Chroniclers of St Albans Abbey

Many of the images on the banners are taken from manuscripts produced at St Albans Abbey in the Middle Ages, with a majority of these being the work of Matthew Paris.

Matthew, a monk here from 1217 until c.1259, was described by Thomas Walsingham in the 14thcentury as ‘a religious monk, an incomparable chronicler and an excellent painter ‘. Matthew was one of a line of chroniclers in the Abbey, taking over and adding to the work of his predecessor Roger of Wendover (in the Chronica Maiora ) as well as producing many original works such as a life of St Alban (La Vie de Seint Aubin).

It is not known when Roger of Wendover became a monk at St Albans Abbey but by 1217 he was Prior of the daughter house of Belvoir (then in Lincolnshire) where he was said to have wasted the priory’s property. He returned to St Albans where he wrote a chronicle, Flores Historiarum (the Flowers of History), which covered the history of England from Saxon times until the time of his death in 1236. This was the chronicle which Matthew Paris incorporated into his Chronica Maiora but with some additions.

The chronicles of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris are important sources for events in the 13th century, including Magna Carta. The Abbey received frequent high profile visitors, including royalty, who came to St Alban’s shrine and in this way the chroniclers were able to hear the latest news from those who were shaping events. They were also able to build an extensive network of contacts

The St Albans Chroniclers and King John

Matthew Paris concluded the account of John’s reign in the Chronica Maiora by adding to Roger of Wendover’s account what he describes as a ‘profane rhyme’:

“With John’s foul deeds England’s whole realm is stinking - Hell itself is defiled by the foul presence of John”

Roger and in particular Matthew, like many monastic chroniclers, had little regard for John, no doubt the result of the treatment meted out to St Albans Abbey (and the rest of the Church) during the Interdict (1208-14), when services could not be held. During this time the king had appointed a secular custodian of St Albans Abbey, described by Matthew as ‘a deceitful man in every respect like his lord King John.’

Neither Roger nor Matthew were at the Abbey in 1213 so their accounts are not first hand nor written at the time of the events. However, because of the Abbey’s importance they had access to important documents, often making copies of them and including them in their works. It has been shown that Roger confused various versions of Magna Carta and so created a new but non-existent version. Matthew made further inaccurate changes . Whether this was accidental or deliberate is unclear.

The late 14th century Book of Benefactors of St Albans Abbey (compiled by another famous chronicler, Thomas Walsingham) again criticises King John but manages to finds something more positive to add:

“King John, although his brother, lived a less good life, but he was devoted to the blessed martyr. And so we hope that at the end of his life he obtained the grace of penitence and was directed to the path of the saved. Certain revelations after his death show that this was so.”

Illustration: Matthew Paris - drawn by Matthew Paris (British Library, Royal 14 CVII f.6)

Further reading

Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris. Cambridge, 1958

Richard Vaughan, Chronicles of Matthew Paris; Monastic Life in the 13th Century. Gloucester, 1984

Nicholas Vincent, Magna Carta, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2012

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Magna Carta: The St Albans Dimension

Translation of the quotation from the Book of Benefactors by David Preest, St Albans Cathedral Muniment Room.

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