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In Search of the Once and Future King: Arthur and the Twilight of the Middle Ages

By James Turner

For centuries, the Arthurian romances had dominated the popular literature consumed by the aristocracy of medieval Europe. The genre retained this position of preeminence by pandering to and exaggerating contemporary social mores through the presentation of vicariously idealized modes of behaviour. The stories of the legendary king and his court allowed Europe’s aristocracy to view and experience chivalric practice and exploits unencumbered by the complexity or banality of life. Its popularity and influence upon the culture were such that Arthurian themes and imagery were as we have seen imitated and recycled extensively within the rhetoric of certain medieval kings. The recitation and performance of a myriad of such romance infused tales of adventure, written by a host of enterprising authors and troubadours, resounded through the great halls and intimate parlors of the nobility. Written sometime around 1468 amidst the gathering dusk of the medieval period Le Morte d’Arthur was an ambitious attempt to forge the self-contained, tonally dissonant, and sometimes contradictory fragments of the Arthurian legends’ broad canon into a single cohesive work.

In many ways the capstone of medieval Arthurian romance literature Le Morte d’Arthur tells the story of King Arthur’s life from start to titular finish. Indeed, the work’s author had originally intended to call it ‘The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table’, a descriptive title if nothing else. In one of history’s earliest examples of eminently justifiable editorial interference, the title was changed to the concise and catchy Le Morte d’Arthur prior to widespread publication.

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The book enjoys a measure of popularity and fame even today, beguiling in its accessibility and completeness. An enduring gateway into the Arthurian legends and the halcyon fields of medievalism beyond, it was the item of media that first sparked my own childhood interest in King Arthur and all things medieval.  That is unless you count King Arthur and the Knight of Justice, a skull achingly lurid animated television show in which a time-displaced American football team takes the places of the legendary knights to fight evil and sell toys. Jokes aside I bring up this bombastic and fascinatingly ill-judged specimen of 90’s animation because it invites an interesting discussion about tone.

Le Morte d’Arthur is in many ways a strangely melancholic work. Its chapters are haunted by tragedy and a sense of predestination resulting from its titular promise regarding Arthur’s fate. Abetted to an extent by its structure and distended chronology, the text ruminates upon and at times even revels in the unmasking of the human foibles and failures that inexorably drive its characters onwards into ruin. Interestingly given its genre and provenance, the book is in some ways more concerned with exploring the deconstruction and limitations of chivalry than it is in celebrating its adherents.

The merits of Le Morte d’Arthur’s writing style has been hotly debated by scholars of medieval literature, the details and mechanics of which lie beyond the remit of this series and my skillset. Successive generations of, reprinting, revisions and outright translations have to a degree insulated modern readers from these discussions and for our current purposes it is sufficient to note that the book was originally written in straightforward prose which prioritized clarity and comprehension. As effective as this approach is both in providing the reader with a measure of closure, and as we shall see, reflecting elements of the political and cultural atmosphere at the time of its composition, it differs substantially from the romances which were enjoyed by Edward I and his contemporaries. It was in many important senses a novel in the modern sense, intended for personal and private consumption rather than to be recited in front of an audience.

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In addition to its length and standalone self-contained format, Le Morte d’Arthur, to my mind at least, lacks something of the vibrancy and vivere of its predecessors. While still providing plenty of excitement and drama Le Morte d’Arthur adopts a more contemplative attitude towards its action, in contrast to many of the earlier works of Arthurian Romance literature which reveled in the description of feats of daring-do and the titillation of forbidden courtly love.

Almost needless to say that by the time Le Morte d’Arthur was composed in the late 1460’s the structure and underpinnings of society had shifted considerably from what they had been when Chrétien de Troyes first started writing Arthurian romances in the 1170’s. Even the high fantasy and escapist antics of the over a century old Perceforest had begun to look trite and antiquated by the time Le Morte d’Arthur hit the printers.  Although Chivalry, or at least its appearance, remained a matter of the foremost importance to the nobility of the late 15th century, the manner of its practice and the position of its aristocratic adherents within wider society were on the precipice of a great sea change, the first rumbling of which echo through Le Morte d’Arthur’s often maudlin musings.

