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Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?

by Doug MacGowan
sir thomas malory

Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics) is available on Amazon.com. Click image for details.

Sir Thomas Malory is the author of one of the classic sources of Arthurian legends.

The problem is, nobody knows who he was.

His masterpiece “Le Morte d’Arthur” chronicled the various histories and adventures of the (possibly mythical) king, his queen Guinevere, and the assorted Knights of the Round Table. In the manuscript, the author represents himself as “Syr Thomas Maleore knyght,” and states that he completed the work in 1469 or 1470.

These facts point to several possible Thomas Malorys in various documents from the medieval era.

The earliest known references to the author are found in a 15th century book now known as the Winchester Manuscript. Intriguingly, Malory is referred to as a prisoner, although it is not clear why he was imprisoned and for how long. Malory addresses his reading audience personally at the end of one of his manuscripts: “I pray you all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book…pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance [from prison]–and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul.” This direct reference does not particularly specify his identity.

Throughout the centuries, different men of this name have been proposed as the author.

Many believe that a man from Stretton-under-Fosse in the English area of Warwickshire is the mysterious author. Various editors of “Le Morte d’Arthur” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have pointed towards this specific personage. But a 1928 biography showed that, according to the existent records, this man had been imprisoned for a variety of offenses, including kidnapping, rape, robbing churches, and cattle raids. This led one editor to state that this made the life of the Warwickshire man look “more like an account of exemplary thuggery than chivalry.” Could a man who committed such barbaric crimes be the author of such a refined manuscript of courtly manners?

So there are other candidates.

A scholar living in the 1500s declared that the true Malory was actually a Welshman living in the area of Maelor on the England/Wales border. This native of Wales may also have been related to a known Welsh poet named Edward Rhys Maelor.

In 1897, an antiquarian wrote an article in “The Athenaeum” literary magazine stating his belief that Malory was a man living in the English village Papworth St. Agnes in Huntingdonshire. This identification is based on a 1496 will of a Thomas Malory born in 1425. The problem with this identification is that there is no proof that this man became a knight and was thus able to be called “Sir”. The author’s known claim to a title of nobility is an integral clue in establishing his identity.

Finally, there are some records of a man named Thomas Malory known to have lived in Hutton Conyers in Yorkshire. As with the candidate above, however, there is no proof that this man ever became a knight or was imprisoned for any known reason.

“Le Morte d’Arthur” is quite popular, with a variety of translations currently in print. There is no sign of it fading from the limelight. And, regardless of his identity, Sir Thomas Malory will go down in history as the author of perhaps the pinnacle of early English literature.

“Thomas Malory”, Wikipedia, pulled 3/15/15.
Sir Thomas Malory”, infoplease.com, pulled 3/15/15
Le Morte d’Arthur”, Cliffnotes.com, pulled 3/15/15.

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