Le Morte d’Arthur and the War of Roses
Le Morte d’Arthur is believed to be written by Thomas Malory during the last three years of his life at Newgate Prison and published by William Caxton in fourteen thousand and eighty-five. The story is about the legend of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, the knights of the round table and their search for the holy grail. The author had original eight books out which Caxton changed to twenty-one. Malory had always lived a life of crime where he extorted money, stole livestock and assaulted monks. Malory fought alongside the Earl of Warwick, aligning himself with the house of York’s who were against the Lancaster for years during the War of Roses. Malory chose also to switch sides at one point which led to his downfall after a new king from the house of York rose to power. Going back and forth Malory has seen both sides of the War of Roses and as a result, influenced much of his book Le Morte d’Arthur. While in prison and writing Malory considered himself to be a “knight prisoner” who wanted his readers to pray for his soul’s deliverance in death. The characters and certain plot points can seem to symbolize real people and events during the war. King Henry VI and his lineage, Battle of Towton, Battle of Wakefield, the slaying of the Duke of York and his son are some of the obvious similarities seen between his work and real life. The story holds a juxtaposition of Arthur’s chivalrous world and that of Malory’s war-torn era.
The War of Roses took place between fourteen thousand and fifty and fifteen thousand and nine. The first battle took place at St. Albans in fourteen thousand and fifty-five and the last battle took place at Bosworth Field in fourteen thousand and eighty-five. For thirty-two years the war raged between two families who were the York and Lancaster in a bid for the throne. The British civil war lasted a span of three different wars with eight to twelve years in between each all developing during the reign of King Henry VI and rose from the bitter loss of Hundred Years’ War. The war is believed to be caused by outside factors as well and some of those was the fact that both houses had direct descent to King Edward III, Henry VI surrounded himself with unpopular nobles, ruling of the Lancastrian king, multiple lords with their own private armies also much more. King Henry VII is credited with ending the war.
One of the first similarities starts with King Henry VI being led by his wife and Duke of Somerset paralleling Arthur being led by Gawain. The first of many political opinions made by Malory showed his distaste for this type of behavior when a lower born tells the king what to do also at this current period he was part of the Lancaster’s. In the tale, the emperor has been warned by the most important senators about the upcoming war and this correlates with King Henry VI’s most important advisors the Queen and the Duke of Somerset advising him. Another early comparison occurs after Arthur seized lands in France that match the ones under British rule by Henry V after the last part of the Hundred Years War. England’s King Henry V’s vigor for the capture of France closely seems to resemble the hunger Arthur had to get France. The route Arthur took to approach Tuscany is very similar to the one taken by King Henry V as he rode to Agincourt and another parallel occurring at the same time is the fact that they both believed God was on their side in the battle against France.
August of fourteen thousand and fifty-three marked the beginning of King Henry VI’s mental decline. One of the first similarities the readers are able to see is the resemblance of mental collapse between King Henry VI and King Uther. In Malory’s story, it states that the king for three days and nights was left speechless and ill making his barons sad thus resulting in Merlin leading council. It is believed that King Henry VI suffered either long cases of depression or schizophrenia which Malory transcribed into his book for King Uther in a vaguer manner as he could not outright speak of the king’s issues. Malory could have seen how barons and the right-hand man of the King led during this difficult time and Malory wanting to express his thoughts covered real-life aspects with fictitious characters. He could have also chosen this topic to discuss as it affected his wellbeing greatly plus it added more drama to the story which the readers always like.
The author seems to give King Uther a resemblance of more than one king as comparisons have also been made between the style of which King Henry V was carried on horseback and in the story where Malory tells the audience of how Merlin devised a plan to have King Uther drawn in by horses in a similar way to battle. Malory’s King Uther during his illness is plagued by war and a lot of his people are killed similarly King Henry VI who never fully recovered had the same issues while ruling. Serving on both sides of the war the reader can see firsthand some of the struggles Malory faced living in England. His kings being afflicted by illness had a very real downside effect for him and other commoners as they faced sieges, poverty, and upheaval even more due to the fact that it seemed there was a power vacuum in which people were trying to fill. The characters in Malory’s story do not seem to parallel exactly one person or one event but seems to instead cover over multiple real people and events.