At the heart of its appeal, Le Morte d’Arthur is a book that tells the story of an end of an age, albeit an idealized and imagined one, written at the end of another. The tone and emphasis of the story of Le Morte d’Arthur captures and reflects something of the turbulent events and political atmosphere that surrounded its authors. Likewise, the intended target audience for this exhaustive exemplar of Arthurian literature and the circumstances in which it was published and distributed provides an important insight into the radically transformative effect printing was to have upon the way that literature was consumed and produced. Le Morte d’Arthur and its increasingly expansive and egalitarian readership were leaving being the darkness and barbarism of the medieval period and entering a new age of enlightenment and unrelenting religious warfare and persecution.

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First page of William Caxton’s edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur 1485

The author

So, who is this author, that we have so assiduously avoided to mention so far, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur?  Why, Thomas Malory, of course. This attribution has been preserved in the publishing tradition and is present in the earliest known copies of the work, including the protean and anomalous Winchester Manuscript discovered in 1935. The natural follow up question to this revelation, who was Thomas Malory?

This is a somewhat more difficult question and a number of Thomas Malorys, of various backgrounds, have been advanced as candidates by antiquarians and scholars of medieval literature. In both the inscription found within the Winchester Manuscript, not to mention the widely copied and distributed text of the book, describes the author as identifying himself as a knight. While the occasional dissident still puts forward alternative candidates, the majority of scholarship now accepts that Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel is the author of Le Morte d’Arthur.

Medieval historians, rarely if ever, have all the information they would wish for, their sources seldom definitive or unambiguous. Often conclusions simply have to be based upon the preponderance of the evidence available, rounded out and bolstered by context and experience. The mighty foundation that Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel’s candidacy rests upon is that he is simply the only Sir Thomas Malory alive, that anyone has been able to locate or identify, at the right time. The issue is further muddied by the intriguing details that survive of this particular Malory’s life and career which inspired certain scholars to label him a habitual criminal and nare-do-well.

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Thomas was born into the echelons of the minor nobility sometime around the late 1410s, the son of a Justice of the Peace and occasional Member of Parliament, Sir John Malory, and his somewhat more aristocratic wife Philippa. Upon coming of age, Thomas was inducted in the grand tradition of the lesser aristocracy, seeking profit and advantage through the holding of local and governmental offices. Originally serving as an official in Northamptonshire in 1143, the young knight was appointed to a royal commission distributing financial aid on the king’s behalf throughout Warwickshire, a position which afforded him considerable local influence.

In the same year, Thomas served as a Member a Parliament, a position he probably obtained through the good graces of Duke Henry of Warwick whose military household he appeared to be associated with. This rise to respectability was to an extent marred by accusations of criminal conduct, including theft and kidnapping. It should be noted, of course, that during this period the landowners and burgeoning mercantile classes of England were remarkably litigious and since the charges leveled against Thomas never made it to trial, it is possible they simply represented an escalation of a minor misunderstanding or personal clash. On the other hand, of course, Thomas could simply have benefited from the protection of his Ducal patron; certainly his political career steadily progressed with him returning to parliament in 1449. The accusations arrayed against him may have arisen from the blurring of taxation and sponsorship into coercion and intimidation as Thomas discharged his duties at a time in which royal authority and governance was becoming increasingly tenuous.

In 1451 Malory, in an incident that would not have appeared incongruous with the pages of Le Morte d’Arthur, appears to have attempted to ambush and capture Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckinghamshire. He was further accused of a host of crimes including multiple accounts of extortion, armed robbery and even rape. The political instability of the previous decade had only intensified since the commencement of Thomas’ career, as an increasingly fractured and factionalized aristocracy began drawing the battle lines for the coming civil war. The Duke of Buckinghamshire was rival of Malory’s patron and it is possible these crimes, if real, were acts of private warfare or even self-appointed judicial action directed against a rival, creating a legal quagmire in a system in which legal and judicial proceedings were vied over by rival camps. Although rape would certainly have been regarded by contemporaries and the judicial establishment as a serious crime, regardless of the political backdrop.

