Printing Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur in 1485, William Caxton made a deliberate decision to sell it to his public as “the . . . hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, kyng Arthur . . .”1 Evidently, by the end of the fifteenth century, the notion of Arthur’s greatness and excellence as a king had achieved the status of fact: readers are urged to see Arthur as a hero-monarch heading successful rule. Caxton’s title for the text, the Morte Darthur, has remained to the present day, resisting various attempts to abandon it in favor of a more neutral label that does not focus exclusively on Arthur’s death.2 Vinaver’s Works of Sir Thomas Malory, based on the Winchester Manuscript, a text which predates Caxton’s version and escaped his editorial hand, has become the edition of critical choice, but even this preference has done little to shift the attachment to Caxton’s title.3
I am not proposing to alter the title of the Morte—indeed I shall use it throughout to refer to Malory’s text in Vinaver’s edition—but I suggest we need to be more aware of how far our response to the Morte is still directed by the astute intelligence and business practices of its printer. Recent criticism has offered some subtle reevaluations of Caxton’s framing [End Page 173] of the Morte that emphasize the cultural capital he captures to extend Arthur’s appeal.4 Yet the Morte, which even in Vinaver’s paperback contains Caxton’s preface, is still sold to us as a book of the acts of Arthur, “a noble kyng . . . and reputed one of the nine worthy, and fyrst and chyef of the Cristen men.”5 Following Caxton’s lead, critics have tended to see Arthur as an excellent monarch, “a just, unselfish, strong ruler, and father of his people . . .”6 Although Arthur is referred to as “noble kynge” or “moste noble kynge” by the narrator and other characters throughout the rest of the Morte, his status in the opening episodes of the Tale of Arthur is portrayed more ambivalently.7 I consider that the heightened picture of Arthur in Caxton’s preface has colored our judgment of his kingship in the Tale of Arthur. Instead of using Caxton to situate our interpretation of Arthur, we must place Malory’s rendering of kingship in the Morte in the contemporary discourse within which it was written.
The Morte Darthur coincided in England with the culmination of almost a century of contested kingship, usurpation, civil ruin, and loss. Malory finished his book in 1469/70 just as Warwick “the Kingmaker” ensured Edward IV was supplanted by his rival Henry VI. Caxton finished printing the text of the Morte Darthur on 31 July 1485, but the book may not have been ready for sale until the following month.8 On 22 August, Richard III was defeated and killed on the field at Bosworth by Henry Tudor, the [End Page 174] third usurper king in a generation and the one with the slightest claim to the throne. Eighteen months before, Richard III’s only parliament had enrolled and confirmed the petition in which he was asked to take the throne, partly on the grounds that “ye be born withyn this lande, by reason wherof, as we deme in oure myndes, ye be more naturall enclyned to the prosperite and comen wele of the same.”9 The petitioners were engaged in an attempt to formulate kingship not on the usual basis of inheritance and divine right but on a “naturall” attachment to native land, invoking national feeling in a desperate effort to cover for Richard’s unnatural disinheritance of his nephew. Henry’s apologists had no such excuse: born in Wales and brought up mainly in Brittany, he lacked native attachment as well as lineage and won the throne by conquest alone.10 Caxton’s determination to hold Arthur up as an ideal, historical, and heroic king, like Richard III “a man borne wythin this royaume” and by this alone a national icon,11 cut compellingly against the current radical transformations of and disillusionment in English kingship.
Romance, as Helen...