Matthew Paris

For the British newspaper columnist and former MP, see Matthew Parris.
Self portrait of Matthew Paris from the original manuscript of his Historia Anglorum (London, British Library, MS Royal 14.C.VII, folio 6r).
One of the "Becket Leaves", if not by Paris, certainly in his style
Coronation of Queen Edith, the wife of King Edward the Confessor. (Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 11v)

Matthew Paris, known as Matthew of Paris (Latin: Matthæus Parisiensis, lit. "Matthew the Parisian";[1] c. 1200 – 1259), was a Benedictine monk, English chronicler, artist in illuminated manuscripts and cartographer, based at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire. He wrote a number of works, mostly historical, which he scribed and illuminated himself, typically in drawings partly coloured with watercolour washes, sometimes called "tinted drawings". Some were written in Latin, some in Anglo-Norman or French verse.

His Chronica Majora is an oft-cited source, though modern historians recognise that Paris was not always reliable. He tended to glorify Emperor Frederick II and denigrate the Pope.[2] However, in his Historia Anglorum, Paris displays a highly negative view of Frederick, going as far as to describe him as a "tyrant" who "committed disgraceful crimes".[3]

Life and work

In spite of his surname and knowledge of the French language, Paris was of English birth, and is believed by some chroniclers to be of the Paris family of Hildersham, Cambridgeshire.[4] He may have studied at Paris in his youth after early education at St Albans School. The first we know of Matthew Paris (from his own writings) is that he was admitted as a monk to St Albans in 1217. It is on the assumption that he was in his teens on admission that his birth date is estimated; some scholars suspect he may have been ten years or more older; many monks only entered monastic life after pursuing a career in the world outside. He was clearly at ease with the nobility and even royalty, which may indicate that he came from a family of some status, although it also seems an indication of his personality. His life was mainly spent in this religious house. In 1248, Paris was sent to Norway as the bearer of a message from Louis IX to Haakon IV; he made himself so agreeable to the Norwegian sovereign that he was invited to superintend the reformation of the Benedictine Nidarholm Abbey outside Trondheim.

Apart from these missions, his known activities were devoted to the composition of history, a pursuit for which the monks of St Albans had long been famous. After admission to the order in 1217, he inherited the mantle of Roger of Wendover, the abbey's official recorder of events, in 1236. Paris revised Roger's work, adding new material to cover his own tenure. This Chronica Majora is an important historical source document, especially for the period between 1235 and 1259. Equally interesting are the illustrations Paris created for his work.

The Dublin MS (see below) contains interesting notes, which shed light on Paris' involvement in other manuscripts, and on the way his own were used. They are in French and in his handwriting:

– it is presumed the last relates to Paris acting as commissioning agent and iconographical consultant for the Countess with another artist.

The lending of his manuscripts to aristocratic households, apparently for periods of weeks or months at a time, suggests why he made several different illustrated versions of his Chronicle.

Manuscripts by Matthew Paris

Elephant from Chronica maiora, Part II, Parker Library, MS 16, fol. 151v
Martyrdom of Amphibalus from the Trinity College Life of St Alban.
Henry I of England from British Library MS Cotton Claudius D VI
The most developed of Matthew Paris' four maps of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI, fol. 12v). The work is organised around a central north-south itinerary from Dover to Newcastle.

Paris' manuscripts mostly contain more than one text, and often begin with a rather random assortment of prefatory full-page miniatures. Some have survived incomplete, and the various elements now bound together may not have been intended to be so by Paris. Unless stated otherwise, all were given by Paris to his monastery (from some inscriptions it seems they were regarded as his property to dispose of). The monastic libraries were broken up at the Dissolution. These MS seem to have been appreciated, and were quickly collected by bibliophiles.. Many of his manuscripts in the British Library are from the Cotton Library.

A continuation of the Chronica, from 1254 until Paris' death in 1259, is bound with the Historia Anglorum in the British Library volume below. An unillustrated copy of the material from 1189 to 1250, with much of his sharper commentary about Henry III toned down or removed, was supervised by Paris himself and now exists as British Library Cotton MS Nero D V, fol. 162–393.[5]

Also, fragments of a Latin biography of Stephen Langton. Various other works, especially maps.

A panel painting on oak of St Peter, the only surviving part of a tabernacle shrine (1850 x 750 mm), in the Museum of Oslo University has been attributed to Paris, presumably dating from his visit in 1248. Local paintings are usually on pine, so he may have brought this with him, or sent it later.[20]

Paris as an artist

Framed tinted drawing of Heraclius taking down the head of Saint Alban, from the Trinity College Life

In some of Paris' manuscripts, a framed miniature occupies the upper half of the page, and in others they are "marginal" – unframed and occupying the bottom quarter (approximately) of the page. Tinted drawings were an established style well before Paris, and became especially popular in the first half of the 13th century. They were certainly much cheaper and quicker than fully painted illuminations. The tradition of tinted drawings or outline drawings with ink supplemented by coloured wash was distinctively English, dating back to the Anglo-Saxon art of the mid-10th century, and connected with the English Benedictine Reform of the period. A strong influence on one branch of the style was the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter, which was at Canterbury from about 1000 to 1640. This was copied in the 1020s in the Harley Psalter, and in the Eadwine Psalter of the mid-12th century.