Some historians have in light of this fierce political rivalry and the spiraling division within the apparatus of royal government ventured the notion that Malory was being slandered either as a result of a personal vendetta or in an attempt to discredit his allies. The situation seems to have been equally confusing and ambiguous to Malory’s contemporaries because he spent the following years rotating in and out of prison, repeatedly being released or otherwise escaping custody only to be re-arrested on some variation of the same charges later. At some point, under circumstances that remain opaque, he was further accused of stealing a horse. This farcical process continued until 1461 when Thomas was pardoned by Edward IV.

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However, Malory’s gratitude towards the king for this act was either muted or brief. In 1468 he joined one of the former architects of the Yorkist claim, Richard Neville, the Kingmaker, in rebellion against Edward. When the plot unraveled, Neville was able to reach an accommodation with the king whereas Thomas was promptly re-imprisoned at Newgate. Indeed, despite Malory’s lack of any real power of significance, King Edward seems to have been incensed by his betrayal and twice exempted him from otherwise general pardons issued in 1468 and 1470. Most historians and scholars of medieval literature, presuming that this Thomas Malory is indeed the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, associate the composition of the book with this final stretch of incarceration. Thomas was released from captivity late in 1470 when the Kingmaker’s second rebellion led to the sudden disintegration of the Yorkist powerbase which allowed Henry VI to temporarily reclaim the throne. Perhaps wisely, given Edward’s strange antipathy towards him, Thomas died in 1471 before a reversal of military fortunes led to the king’s restoration. Malory remains an illusive figure, his character, motivations and even actions shrouded and obfuscated by the chaos, cutthroat politics and whirlwind warfare that plagued England during his lifetime.

The Wars of the Roses

Whatever the exact details and circumstances of the author of Le Morte d’Arthur’s life, it is clear that the turbulent and dramatic dynastic politics of the day became alloyed into the heart of this curated retelling of the Arthurian legends. Running from 1455 all the way to the accession of Henry VII and the house of Tudor in 1487 the floridly named Wars of the Roses were a cascading series of civil wars and dynastic disputes fought over the throne of England. These conflicts began with factions of Henry VI’s relatives, royal councilors and magnates vying with each for control of the king, who due to an unidentified ailment suffered from regular bouts which left his ability to rule severely impaired.

By 1455, these cloak and dagger court intrigues had escalated to the point where the Dukes of Somerset and York were fighting actual battles in order to gain physical custody of the occasionally catatonic king and through him the legitimacy to govern. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the tenuousness and sheer inconvenience of this situation, that following a determined campaign by Queen Isabella and her cohort to detach him from the king, Duke Richard of York, himself a member of the Plantagenet family, attempted to outright claim the throne for himself. This act, further delineated the English aristocracy and people into two camps based around the revivals’ differing lines of descent from Edward III. Henry VI and his supporters are usually referred to as the Lancastrians as a result of his descent from Edward III’s third born son, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Duke Richard and his faction were fittingly called the Yorkist, since he was the Duke of York and was great grandson of Edward III through his fourth eldest son Edmund of York. Although maddeningly his claim to the throne was predicated upon this mother’s descent from Edward’s second eldest son, Duke Lionel of Clarence. The factions fought viciously before coming to an accommodation in which Henry agreed to recognize Richard as his heir.

This arrangement was brought to a premature end when Richard was arrested and beheaded after which no one seems to have been particularly inclined to compromise. Henry’s VI party largely under the dynamic and capable leadership of his wife and the Yorkists, under Richard’s eldest son, Edward IV, fought an extended and bloodily chaotic civil war in which the two kings see-sawed in and out of power as their fortunes waxed and waned.

