Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about novels and novelists and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the novel urban legends featured so far.
NOVEL URBAN LEGEND: Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison.
The very first Novel Legends Revealed that I did was about whether Cervanted wrote Don Quixote while in prison. That legend was not true (saved you a click, I guess), but reader Mike B. wrote in about ANOTHER famous novel that was supposedly written in prison!
Did Sir Thomas Malory really write the most famous book about King Arthur, Le Morte d’Arthur, while in prison?
As it turns out, it really does seem to be true.
One of the things that Arthurian scholars have always struggled with is the real life history of Sir Thomas Malory. That a guy who would be the most famous writer about the stories King Arthurt and the Knights of the Round Table, legends of chivalry, would be such an unchivalrousness man in real life is sort of maddening. So the fact that the name “Sir Thomas Malory” is not exactly an uncommon name has led to scholars trying to see if perhaps the Malory we credit for Le Morte d’Arthur is not the CORRECT Malory, but no one has come up with anything to really convincingly argue otherwise, so it seems likely that the Malory in question is, indeed, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, who was born some time around 1415.
Malory was knighted in 1441 and became a professional soldier. He was elected to Parliament in both 1443 and 1449. It was during his second stint in Parliament that things really began to fall apart for Malory. He had already been accused of a few crimes during the 1440s, but during the early 1450s, he seemed to dedicate himself to a life of robbery. What we don’t know is whether perhaps his crimes were politically motivated. Much of his crimes were against the Earl of Buckingham, who was a political rival of the Earl Malory supported, the Earl of Warwick. So perhaps he was doing these robberies as a sort of political operative? We don’t know, but it just seems odd for a knight to commit SO many robberies (we’re talking over 100 robberies by Malory and his men).
He was in and out of prison from 1451-1460 (he was wealthy enough that it was pretty easy to bribe his way of jail, plus he was connected enough to get a series of pardons).
His final term in jail happened after he and the new Earl of Warwick plotted to overthrow King Edward IV. He was imprisoned in the famous Newgate Prison in 1460 and served his longest continuous stretch in prison, staying in jail from 1460 until his death in 1471.
It was during that final stretch that he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur. It was published for the first time by William Caxton in 1485. It was 507 chapters long and more or less eight “books.” It is unclear if Malory intended the books to be eight separate books or not. Whatever his intent, Caxton made it one big book.
The legend is…
Thanks to Mike B. for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is email@example.com