Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur: The life and work

In his own words, Malory was a "knyght presoner" who implored his readers to pray for his deliverance in life and his soul in death. Historians know of one Thomas Malory who was a knight and a prisoner at that time: he was born between 1415 and 1418 and was heir to estates in Newbold Revel in Warwickshire and Winwick in Northamptonshire.

Malory was one of a number of gang leaders who exploited the breakdown of law and order across England as the houses of York and Lancaster fought for the throne in the Wars of the Roses. He had started his political career by 1441, and was elected MP for Warwickshire in 1445, but in 1450, he turned to a life of crime. According to later accusations, he ambushed the Duke of Buckingham and tried to murder him. He stole livestock and extorted money with menaces. He was accused of rape on two occasions. He also attacked Combe Abbey, terrifying the monks and stealing money and valuables. He was arrested and spent most of the 1450s in various prisons, without ever coming to trial. He made his escape twice and was bailed out on two other occasions.

By 1462, Malory had been released from prison and was fighting with the powerful Earl of Warwick on the side of the Yorkists. Warwick later switched his allegiance to the Lancastrian cause, and so did Malory. It was a political miscalculation. Malory seems to have been engaged in a Lancastrian plot that was discovered in June 1468. He was soon back in prison. In July 1468 and February 1470, he was excluded from the list of Lancastrians granted pardon by the new Yorkist king, Edward IV.

It was during this second period of imprisonment, probably in the Tower of London, that Malory began occupying his time in writing his book. He completed it in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (from 4 March 1469 to 3 March 1470). When Henry VI briefly regained the throne in October 1470, all Lancastrian political prisoners in London's jails were freed. Five months later, on 14 March 1471, Malory died. He was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, near Newgate.

Malory's work had been known only through William Caxton's printed edition of 1485 for nearly 500 years. However in 1934 a librarian at Winchester College, Walter Oakeshott, discovered this manuscript in a safe in the Warden's bedroom. The manuscript was written by two professional scribes working together, some time during the years 1470 to 1483. The most striking feature of the manuscript is its extensive use of red ink. Most of the proper nouns, some place-names and common nouns are written in red, as well as marginalia, Lombardic capitals, some explicits and incipits (first and last lines of verses), and some scribal corrections. Textual variants between the manuscript and Caxton's edition suggest that these two texts derived from a common original. That means that the Winchester manuscript cannot have been used as the sole basis for Caxton's book.

Clues on the pages of the Winchester Manuscript, however, do suggest that it was kept in Caxton's workshop some time in the years 1480 to 1483, when Caxton was preparing his Le Morte Darthur. Pages fresh from his press were laid on the manuscript and the wet ink accidentally transferred reversed images of Caxton's type faces. This suggests that Caxton used the Winchester Manuscript together with another, now lost, manuscript.

In the colophon to his edition William Caxton says that this is the end of "this noble and joyous book entitled Le Morte Darthur", and since then Le Morte Darthur has been used as the title of the whole book. Malory, however, called his work "the whole book of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table".

How Winchester College acquired the manuscript is not known. It was purchased by the British Library from the Warden and Fellows of the College on 26 March 1976.