Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 26: The Velocity of History


This is episode 26 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

Does it make sense to think about the velocity of history?  Possibly not, it’s a little like trying to think about the speed of time itself.  Yet, there are periods when crucial, signal historical events can follow, one upon the other, relentlessly, with such speed that it’s apparent that institutions and individuals have insufficient time to respond appropriately.   Wars often follow.  When I think of such times in modern history, the year 1968 comes to mind as does 2001, 2003 and 2008.  I think 1460 was like that.

On October 10th, when Richard, Duke of York’s royal procession into the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster was met by silence, he must have been amazed.  Indications from the chronicles are that he expected to be acclaimed king by the assembled lords and peers.  Instead, according to the Registrum Abbatiae Jonanis Whethamstede, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourchier, a sometime York supporter, stonily asked, “Have you come to see the King?”

York replied, “I know of no person in this realm whom it does not behove to come to me and see my person rather than that I should go and visit him.”  He then turned and departed with less than perfect dignity.  He took up residence in the king’s apartments whilst Henry VI was sequestered in the Queen’s apartments.

Was Malory in the Great Hall that day?  I’ve spent the last week searching and combing through Le Morte d’Arthur for clues suggesting he might have been or, indeed, how he felt about the event.  Hardyment writes “Malory must have been appalled.”  Field is more circumspect but recalls a sentence in Le Morte d’Arthur original to Malory,

“Thenne stood the reame in grete jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made hym stronge, and many wende to have ben kyng.”

He then suggests that it could be implicit criticism of York.

I’m not so sure, I can most easily imagine that Malory was just deeply conflicted:  the party that had rescued him from imprisonment was also the party usurping the crown, whilst many around the king himself were patently corrupt.

Here is one of my favorite observations of Professor Field,  “…it is easier and more compatible with the generosity of spirit that informs the Morte Darthur to suppose that Malory’s sympathies were aroused less by causes than by individuals behaving chivalrously in difficult circumstances….It is not surprising that most of the apparent contemporary allusions are sympathetic:  Malory as author is a notably uncensorious person.”

Indeed, I’d suggest that this hints at what may have been Malory’s raison d’etre for undertaking his great work and what he may have hoped to discover by assembling and translating it.  Over and over again, Le Morte d’Arthur presents knights  challenged to discover a chivalrous course of action in a unique situation.  Malory, in London, possibly among the lords and peers in the Great Hall that 10th of October, was in just such a situation.

Karen Cherewatuk, in her fine essay “Sir Thomas Malory’s “Grete Booke”” places Le Morte d’Arthur in the context of the contemporary commissioned books of chivalric instruction, didactic anthologies such as the one compiled for Sir John Paston which contained excepts of writers such as Christine de Pisan and Vegetius.  In that context, Malory becomes uniquely interesting because of his implicit choice to tell stories and pose questions. 

So much more would happen that year and the next.  Episode 27 can be found here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 25: The Return


This is episode 25 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my last post I argued the probability that Sir Thomas Malory remained in London after his release from prison by the Yorkist army under the Earls of March and Warwick and Lord Fauconberg following their unruly entrance into the city on July 2, 1460. I further suggested that he may have participated in the brutal and violent siege of the Tower, which was still garrisoned by a Lancastrian contingent under Lord Scales and that some of the changes Malory introduced in his narrative of Mordred’s siege of Guinevere in the Tower could have reflected personal experience.

The three generals and the majority of their forces left London the day after their public ceremony declaring loyalty to Henry VI at St. Paul’s.  Their sudden departure after only 48 hours argues good diplomacy as well as military initiative as it both preserved the army’s discipline as well as the good will of the merchants and residents of London.  They marched north and encountered  a royal army under the king, the queen and the Duke of Buckingham on a sodden July 10 in a meadow on the southern bank of the River Nene.  Heavy rain fouled the royal artillery.  Thirty minutes into the battle, the King’s right flank, led by Lord Grey of Ruthin, defected to Fauconberg and Warwick loudly proclaimed that neither the King nor the common people were to be harmed, only the captains and professional Lancaster soldiery.  Discipline in the royal army collapsed.  The Lancaster generals, Thomas Percy, Shrewsbury, Beaumont and the Duke of Buckingham were all searched for and killed.  Less than thirty minutes later, the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of March and Lord Fauconberg discovered Henry VI in his tent and knelt to him.  They had “rescued” the King from his “evil counselors,” including his wife, who had evaded capture and fled north.  The Yorkist army returned south and entered London in a procession.  What did Malory think as he saw the King, the son of the Henry V, now a prisoner as he himself had been but two weeks before?  What did he think when he learned that his nemesis, the Duke of Buckingham had been killed?

