When Le Morte D’arthur was first published in 1485, it was an instant hit. More than five centuries later, the patina of time has perhaps added to the magic of the noble but flawed knights of the Round Table and the tragedy of the disintegration of Camelot. Yet you can probably count on the fingers of two hands the facts we know about the author of England’s greatest romance – if, indeed, we have got the right guy. In contrast with the case of Shakespeare, we do not even have a portrait of Sir Thomas Malory. We do know that, like Chaucer, he was accused of rape (particularly shocking from the ‘father of Chivalry’, as Walter Scott called him). Malory was also accused of gang rape and a raft of other crimes, including attempted murder. Indeed, almost all we know about Malory comes from his ten-year stint (off and on) in prison. There he wrote his paean to a chivalric order destroyed by family feuds and knightly vendettas, while outside his prison walls a similar breakdown was unfolding, as magnate rivalries morphed into dynastic ones in what we now call the Wars of the Roses.
So why read a lengthy biography of a man about whom we know almost nothing? (Peter Field’s 1993 biography did the crucial spadework of proving pretty conclusively that, amongst the many fifteenth-century Thomas Malorys around, only Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, son of middling gentry, could have been