Another striking parallel between the two follows the matter of pronouncing an heir to the throne. In regard to Malory’s version, it was Merlin and God who helped King Uther get his voice back and enable him to announce the righteous heir to the throne in front of his barons. In the story, Malory stresses the importance of the announcement by having Merlin seem eager in helping Uther speak in front of the crowd. This ancient tradition is very significant to the author as no previous text such as even the Historia Regum Britanniae seems to acknowledge with great emphasis regarding the heir announcement. It could have been a tradition that he held dearly or believed in greatly. He also could have stressed its importance in this story significantly as well because Henry VI was unable to determine Prince Edward of Wales to be the true heir due to his breakdown. Being unable to determine your rightful heir during their time would mean absolute chaos, civil war, and multiple coups attempt all of which commoners, as well as Malory, would wish to avoid. During Henry VI’s illness, the Duke of York tried to spread false rumors of illegitimacy in that the Queen committed adultery which would have been a big deal during that time and another reason as to why Malory spent significant time over this topic. In his book, he symbolizes all this under the part of the tale in which King lot and the others considered Arthur as someone of lower descent and unworthy as his background had never been fully established until Merlin giving them an explanation.
From a historical viewpoint, Guinevere could represent Margaret of Anjou as it was she who bought the country to civil war when she partook in the feud between Duke of Somerset and the Duke of York. Guinevere’s cart was also ambushed, and she was kidnapped which directly parallels what happened to Margaret when her carriage is robbed by one of the servants and threatened to kill her.
King Pelllinor and his son’s death seem closely related to the deaths of the Duke of York and his son at the battle of Wakefield in fourteen thousand and sixty. In Malory’s tale, Gawain and Gaheris revenge kill King Pellinor and his son dishonorably because they believe that the King murdered their father which is also wrong as they later find out that they were innocent. For the readers, at this point, it seems that both sons were punished for their father’s deeds. In both cases, each death was for treason and done in a dishonorable manner which can be seen as Gawain representing Lord Neville who falsely and dishonorably killed the duke in a battle by Sandal with help from hundreds of men and other dukes. For the son’s death, the similarity concerns the murder of Earl of Rutland by Lord Clifford. Another parallel between life and story is that the number of bad knights seems to match the number of “villainous” lords in Malory’s mind regarding the Wakefield battle. Malory also tells the readers about four brothers, Agravain, Gaheris, Gawain, and Mordred who all got together and fought Lamerok. Similarly, during the battle of Wakefield, the Earl of Westmorland also Earl of Northumberland joined the Duke of Somerset and Lord Clifford combined powers and defeated their enemy. Another comparison reader could make is the last battle by Malory could represent the Battle of Towton. In the book, the author tells us about the bloodiest battle with only a few survivors and how people would rob the dead or finish those who were not dead yet. Malory might have described his experiences as he did help the Earl of Warwick besiege castles in Northumberland and more. Mordred representing York governing is clearly evident as Mordred became governor of England because of his father and overtakes the country while the King fights his favorite cause shows parallel to a quarrel between him and the king. This is shown as Mordred battles his father Arthur for power representing an English issue. Mordred gathering his army filled with rebellious people all of whom felt like they were dissatisfied with King Arthur connects directly with the fact that most of the nobility did not support King Henry IV’s war in France or the policies he laid out. Those belonging to Mordred’s army included those from London and Southern England which entailed Surrey, Sussex, Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. This correlation shows pretty obviously just how much Malory was influenced by the War of Roses
Comparing Arthur to King Edward IV we see some similarity when Arthur was ready to storm a French town but instead greeted with joy and given the key to the city. King Edward VI likewise was ready to enter a town by force with a large army but instead was considered a savior as he entered and given the town key from the mayor of London. This could have been another event during Malory’s time which he wanted to recall and write about. Malory was a great solider, yet it seems he did not include much of his own battles in the tale. He instead chooses to tell other stories, discuss English rules and borrows from old English and French sources.
Malory’s motives may have been political and way to express his ideas, opinions, and journey in an entertaining manner. Malory may have been a Lancaster sympathizer. The book seems to serve as a historical reference of some sort as a lot of his journeys and journeys from others seem to parallel plot points. The author has very cleverly hidden real-life aspects throughout the story. Writing this book in prison Malory had to be very careful of what he said so a lot of it is heavily buried and requires analysis of the text. He hid aspects of the war throughout his story and with knowledge of the War of Roses it can become quite easy for the reader to make comparisons to real-life events and people. King Henry V, VI, Battle of Towton, slaying of the Duke of York and his son are all some of the real historical events discussed symbolically by Malory.
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