Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery Episode 29 - A New Conundrum


This is episode 29 of my exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

I still find myself musing about the consequences of the battle of Towton.  1 in 114 of the total population of England and Wales died that day.  Further, the composition of the armies suggests there may have been soldiers from nearly every county in England.  A contemporary comparison gives me pause, 1 in 318 of Japan’s population died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  How did the battle of Towton change England as it must have done?

Nevertheless, according to  “Leicester Medieval Pedigrees” (edited by G. Farnham), Malory followed the king, Warwick and Lord Fauconberg north to sieges at Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstaborough along with his old companions Sir Robert Harcourt and Sir John Astley, a formidable jouster.  All brought squires, archers and men-at-arms.  Malory was clearly in good odor with the government of Edward IV.  On New Years 1462, King Edward IV offered a general pardon, Malory took it to the King’s Bench and had the slate wiped clean of the charges against him.
He then returned to Warwickshire.  In September 1464 Malory witnessed the marriage settlement of John, son of William Feilding of Newnham Paddox in Warwickshire, and Helen, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Walsh, esquire.  One can infer from William Dugdale’s drawing of the armorial window at Newbold-Revel that Malory was Helen’s uncle.  There are only three other references to Malory in the historical record, the last being the record of his death.  The epitaph on his tombstone read, “Thomas Mallere valens miles qui obit 14 die mensis marcii anno domini 1470 de parochial de monkenkyrkby in comitatu warwick..”,  “Thomas Malory, valiant knight who died 14, March, 1470 of Monkskirby Parish in the county of Warwick.”

To my knowledge, there are only two other explicit references in the historical record to Malory between 1464 and his death and they pose a new mystery about his life that is even more inscrutable than the events of 1450.

In the Spring of 1464 the Earl of Warwick and John Wenlock, 1st Baron Wenlock, joined secret negotiations with the French Court of Louis XI to arrange wedding the tall and dashing 22 year-old Edward IV to Louis’ sister-in-law, Lady Bona of Savoy.  The following September, Warwick attended a council meeting at Reading at which the king announced that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the twenty-seven year-old widow of a minor Lancastrian, Sir John Grey.  King Louis was blind-sided:  he first learned of it when subsequently Warwick and Wenlock didn’t appear at St. Omer to complete the Lady Bona marriage negotiations.

Edward’s decision is often portrayed as thoughtless and ill-considered.  Shakespeare, for example, cleverly telescopes events and places Warwick at the French court negotiating the Bona marriage with Louis when both are informed of Edward’s marriage.  But it could have been the opposite.  Edward could have been attempting to heal a fractured and decimated country and marriage to minor Lancastrian gentry may have played very well politically.  The records of the politics surrounding the various marriage negotiations for Elizabeth I one hundred years later show how well a native marriage could play.  It’s even possible Warwick was supportive as the relatively minor Woodville gentry hardly looked like a threat.

Nevertheless, Edward having planted them, labored to make them full of growing to use Duncan’s metaphor from “Macbeth.”  From 1464 to 1466 Edward continually increased their status, honours and most importantly, revenues.  From a certain point of view it was shrewd politics:  the Woodvilles were totally dependent upon and indebted to Edward for their rise and so were much more likely to be subordinate and loyal than the powerful existing magnates such as Warwick to whom Edward was indebted for his crown.  Indeed,  the governor of Abbeville had once written to Louis  XI of England, "They have but two rulers, M. de Warwick and another whose name I have forgotten."

In July 1465 Edward’s court received superlative news:  Henry VI was captured in Lancashire whilst attempting to cross the Ribble River at a place called Bungerly Hippinstones.  The aging son of Henry V was returned to “gentle,” or not so gentle, captivity in the Tower.  Unlike previous kings, Richard II and Edward II, he wasn’t killed which bespeaks an attempt at civility early in Edward’s reign.

In the Spring of 1466 Warwick was commissioned to seek a treaty with Burgundy.  Then in February of the next year he led an embassy to Louis XI for which he was well rewarded with custody of all royal forests north of the Trent.  Trusting Warwick with necessarily sensitive diplomatic missions to the two then adversaries dominating northern Europe can be interpreted as continuing proof of great trust.  But it is also just possible that Edward was testing his most powerful peer by having Warwick negotiate with both.  Indeed Edward then undermined Warwick’s attempt to ally with the French by entertaining Antoine, the Grand Batard of Burgundy at a great tournament in June of 1467.  During the tournament Antoine fought a two day duel with one of Edward’s champions, Anthony Woodville during which Woodville infamously and unchivalrously lanced the Batard’s horse.   It’s possible Malory echoed the incident in Le Mort d’Arthur.

Also, early that year, Edward declined to allow his 17 year-old brother George, Duke of Clarence to marry Warwick’s daughter Isabel.    In October, Edward concluded new treaties with Denmark, Castille and most importantly arranged for his sister Margaret to marry the new Duke of Burgundy, Charles and Warwick played an important role in the ceremonies leading up to the marriage.  In the procession to Margate, Warwick and Margaret rode the same horse, he before, she behind.  It’s an image worthy of Edward Burne-Jones and calls to mind N. C. Wyeth’s illustration of Guinevere and Lancelot escaping though the context was clearly different.

The Warkworth Chronicler believed Margaret’s marriage created the decisive breach between Warwick and the king.  And late in 1467, rumors emerged that Warwick was communicating with  Queen Margaret, her son Edward and her small court in exile who were living with her father’s small court at Kouer, 150 miles east of Paris.
Then, on July 14, 1468, Edward IV offered a second general pardon.  There were 15 exceptions. After Henry, Margaret, their son and followers and the Lancastrian rebels holding Harlech Castle, the second name of the remaining eleven was Sir Thomas Malory.

What had happened?  How had Malory so alienated the new king, whose party had freed him after ten years of prison and persecution, for whom he’d fought?  Given the terrible price he’d paid for opposing a royal magnate in the 1550s, what possibly could have induced him to do so again?  And how did that affect and inform his work on Le Mort d’Arthur?

As I said at the beginning, the direct historic record is scant, to  say the least.  Both Hardyment and Field provide possible explanations which merit a careful look; their work on such barren ground alludes to their excellent scholarship.  And then there is Field’s good advice, which is to look at Le Mort d’Arthur itself as an historical artifact.  So in future posts I will be looking carefully as what Malory’s emmendations and explicits tell us and suggest.
Episode 30 can be found here.