The Lancastrian defenders of the Tower surrendered, their leader, Lord Scales, was summarily executed and Henry VI was imprisoned in the Palace of Westminster.  Meanwhile, Richard, Duke of York returned from Ireland, landing near Chester, and marched south in procession.  It was traditional, medieval political theatre; details from the chroniclers suggest the stage management, the production values, were exquisite:   York’s sword was born upright before him, the coat-of-arms of Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s third son from whom York claimed descent (Henry VI’s claim was through John of Gaunt, the fourth son) was displayed along with the York heraldry.  The white and blue coat he wore when he was reunited with his wife Cecily at Abington was even embroidered with fetterlocks, a symbol used by his ancestor, Edward, Duke of York, the one great English magnate who’d died at Agincourt.  For those who could read the symbolism, and probably all the gentry and bourgeoisie could, the meaning was clear.  This wasn’t just the procession of the returning Duke of York, but a claimant to the crown, marching to London which was held by his eldest son, the Earl of March, and Warwick.

At ten in the morning on October 10th, he arrived at the Palace of Westminster with a mounted contingent.  He entered the great hall, with a cloth of state held over his head by servants and his sword still born before him.

And was met with silence by the assembled peers and lords.

Henry IV’s 14 year reign, which began in pragmatic usurpation, consisted of nearly constant civil war, including the first battle between English armies both equipped with long bows, had not been forgotten.  In that battle at Shrewsbury, the Prince of Wales had been shot in the face with an arrow and nearly died of his wound.  Two thousand others had died.  In the English medieval imagination with its metaphorical hierarchical view of god, kingship, the state and the country, those 14 difficult, sometimes terrible years could be seen to have had a single source:  the usurpation of the throne of an anointed king.

Episode 26 can be found here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 24: Deductions about an Eventful Summer


This is episode 24 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.
 P. J. C. Field laments the lack of documentation for Sir Thomas Malory between December 1457 when he was returned to prison and early July 1460 when he was finally released.  It may be at the same time that a small, undated amendment was made to the King’s Bench Controlment Roll:  “acrtam allocatam sine die.”  Malory’s pardon from 1455 was finally allowed.  But what was his frame of mind when he was freed, probably in early July of 1460?  What was his physical and mental condition after years of imprisonment?  Had he finished Le Morte d’Arthur sometime in that period?  What did he do next? There is no direct evidence. 

But there is another alternative.  “When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad.  Because of all the things in the world, you're only looking for one of them.  When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you're sure to find some of them,” to quote Daryl Zero.  In that spirit I decided to carefully consider events of that summer, the actions and locations of major figures, geography, and, of course, Le Morte d’Arthur itself to see what deductions might be made about Sir Thomas at that time.

The Earl of Warwick was summoned to Westminster in early 1459 and was personally assaulted in a brawl between men of the King’s household and his own.  The implicit lawlessness in a palace of state surely shook him.  Was it an assassination attempt?  There were rumours he was to be imprisoned in the Tower and he fled to Calais.

When he returned in September for a meeting with York at York’s castle in Ludow at the edge of the Welsh Marches, a period of rapid escalation began.  The Queen, the King, Edward of Winchester, Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Somerset and Buckingham had removed the court to Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where they gathered artillery and recruited supporters who were given a small badge to show their allegiance and support:  an emblem with a chained swan, which at that time signified support for the Prince of Wales.  Meanwhile Warwick’s father, the Earl of Salisbury came south with a force of 5,000 and was confronted by a royalist force under the under the sixty-one year old James Tuchet, Lord Audley at Blore Heath.  Salisbury was victorious and Audley was killed.  The reunion of York, his family including his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, Warwick and Salisbury and their combined forces was perhaps half the size of the Queen’s forces under Somerset and Buckingham that met them at Ludford Bridge on October 12th.  The scale of the forces, the risks for all, the potential consequences foreshadowed the battle that would take place at Towton 17 months later.  However, that night after a Calais soldier, Andrew Trollope led 600 to defect to the Queen’s forces, York and his generals decided their position was untenable and deserted their army and York’s wife and two youngest sons.  York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland fled to the west coast and Ireland, Warwick, Salisbury and Edward, Earl of March to Devon, Guernsey and finally  the relative safety of Calais.  In December, at a parliament called at St. Mary’s Priory in Coventry, the rebels and several others loosely affiliated with them were attainted, that is stripped of all property, rights and honours.  Later, it came to be known as the “Parliament of Devils.”  Events were spiraling out of control and predictability. Thomas Malory, though in prison, must have learned of some if not all of this.

So, what were his thoughts if he heard that Warwick, the Earl of March, Lord Fauconberg had landed with a force of 2,000 at Sandwich on the 26th of the following June,  1460?  The force quickly grew to 20,000 or more and marched on London.  The city first decided to refuse them entrance and prepared defenses, but when 11 alderman rebelled, they changed their mind.  The Bishops of Exeter and Ely met Warwick in Southwark to ensure a peaceful and ordered entrance but there was a great crush on the bridge and 13 men-at-arms were killed.  Malory would have heard the noise.  Depending on the location of his cell and how high up it was he might have glimpsed what was happening on the bridge.

