sufficient for conviction by modern legal standards.  Yet, for all that, I’m surprised at how little I feel I know the man.  What was his own family life like?  Did he love his wife and son?  Did he love the Warwickshire country in which he lived and remember moments and vistas as he languished in the Marshalsea?

One of my goals in undertaking the project was to develop a deeper sense of 15th century life.  The past is indeed a foreign country; they do things differently there and it is sometimes very difficult to travel.  Yet that uncertainty is part of a greater empathy I’m developing for those that lived at that particular time and the difficult choices they faced.

Here’s an example.  From 1455 to 1460, extensive, sometimes ruthless parliamentary maneuvering and four important battles, 1st St. Albans, Blore Heath, Ludford Bridge and Northampton delineated and polarized the two major camps of the Wars of the Roses:   the Queen’s party and the party of Richard, Duke of York.   As I’ve discussed previously, Malory was finally freed in October of 1457 through the efforts of  Lord Fauconberg, one of York’s lieutenants.  York’s ambition was apparent, yet he was also the more capable and equitable administrator.  The Queen’s party which mostly had control of the government, and King Henry’s apathetic approval, was exploitive, corrupt and divisive.  On October 31, 1460, the last great compromise between the two factions was announced.  Henry VI would rule until his death, but he would be succeeded by York and his heirs, not his own son, Edward of Winchester.  Shakespeare portrays a weak Henry, coerced by Warwick and York, who have him in his power but there could be more to it.  There was speculation at the time that Edward might not have been Henry’s son.  (Margaret may have chosen to conceive by a surrogate because the King was incapable or unwilling.  When her pregnancy was announced, the Milanese ambassador told Duke Francesco Sforza that when told of his wife’s pregnancy Henry had exclaimed “If she is expecting a child, then it must have been conceived by the Holy Ghost.”)  If so, there was a certain sense to it:  York would have been Henry’s proper heir.  Nevertheless, I don’t know.   Malory almost certainly didn’t know.
One thing we do know is that Malory’s nemesis and the Queen’s lieutenant, Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham was killed at the Battle of Northampton and the events of Malory’s life would have a very different character thereafter.

Episode 23 can be found here.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 21: 1451-1457


This is episode 21 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.
On May 2, 1450, a small pinnace was intercepted in the English Channel by a larger ship “The Nicholas of the Tower.”  All but one onboard the pinnace were taken prisoner and subsequently released unharmed.  The one other was summarily beheaded.  His corpse was left splayed on Dover beach beside a pole upon which his head was spiked, a possible gruesome and vengeful play on his name.  He was, or rather had been, William de la Pole, first Duke of Suffolk, Margaret Queen of England’s first favorite.  During the catastrophic three years of his ascendency, the majority of England’s vast French territory was lost through neglect and exploitation while the treasury was impoverished by incompetent administration and reckless distribution of royal property and sources of income to purchase political favor.  The Commons had finally insisted he be tried for treason; King Henry VI intervened and banished him for five years, which is how he found himself on a pinnace off the coast of Dover one May morning in 1450.

It is a signal incident showing how the social fabric and institutions of late medieval English society were fraying in the early 1450s. It was a trajectory that would culminate in the 35 years of the Wars of the Roses.

In February of 1452, Sir Thomas Malory was placed in the custody of the London sheriffs; in April he was handed over to the Marshal of the Court of the King’s Bench and imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison.  During the next five years and ten months he was incarcerated for all but 17 months of that time; his longest period of freedom being one year.  He spent four months in Newgate, three in Ludgate, eight months in the Tower of London and the remainder in Marshalsea.  He had “put himself upon his country” which gave him the right to be tried by a jury of men from his own county of Warwickshire (100 miles from London with a population 30,000 at the time.)  Yet, five times he was brought before the Court only to have judgment of his case postponed because no jury appeared.  He was granted bail twice.  In May of 1451 he himself provided  £200 (£142,000 in 2014) while 10 established and respected Warwickshire men each provided £20 (£14,200 in 2014.)  At least on one occasion it was easier to find 10 responsible and prominent members of the community willing to provide significant financial surety than it was to find jurors to sit on the case.

As the Paston letters show over and over again, the legal system had become partisan like so much else at the time.  Hardyment shows how Malory’s chances for trial or bail rise and fall with the fortunes of Sir William Oldhall, a supporter of the Duke of York and it is one of the Duke of York’s lieutenants, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, who finally arranged for Malory’s freedom in 1457.  Indeed, Malory was able to provide £400 surety (£284,000 in 2014) possibly from Fauconberg.  Does this mean that Malory should be considered simply a Yorkist supporter and his years of legal persecution merely a consequence of his political alliance?  Hardly, as subsequent events will show.  It does establish that the easy characterization of Malory as an opportunistic, swashbuckling criminal is not justified by the extant evidence.  It is almost certain he was a victim of judicial persecution, the source of which was Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and possibly others.

Of those specifically mentioned in the Nuneaton indictment only Coombe Abbey and its abbot reappear multiple times in the legal records related to Malory afterwards.  (Remember, Malory was accused of gathering a force and robbing Coombe Abbey immediately after his very first escape from the Sheriff of Warwickshire, William Mountfort. )  On multiple occasions Malory’s grant of bail specifically enjoined him not to retaliate against the abbot of Coombe abbey.  On other occasions he was ordered to be more closely held to prevent the same.  Coombe Abbey had a history of fractious relations with its neighbors, i.e. the Astleys as well as a reputation for oppression of its tenants.  Obviously, investigation of the abbey and abbot’s relationship with Humphrey Stafford merits closer examination.

On May 22, 1455 the first open battle of the Wars of the Roses took place at St. Albans.  Though Malory was in prison at the time he must have heard about it shortly thereafter.  I began this set of posts with an investigation as to why someone who was often characterized as a kind of upper middle class career criminal would compile a large and complex work concerned with the discovery and invention of a code of Chivalry.  That characterization of Sir Thomas Malory is ostensibly unfair and inaccurate.  But the question of who Malory was and why and how he wrote his book remains.  And that slightly different question leads to very dangerous territory for someone striving for the quaint goals of accuracy and objectivity.

Episode 22 can be found here.