Recent scholarship, notably that of Nigel Morgan, suggests that Paris' influence on other artists of the period has been exaggerated. This is likely because so much more is known about him than other English illuminators of the period, who are mostly anonymous. Most manuscripts seem to have been produced by lay artists in this period. William de Brailes is shown with a clerical tonsure, but he was married, which suggests he had minor orders only. The manuscripts produced by Paris show few signs of collaboration, but art historians detect a School of St Albans' surviving after Paris' death, influenced by him.

Unframed marginal drawing of William Marshall from the Corpus Christi Chronica

Paris' style suggests that it was formed by works from around 1200. He was somewhat old-fashioned in retaining a roundness in his figures, rather than adopting the thin angularity of most of his artist contemporaries, especially those in London. His compositions are very inventive; his position as a well-connected monk may have given him more confidence in creating new compositions, whereas a lay artist would prefer to stick to traditional formulae. It may also reflect the lack of full training in the art of the period. His colouring emphasises green and blue, and together with his characteristic layout of a picture in the top half of a page, is relatively distinctive. What are probably his final sketches are found in Vitae duorum Offarum in BL MS Cotton Nero D I.

Paris as an historian

From 1235, the point at which Wendover dropped his pen, Paris continued the history on the plan which his predecessors had followed. He derived much of his information from the letters of important people, which he sometimes inserts, but much more from conversation with the eyewitnesses of events. Among his informants were Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King Henry III, with whom he appears to have been on intimate terms.

The king knew that Paris was writing a history, and wanted it to be as exact as possible. In 1257, in the course of a week's visit to St Albans, Henry kept the chronicler beside him night and day, "and guided my pen," says Paris, "with much goodwill and diligence." It is curious that the Chronica majora gives so unfavourable an account of the king's policy. Henry Richards Luard supposes that Paris never intended his work to be read in its present form. Many passages of the autograph have written next to them, the note offendiculum, which shows that the writer understood the danger which he ran. On the other hand, unexpurgated copies were made in Paris' lifetime. Although the offending passages are duly omitted or softened in his abridgment of his longer work, the Historia Anglorum (written about 1253), Paris' real feelings must have been an open secret. There is no ground for the old theory that he was an official historiographer.

Another elephant from the Chronica Maiora II, Corpus Christi College

Naturalists have praised his descriptions of the English wildlife of his time, brief though they are: in particular his valuable description of the first irruption into England in 1254 of the common crossbill.[21]

Studies of Matthew Paris

The relation of Matthew Paris' work to those of John de Celia (John of Wallingford) and Roger of Wendover may be studied in Henry Richards Luard's edition of the Chronica majora (7 vols., Rolls series, 1872–1881), which contains valuable prefaces. The Historia Anglorum sive historia minor (1067–1253) has been edited by Frederic Madden (3 vols., Rolls series, 1866–1869).

Matthew Paris is sometimes confused with "Matthew of Westminster", the reputed author of the Flores historiarum edited by Luard (3 vols., Rolls series, 1890). This work, compiled by various hands, is an edition of Matthew Paris, with continuations extending to 1326.

He wrote a life of St Edmund of Canterbury, which has been edited and translated by C.H. Lawrence (Oxford, 1996). He also wrote the Anglo-Norman La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei (the History of Saint Edward the King), which survives in a beautifully illuminated manuscript version, Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.3.59.[22] The text is edited in K.Y. Wallace, La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, Anglo-Norman Text Society 41 (1983).

Paris House at St Albans High School for Girls is named after him.


(On manuscripts, and artistic style) Nigel Morgan, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, Volume 4: Early Gothic Manuscripts, Part 1 1190–1250, Harvey Miller Ltd, London, 1982, ISBN 0-19-921026-8


  1. John Allen Giles (translator), Matthew Paris' English history, from 1235 to 1273, Publ. 1852. (page v)
  2. Peter Jackson, Mongols and the West, p. 58
  3. Matthew Paris, 'Matthew Paris on Staufer Italy'. In Jessalyn Bird, Edward Peters, and James M. Powell, Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291, p.405
  4. Edmund Carter (1819). The history of the county of Cambridge.
  5. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Cotton MS Nero D V.
  6. Nigel Morgan in: Jonathan Alexander & Paul Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry, Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400, Royal Academy/Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 1987, Cat 437
  7. British Library Digitised Manuscript information: Royal MS 14 C VII
  8. Retrieved 7 March 2007. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. Showcases :: Matthew Paris' map of Great Britain
  10. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, fols. 5–100
  11. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Cotton MS Vitellius A XX, ff 67–242.
  12. Itinerary From London To Chambery, In Matthew Paris' 'Book Of Additions'
  13. Matthew Paris’ “Lives of the Offas”, Christ of Revelations
  14. Paris, Matthew. "Life of St Edward the Confessor". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  15. Vaughn (1958), Matthew Paris, p. 171
  16. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Cotton MS Julius D VI, ff 123r–156v.
  17. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Add MS 70513, ff 85v-100.
  18. British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue: Cotton MS Julius D VII, ff 34r–115r.
  19. Retrieved 12 March 2007. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  20. Nigel Morgan in: Jonathan Alexander & Paul Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry, Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400, Royal Academy/Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 1987, Cat 311
  21. Perry, Richard Wildlife in Britain and Ireland Croom Helm Ltd London 1978 p.134
  22. Paris, Matthew. "Life of St Edward the Confessor". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 24 April 2012.


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