It was natural that Warwick, Salisbury and the Earl of March freed their supporters, including Malory.  That the records of the King’s Bench show also that his pardon was allowed, suggests two things.  That someone, probably Malory himself, was taking careful legal advantage of the situation and, not surprisingly given circumstances, that Buckingham’s influence on the Court of the King’s Bench was broken.  What, perhaps is most surprising given how far things had devolved, is what happened on July 3rd.  In a public ceremony,  the earls of Warwick, Salisbury and March took a formal oath on the cross of Canterbury at St. Paul’s, declaring their allegiance to Henry VI.  Warwick, himself, then announced that they’d come with their people to declare their innocence or else die in the field.

Whether it was political theatre or an honest declaration it was probably essential in order to be certain of the support of those, like Malory, whose formative years had been spent in the service of Henry V.  But those were very different times.  The wars then were in France.   From Newbold Revel to St. Albans is a distance of 74 miles, to Wakefield 108 miles, 67 miles to Mortimer’s Cross and only 35 miles to Northampton.   War had come home to the Midlands.

Malory must have pondered his loyalties and reflected on how he could act both honourably and for the best safety and interest of his family and property.   It was natural that he would choose to follow Warwick first, not only because of Fauconberg’s help in procuring bail in 1457.  So, what did he do next?  Did he ride north with Fauconberg, Warwick and the Earl of March to confront Buckingham with Henry VI at Northampton, did he return home, or did he remain in London.  All are possible.  But I favor the latter.  Before he departed, Warwick began a siege of the Tower of London, still under Lancaster  control under Lord Scales,  according to one chronicle,

“…They that were within the Tower cast wildfire to the city and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets.  And they of London laid great bombards on the further side of the Thames against the Tower and crased the walls in diverse places.” 

Among the relatively few emendations Malory makes in translating his sources is this one, when Mordred is sieging Guinevere who has taken refuge in the Tower, “…he layde mighty syge aboute the Towre and made many assaltis, and threw engynnes unto them, and shotte grete gunnes.”  Malory’s decision to color the event with modern weapons suggests he may have been reflecting on what he himself saw that July in 1460 and, if so, tells us that he had not yet completed Le Mort d’Arthur in spite of the time he might have had to do so.  Further, Malory, now around sixty years old, lately out of prison, may not yet have been fit enough to go on campaign.  That he would stay and aid the siege on the Tower seems most probable.

There is one last possible inference to consider.  Why did the Queen, Buckingham and Somerset issue badges with a symbol of the Prince of Wales?  Why not the royal heraldry or Lancaster?  Perhaps, it reflects that Edward of Winchester’s right of succession was a central issue and utmost in her mind.

Episode 25 can be found here.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 23: A Glimpse of Character


This is episode 23 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my last post, several weeks ago, I lamented my lack of sense of Malory’s character and personal life.  The personal references Malory makes to himself in the colophons of Le Morte d’Arthur are short, circumspect and some of the deductions made from them are tenuous at best.  “Horror vacui,” as Parmenides observed; so does imagination.  In the absence of concrete personal biographical information some writing about Malory choose to envision him not so differently from Shakespeare’s Falstaff:  an immoderate, carousing criminal libertine who. imprisoned and prevented from following his preferred criminal pursuits, wrote Le Morte d’Arthur instead.  Others see him as an aspiring Lancelot.  In this post I’m going to begin looking more carefully at the seven years between November, 1455 and November 1462.  It was a particularly dramatic time for Malory and England generally.  Fundamental social and political boundaries were crossed and some of the most important events of the Wars of the Roses occurred, including the battle that remains arguably England’s most cruel and bloody.  Through them we can glimpse Malory’s character, and it is far more nuanced and interesting than those rather reductive fictions suggest.

When Parliament re-opened on 12 November 1455, six months after the relatively small but calamitous first battle at St. Albans, Richard, Duke of York was named Protector of the Realm; suggesting Henry VI may still have been too traumatized by the battle’s events when his guard was shot down, the King himself was wounded in the neck and the Duke of Buckingham was wounded in the face.  With York’s ascension, Malory was allowed to apply for a general pardon and immediately did so.   Before the King’s Bench on the 6th of February, 1456 he requested dismissal of his case and presented letters patent in proof of his pardon.  Malory further produced six men willing to stand surety.

