King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Sir Robert Thornton and the writing of King Arthur’s Death

King Arthur’s Death – the Alliterative Morte Arthure – survives due to the work of one man, Sir Robert Thornton.  A Yorkshire gentleman with the passion of an enthusiastic amateur, he was responsible for copying down many mediaeval poems and stories which, but for his efforts, would long since have disappeared.

The Lincoln Manuscript (MS 91)

His efforts have left of us with two significant manuscripts, both of which are significant; these are known as the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript (MS 91), held in Lincoln Cathedral, and the London Thornton Manuscript (MS Additional 31042), which is held at the British Library.

(Above: part of Thornton's transcription of the Alliterative Morte Arthure)

It is the Lincoln Thornton which concerns us, a rich document which includes such wonders as the Prose Life of Alexander and, in particular, the Alliterative Morte Arthure. The Morte, like Alexander, is unique, and is thought to have been copied down by Thornton from an earlier manuscript now lost.

It is possible that Malory, compiling the later Le Morte d’Arthur, had access to this lost document, of which only Thornton’s transcription now survives. This makes Thornton’s work all the more compelling and valuable; a window on a work and world now lost to us – a world of reading and libraries which went the way of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Different Sources?

In translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure for my forthcoming book, it is clear at times that some parts of the story seem a little out of place (although not to disrupt the narrative in any significant way). Was Thornton re-casting an original or a number of original sources? It is more likely that it is his source material which falls into this category; Thornton is himself transcribing from a single source.

The story itself adapts a Galfridian approach to the Arthur story; that is, it follows the structure as set down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1136. In other words, it takes the form of a chronicle rather than an over-romanticised telling in the manner of Chretien de Troyes or the works of the Lancelot-Grail.

Although what survives is well structured, and indeed follows much of the lines of Geoffrey’s broad outline, certain sections seem at odds with the narrative. This suggests that the source poem does indeed borrow from a wide range of other works in the Arthurian canon; rather than edit this telling, Thornton instead dutifully transcribes this into his own work.

(Above: a peacock being presented at a feast)

For example, the poem’s reference to the Nine Worthies – exemplars of chivalric or religious behaviour in mediaeval literature – show that it must have been written after the Voeux du Paon (the Vows of the Peacock) of c. 1310 when the Worthies first appeared. The semi-spiritual and romanticised episode with Sir Priamus towards the end of the poem appears to be adopted from a twelfth century French work, Fierebras, although without a logical reason for its inclusion.

The source poem itself is intriguing. Yes, it borrows from other leading works (for example the major source works of Wace – the Roman de Brut of c.1155 - and Layamon’s Brut of c.1190) but it does not over-indulge with romance and instead casts its characters in a distinctly fourteenth century light. 

It is this latter feature which makes the poem particularly fascinating, and for which we have much to thank Thornton. There is much in the poem - as will be discussed in the introduction to my book and elsewhere within it - which captures significant events in the fourteenth century. This helps to date the work convincingly to within a particularly narrow period - possibly one as tight as between 1399 and 1402.

The value of Thornton

In his diligent approach to transcribing what was in front of him, Thornton has told a tale which, to his own world, may have seemed obsolete; certainly obsolescent. Yet, in his accuracy and dedication to his task, he has left us with something very special. This is because The Alliterative Morte Athure – King Arthur’s Death forms part of a rich canon of fourteenth century alliterative poetry which, when read in a certain light, is subtly critical of the world it describes. It is indeed a decoding device for the morals and activities of a distant time.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is in fact a critique of chivalry, of the headstrong arrogance of leaders, of the sin of war. It may indeed be supportive of a young Henry IV following his ursurpation of the crown from Richard II. It appears also to be a lesson for kings when things go wrong. The poem is written for a time when England in particular was undergoing great uncertainty. Thornton captures it all.

(Above: an illuminated letter from the Morte; notice the the thorn tree emerging from the tun to create a pun on Robert's family name)

Thornton had no need to recreate this world, but he did so notwithstanding. In his diligent approach to his work, Thornton transcribed – almost by accident - a world now lost to us. He was like a filmmaker who, by on-location shots, captures a world incidental to the plot but one which in later decades has huge historic value. Think how Ealing films show a world now largely gone; this is what Thornton has left for us.

(Above: one of the Thornton tombs at Stonegrave Minster in Yorkshire - image courtesy Dimitrios Corcodilos via Wikipedia)

Robert Thornton, as well as compiling these works for his own – or his family’s – entertainment was also in some ways way ahead of his time. He was aware that he himself and his own time were but fleeting things and that, like us all, he too would soon be history.

So he captured a moment and now, with this book which you have helped to support, we can see it again in all its glory. Welcome to a distant world which comes alive again and, if ever you are in Stonegrave Minster in Yorkshire, spend a moment at the Thornton tombs and pay your own respects.  

Sir Robert Thorton was indeed a great man.

Michael Smith

PS if you are reading this and have not yet pre-ordered your copy of my new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, you can pre-order yours here.

Images on this page taken from Wikipedia or, in the case of the Thornton manuscript, from images in my collection. Main image is from the Luttrell Psalter.

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Peter Wood
 Peter Wood says:

Thank you for this fascinating analysis Michael. It was a good read for a Friday morning and, as usual, added significantly to my knowledge of English literature.

posted 24th July 2020

Michael Smith
 Michael Smith says:

Thank you Peter - I'm glad you enjoyed it. And thank you for your continued support for my work. Michael

posted 25th July 2020

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