As we can see from the risqué career of Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revels, these dynastic factions were neither particularly stable nor homogeneous. The nobility of England and even private soldiers circled around the warring claimants or flitted between the two camps in the search for advantage and safety as the country was consumed by war. A facsimile of this chaos, not to mention the injustices and horrors committed in a land at the mercy of competing warlords, are depicted vividly within the pages of Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory’s magnum opus was divided into eight sections which between, and with the use of frequent time skips, tells the story of the legendary king from birth to death.

In formulating these sections, Malory reworked and condensed elements from across the vivid and varied pantheon of Arthurian romance literature, drawing particularly heavily upon the vulgate cycle and Robert de Borons’ Prose Merlin.  In the opening section of the work, Merlin guides the young Arthur through a divided realm plagued by petty warlords and warring despots. With the wizard’s aid and tutelage the young Arthur is able to bring an end to this internecine fighting, claim the crown and gather his traditional paraphernalia, a magic sword, roundtable, wife etc. It is interesting to note that despite taking considerable inspiration from Arthurian romances of the late 12th and 13th century, any reference to Arthur’s illegitimacy has been expunged. Indeed, in his account of the legendary king’s origins and upbringings Malory makes it clear that Arthur was the son of King Uther and his lawful wife.

In addition to placating the more restrictive and draconian social precepts of the 15th century, this change was probably made to remove any ambiguity to Arthur’s claim or impediment to his accession as the rightful king. This then allows the Le Morte d’Arthur to present its original audience with, the no doubt, therapeutic vision of a world set to rights by the coming of a King who is innately destined to restore peace and prosperity. Just as Arthur’s power-hungry rivals parrel elements of the English aristocracy during the Wars of the Roses, the work’s latter sections capture and communicate the poignant tragedy of friends and relatives pitied against one another in a civil war.

In Le Morte d’Arthur’s final section, Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery is revealed precipitating a rift that tears the Round Table apart as Arthur and his loyalists wage war against Lancelot, his family, and allies. This catastrophe is compounded by a second betrayal when Mordred takes advantage to the king’s long absence to suborn his followers and attempt to steal the throne. Again, this depiction of the fragmentation of a once unified realm, steeped in chivalric excellence, between rival kinship groups and affinities which then warred with each other to their mutual ruin is something that would have resonated clearly with the author’s contemporaries.

In fact, Arthur’s war with Lancelot and the breaking of the Round Table contains within it another parallel to the War of the Roses. Both Edward VI and Arthur suffered from betrayal and large-scale rebellions as a result of their choice of spouse. The rebellion by Earl Richard Neville of Warwick, which Malory himself had been imprisoned for taking part in, was in part triggered by Edward’s rejection of a marriage alliance he had negotiated with the King of France in order to, rather romantically, marry Elizabeth Woodville, the widowed member of a minor Lancastrian aligned family. Perhaps, fearing what failure to reach a rapprochement with France could mean for the Yorkist cause and outraged at having to share the spoils of victory with Elizabeth’s family who he saw as interlopers, the Earl resolved to switch sides.  While much to Malory’s discomfort this initial plot was thwarted, Richard Neville eventually made good on his initial plans, sealing his change of allegiance by marrying one of his daughters to Henry VI’s heir. This was a betrayal every bit as devastating as Lancelot within Le Morte d’Arthur, shattering as it did the cohesion of the Yorkist party. While Lancelot’s illicit love for the Queen had been a fixture of Lancelot’s character since almost the time of this introduction in Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette it is possible that its emphasis within Le Morte d’Arthur was strongly influenced by the circumstances of Mallory’s imprisonment.

The Wars of the Roses finally came to an end in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth Field. Sensing an opportunity in the wake of the disappearance of Edward VI’s sons and Richard III’s somewhat rocky accession, Henry Tudor a formerly obscure Lancastrian claimant made his bid for the throne. Henry landed in Wales to which he had a significant dynastic and personal connection.  While Henry’s claim to the English throne came through his mother Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt through his mistress turned second wife, his father’s family nursed a yet more dubious claim. The Tudors were alleged, mainly by themselves, to be descendants of the princes of northern Wales and through them the legendary King Arthur. Political prophecy remained as popular a form of entertainment and propaganda as it had been in the day of Edward III and Henry while gathering his army within Wales seized upon the chance to associate himself with the Welsh Arthurian tradition that foretold of a day in which a king would march out of Wales and conquer England.