Yet the King’s Bench refused to recognize their sufficiency for surety or the validity of the pardon.  He was returned to prison and in the following months was twice sued for indebtedness:  once by one Robert Overton for an alleged promissory note for £3 which Malory denied and subsequently by Thomas Greswold for £4 9s which Malory admitted but could not pay.  The latter case is provocative:  Greswold was a Warwickshire lawyer who had served on the Nuneaton inquiry (which had produced the first, extensive detailed list of the serious and salacious accusations against Malory).  Further, he practiced at the King’s Bench and was the prosecutor who had demanded forfeiture of Malory’s sureties when Malory had failed to return from bail in 1454. Why would Malory have borrowed money from someone with such obviously questionable motives unless he was enforced to do so, possibly by circumstance?  During the same period he was also moved  multiple times from the Marshalsea, to Newgate and finally Ludgate.  Sir William Peyto was imprisoned at the Marshalsea at the same time and Field suggests that possibly he and Malory together made it difficult or impossible for the staff to run the prison as they liked, “to extract the most money from the most prisoners in the shortest time.”

I favor a different inference.  York was indeed Protector but had reached a temporary detente with Buckingham.  The highly politicized judiciary was accommodating the new real politic and the interests who wanted Malory imprisoned were still strong enough to guarantee he remain so.  Malory’s pardon may even have been a political test of strength by York in his new position.

Malory was finally granted bail twenty-one months later, in October 1457, to Sir William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, the Earl of Warwick’s uncle and the Duke of York’s brother-in-law, and two other esquires of Yorkshire and Arundel.   The period was for 2 ½ months.  Malory himself  provided £400 (£280,000 pounds purchasing power in 2015) personal surety whilst the others provided £20 each.

How was it that Malory, who had been unable to meet debts or 3 and 4 pounds a few months before, incarcerated in an environment in which continual financial extortion was the rule, was now able to provide £400 surety?

Almost certainly, the money came from Fauconberg, possibly indirectly from Warwick.  Hardyment speculates that it was to enable Malory to serve with the Calais garrison, England’s only standing force with a reputation not unlike that enjoyed by the UK’s SAS or the US Navy Seals today.  In July 1457 Warwick had asked Fauconberg to serve as Warwick’s deputy there until December 1458.  However, Malory’s bail, exorbitant as it was, was only for 2 ½ months.  Field notes that senior members of Warwick’s affinity had become feofees to Malory and it could have been part a larger scheme by Warwick to finally establish a dominant position in Warwickshire.  This is also consistent with Carpenter’s interpretation of the events.

I take a slightly different view.   The Monks Kirby Priory accounts for 9-1-1457 to 8-31-1458 has three Malory family references:  a 6 pence payment from Malory himself for use of a watermill called Hubbock Mill, 8 shillings rental for pasture from Elizabeth Lady Malory and Thomas Roche, and two pence for obsequies for Thomas Malory Jr., presumably Sir Thomas’s second son  (following common custom of naming the second or third son after the father).  Field writes  “we can only guess at what Sir Thomas and Lady Malory felt about their son’s death.”  True.  However, it isn’t unreasonable to deduce that Malory felt it imperative he be in Warwickshire for the period and the short but expensive bail enabled him to do so.  So what were Fauconberg and probably Warwick looking for in return?  For £400 I suspect it was something more than another link strengthening Warwick’s Warwickshire affinity.  York, Warwick and Fauconberg were willing to do whatever was required for the  commitment of service of an experienced field commander, recognizing that the uncertain peace was unlikely to last long.  The first battles of the Wars of the Roses were fought by relatively small and heterogeneous forces.  It didn’t take much to recognize that future conflicts would become larger and more professional affairs requiring the skills of people like Malory whom Carpenter’s statistics suggest were in short supply.

Nevertheless, I doubt anyone foresaw the tragic dimensions the conflict would reach in just a few months.  Malory dutifully gave himself up to the Marshal of the King’s Bench on December 28th as he’d promised.  He was transferred from the Marshalsea to Newgate in Hilary term (Jan-Mar 1460).

The peace between the Duke of York and the King and Queen collapsed shortly thereafter.  On June 26, 1460 King Henry VI, Margaret, their son Edward of Winchester, Prince of Wales and a force of 5,000 confronted a force of 10,000 led by the Earl of Warwick, Lord Fauconberg and the Duke of York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March.  The Yorkist forces triumphed.  Warwick, Fauconberg and the Earl of March found Henry in his tent and knelt to him before taking him into protective custody, first to Delapré Abbey thence London.

Three hundred men had died during the battle.  Among them was Sir Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham, Malory’s great nemesis, killed by a squad of Kentishmen.  Field speculates that Malory was probably freed around the time the Yorkists took London, July 2-5, 1460.

It was time for Sir Thomas Malory, a taciturn, resourceful and experienced field commander who’d once mounted a siege of Coombe Abbey replete with siege equipment only 48 hours after escaping to freedom by swimming a moat, to pay the debt he owed to Lord Fauconberg and the cause of Richard, Duke of York. 

Episode 24 can be found here.