Thomas Malory: The Knight-Prisoner’s Redemption

And so he went privily into the court, and saw this adventure, whereof it raised his heart, and he would assay it as other knights did, but for he was poor and poorly arrayed he put him not far in press. But in his heart he was fully assured to do as well, if his grace happed him, as any knight that there was.

Morte d’Arthur, Book 2, Chapter 1.

John Malory, Sir Thomas Malory’s father, never became a knight.  His father and grandfather had been knights.  John’s brother, Sir Robert Malory, was a knighted Hospitaller and Prior of St. John’s Hospital in England from 1432 to 1439/40.  But though John Malory held many offices in Warwickshire and was elected to Parliament for several terms, he was never dubbed Sir John.

Medievalists still debate why Malory’s father was never knighted.  Financial issues were one pressing reason.  Knights were exempted from taxes.  But in return they were expected to defend their lord and the King upon request.  This meant keeping weapons, armor, and trained fighting men on hand.  Many landed gentries found paying taxes less onerous than supporting a retinue.

The Malory family estate, Newbold Revel, was commonly known as “Fenny (Swampy) Newbold.”  A 1436 tax assessment records Philippa, widow of John Malory, as holding land worth £60 a year in Warwickshire.  In 2017 terms, the Malory estate received £38,580.57 annually – a comfortable sum, but not lordly by 15th or 21st century standards.

John Malory might also have avoided knighthood for the sake of prudence.  Knights owed fealty to their lord.  They were expected to defend their lord in their frequent squabbles with neighboring lords.  John Malory owed his elections – and the salaries that came with them – to the good will of his neighbors.  One way to ensure this was to stay out of their personal quarrels as much as possible, something a landed gentry could do more easily than a knight. 

Whatever his reasons, John Malory never became a knight.  But we know that in 1445 Warwickshire sent his son, Sir Thomas Malory to Parliament as a “Knight of the Shire.” We also know that in the final paragraphs of his Morte d’Arthur, written between March 4, 1469 and March 3, 1470 Thomas Malory asks readers to pray for him, “a knight-prisoner.” 

Outside his famous book, we know very little about Sir Thomas Malory.  But we can say beyond a doubt that Malory placed a high premium on knighthood.  To become a knight, Malory took on considerable financial burdens and spent long years in prison for his fealty.  This is especially noteworthy when we consider that Malory was born in chivalry’s twilight.

Plucking the Red and White Roses, by Henry Payne (1908)

And never was there seen a more dolefuller battle in no Christian land; for there was but rushing and riding, foining and striking, and many a grim word was there spoken either to other, and many a deadly stroke. But ever King Arthur rode throughout the battle of Sir Mordred many times, and did full nobly as a noble king should, and at all times he fainted never; and Sir Mordred that day put him in devoir, and in great peril. And thus they fought all the long day, and never stinted till the noble knights were laid to the cold earth; and ever they fought still till it was near night, and by that time was there an hundred thousand laid dead upon the down. Then was Arthur wood wroth out of measure, when he saw his people so slain from him.

Morte d’Arthur, Book 21, Chapter 4

In 1415, the year of Thomas Malory’s birth, English and French forces squared off in a field outside the French town of Agincourt.  Among the French troops were some of France’s most renowned knights.  Their armor glistened in the late October sun as it filtered through damp heavy clouds.  Their banners blew in the stiff chilly breeze.

The English forces, led by King Henry V, were considerably outnumbered.  Dysentery had claimed many of Henry’s troops.  The ones who remained were hungry and tired after marching over 260 miles.  And only 1,500 of the 8,500 troops remaining were armed with swords.  Most of Henry’s remaining troops were bowmen. 

Noble knights scorned missile weapons as cowardly and preferred proving their mettle in hand-to-hand combat.  The common bowmen had no such scruples.  As the French army advanced they were met by a hail of arrows.   

An arrow to a destrier’s flank turned the heavy horse into a guided missile tearing through the French lines.  Knights thrown from their steeds lay helpless on the swampy battlefield.  Some fallen knights drowned in their helmets.  Others were dispatched by a quick dagger thrust to the eye or bludgeoned to death with mallets.

When the fight was over 6,000 French troops lay in heaps on the muddy battleground.  The male lines of several noble families died at Agincourt.  The battle would be England’s greatest triumph in the French/English squabbles which had been ongoing since 1337. 

It would also be one of their last.  In 1420 Henry II was accepted as heir to the French throne: by 1422 he was dead of dysentery.  The war would grind on for several decades, but it would become increasingly clear the English were fighting a losing battle.

Then the king stablished all his knights, and them that were of lands not rich he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, nor for no world’s goods.

Morte d’Arthur, Book 3, Chapter 14

Thomas Malory, Esquire first appears in public records as witness to a May 23, 1439 land settlement involving his cousin, Sir Philip Chetwynd.  On June 28, 1442 Malory signed another Chetwynd settlement as “Sir Thomas Malory.” 

Sir Philip spent most of his time on the battlefields of France, where he worked to maintain England’s hold on its remaining territories.  In October 1442 Chetwynd returned to Bayonne and retook the province of Gascony.  But within a few months Gascony and Bayonne were once again in French hands.

It is possible that Malory accompanied his cousin on that expedition.  Passages in Morte d’Arthur suggest Malory had a passing familiarity with the various French duchies and earldoms of France.  We know that Sir Thomas Malory was in England on August 1443, when his name appears as witness to the sale of a Warwickshire manor.  

That October, Malory and Eustace Burneby, his brother-in-law, were charged with attacking Thomas Smythe and stealing £40 worth of goods.  In December, Katherine Peyto accused Malory of stealing oxen and sheep from her estates.

Despite these accusations, Warwickshire elected Thomas Malory to Parliament in 1445.  Malory had powerful friends in high places.  But when a weak king sits on the throne, powerful men will quarrel amongst each other for gain.  And Thomas Malory was soon to learn that having powerful friends means you also have powerful enemies.


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