Henry, soon to be Henry VII, made extensive use of this imagery and in a manner similar to earlier Plantagenet kings consciously cultivated an association with Arthur. One of the most immediate and conspicuous ways he did this was by emblazoning the Red Dragon, then heavily associated with both Arthur and his successor King Cadwaladr of Gwyendd, upon the Tudor green and white.  Henry’s Welshmen and Lancastrian loyalists triumphed at Bosworth Field and won him his throne fighting under the symbol of the once and future king. Although arguably Henry’s stepfather, switching sides and coming to their aid at the last minute did not hurt either.

There exists a common assertion that the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses marked the end of the medieval period. This is a thoroughly Anglo-centric and arbitrary division but it is true that even while it was being fought, the Wars of the Roses were bizarrely antiquated. While far from the last conflict fought over competing dynastic claims, the Lancastrians and their Yorkists rivals fought battles armed and armored in the manner of their grandfathers and great grandfathers who had brought England such glory. Meanwhile in Europe, France and the Swiss cantons were beginning to wage war with professional armies armed with pikes and canons.

Perhaps it is fitting that the last great medieval example of Arthurian romance, a genre which carried much water through its portrayal of the glories of a halcyon past, was written during and so heavily influenced by a conflict that kept its participants’ eyes fixed upon the distant past. It is something of an irony that Henry VII, the victor of these wars and the last English king to try to generate political capital and goodwill from a deliberately cultivated association with Arthur, was also the monarch responsible for driving forward the modernization of English governance and society. While Henry continued to broadly associate himself with the legendary king, even naming his first-born son Arthur, it was far from the only string to his bow as the king began to roll out a campaign of reform and centralization.

Le Morte d’Arthur then was a work both well suited to and heavily influenced by the historical context in which it was written. In shaping a complete, some would argue definite, narrative version of King Arthur’s adventures and life, Malory drew upon and reworked material from a host of distinctive Arthurian romances.  Shaping the legends and their mythological heroes into forms we recognize today.

By far the most radical thing about Le Morte d’Arthur was the manner in which it was published and distributed. In 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur was published, possibly after some minor revisions and reformatting, by William Caxton. A luminary and trailblazer, William was responsible for the introduction of the printing press to England. Caxton originally encountered the printing press while on business on Cologne. Rapidly grasping the revolutionary import of the new technology, Caxton set up a printers shop in Bruge in 1473 where he achieved considerable success producing copies of his translation of the chivalric romance Recueil des Histoires de Troye which enjoyed particular popularity amongst the court of Burgundy. From there he moved to Westminster in 1476 where he began to publish and print books, beginning with a run of Geoffrey Chaucer’s already famous Canterbury Tales. Given their dominance of secular literature and entertainment, it is no surprise that Caxton focused his efforts on the production of works pertaining to celebration and occasional subversion of chivalric culture and the romances.

Rather than Latin, the lingua franca of European scholarly discourse, or French, Europe’s actual lingua franca, these works were printed in English. This use of the vernacular alongside the increasing availability and reduced cost which characterized printing, transformed the way in which people consumed and engaged with literature. The Arthurian romances and the greater canon of popular chivalric literature were no longer the sole preserve of the aristocratic elite, those with the means to engage with and emulate the chivalric tradition. Caxton’s proliferation of Le Morte d’Arthur allowed England’s burgeoning literate classes to enjoy and identify with a mythologized version of their ancient past.

The immutable and replicable nature of printing, in addition to Le Morte d’Arthur contemporary prominence within England, contributed to perceptions that the work represented a definitive version of the Arthurian literature. It was Le Morte d’Arthur more than any other work of Arthurian romance literature or cultural legacy that inspired the Victorians as they began to delve into their past for the germ of their present prosperity and imperial heritage.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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