This sole surviving manuscript copy of Thomas Malory’s version of the legends of King Arthur and his Knights was made within a decade of the author’s death in 1471. Malory wrote Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur) during 1469 while imprisoned for a series of violent crimes.
Le Morte Darthur tells the famous legend of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the mystical Holy Grail. Malory worked from a late-14th-century French poem, adding some material from other sources, to produce his English prose translation. In 21 books, the story covers the founding of Arthur’s kingdom and the institution of the Round Table; the various adventures of individual knights; the quest for the Holy Grail; the death of Arthur and the fall of his kingdom.
In 1934 the assistant headmaster at Winchester College School made one of the 20th century’s most important literary discoveries – and it was all something of an accident. Walter Oakeshott was looking for interesting book-bindings when he discovered this manuscript in a safe. The manuscript was ‘clearly about King Arthur and his Knights’, but it was lacking a beginning and an end. The first lines of text visible were ‘kynge Arthur and his courte and to helpe hym in hys warrys’ [‘King Arthur and his court to help him in his wars]. Oakeshott ‘made a vague mental note’ of the manuscript and moved on to the next one.
What Oakeshott had stumbled on was the only known manuscript of Thomas Malory’s great work of Arthurian legend, Le Morte Darthur. When he made his discovery, the only known copy of this text was a printed version by England’s first printer, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491). The manuscript is not the original one made by the author, but its version of the text is thought to be closer to the original, which is the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but also the first and only text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death.
In Caxton’s printed version of the text, the work is divided into books and chapters. In the preface to the edition, Caxton says that he added these divisions. Intriguingly, Caxton appears to have used this very manuscript to make his edition. Under a microscope it is possible to see tiny ink smudges, which suggest that the manuscript was at one time in Caxton’s printing shop. The smudges show traces of a particular kind of typeface which Caxton used between 1480 and 1483.
The manuscript – known as the Winchester Manuscript – contains a lot of red ink. This use of red ink is called ‘rubrication’. It is used for the names of characters and for sections of Latin text which describe the content of the work. The rubrication may have helped readers to navigate their way around the story, which is very complicated.
In some manuscripts produced in this period, red ink and decoration was added after the text had been written out, sometimes by a different person to the main scribe. In this manuscript, however, the main scribe added the red ink as he was going along, which meant he had to stop and change pens often. The process would have been time-consuming, but it was clearly felt to be important as a guide for the reader, in much the same way that William Caxton felt the text needed to be divided up into sections.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.