A royal Christmas invitation for Matthew Paris of St Albans….

Arthurian illustration from a French romance of circa 1300

“ . . . . Christmas with the King [ Henry III ] doesn’t immediately sound like the social engagement you would expect for a Benedictine monk, but wind the clock back to the early 13th century and for one particularly colourful religious figure, a royal invitation was nothing out of the norm . . . .”

St Albans Cathedral in the snow at Christmas time from the West front – Photographer Brian Cooke

The above extract is from Hertfordshire Life which contains a lot of information about Matthew Paris. It’s thought he was born around 1200 and may have studied in Paris, which is possibly how he got his name. That’s not certain, however. He certainly wasn’t your average monk, and his chronicle is one of the most important English records, made even more interesting and charming because not only did he have an engaging way of writing, but he adorned his work with countless drawings and paintings. He was a man of many talents. Many of these illustrations we recognise today even if we don’t all realise the work is his. Matthew was a brilliant character, and has left us an outstanding record through which we can appreciate him to the full.

And to actually read his chronicles, they are available from Amazon:

Not all monks would have have been permitted to enjoy a royal invitation to the full. Benedictines were slightly different because “ . . . they were open to the outside world and had guest houses where they were instructed to treat every guest as though they were Christ . . . ” Evidently this freedom included going outside their abbey, on this occasion to Winchester

Well, I don’t know about the “Christ” aspect for guests, but it was researching a 1376 visit to the abbey by Princess Joan of Kent and a number of her close relatives and followers that brought me to look more closely into the history of the abbey. And so I came to Matthew’s Christmas invitation from Henry III. I’m sure the food was better than the refectory at St Albans!

And from here in the 21st century – Merry Christmas, Everyone!

The Virgin and Child – after 13th century illuminated manuscript by artist Matthew Paris

5 comments

  1. Paris was prone to exaggeration and not always entirely reliable, a cross between a historian and a columnist. But his extensive writing and evocative illustrations captured the atmosphere of the age in a way that no other writer had done before. And today, visitors to St Albans Abbey can take specialist tours with expert guides to walk in his medieval footsteps. ‘Head down the south transept toward the shrine of St Alban, for instance, and if you look up, you’ll see a change in the vaulting,’ reveals Gail. ‘There used to be a treasury up there and the roof leaked, so the monks put a bucket underneath. One day the roof caught fire in a thunderstorm and Paris was quick to record that the monks already had a bucket of water to hand! A snapshot of monastic life by a man who clearly had a sense of humour.’

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